Special Report
Student Achievement

One Big Barrier to Personalized Learning: Time

Encouraging students to work through material at their own pace is a worthy goal, educators say, but difficult to pull off
By Sarah Schwartz — November 05, 2019 8 min read
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Nothing governs the school day quite as strictly as time.

This is especially true in middle and high schools, where subject-specific blocks break up the day, and bells control when they stop and start. Often, these schedules are created at the district level, informed by state requirements that tie school funding to seat time.

These structures help organize and manage instructional time for the hundreds—or thousands—of students in a building. But they can also be major headaches for educators who are trying to give each student more control over when and how fast they learn—essentially personalizing the pace of their education.

Personalized learning emphasizes that students have some control over what, how, where, and when they learn. Addressing all four of those variables can require some big instructional changes. But there are especially intractable issues around when and how quickly students should learn.

“You do start running up against policy barriers and structures that assume that schedules are still stuck on a factory model,” said Susan Patrick, the president and CEO of iNACOL, an online-learning research and advocacy organization.

And even if schools can get around these barriers, they face new challenges—such as how to find time-management software that’s equipped to manage more flexible school scheduling strategies.

“I still think we’ve barely scratched the surface on how to use time effectively in schools,” said Buddy Berry, the superintendent of the Eminence Independent Schools in Kentucky.

His district moved to a competency-based-learning framework almost a decade ago. The school system developed a graduate profile that linked back to individual standards in grades K-12.

But figuring out how to maximize learning time and pacing for each student? “I think it’s probably the next great quest for education,” he said. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

In Berry’s district, personalized learning is tied to these standards that link to the graduate profile. Students have to demonstrate that they meet those standards, through tests, portfolios, or project-based work, in order to advance.

In theory, that means when students meet those benchmarks, they can move on. In practice, it’s more complicated, Berry said.

Traditional Schedule, Innovative Teaching

When the nearly 900-student district first started using a competency-based model, it tried to shake up schedules. At Eminence High School, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were reserved for core instruction. Tuesdays and Thursdays were more flexible, open for enrichment, acceleration, and project-based learning.

But the system wasn’t sustainable. Many of the students at the high school took career-tech-ed courses offsite or were spending some part of the day in early college. Eminence’s nonstandard schedule made it difficult for students to slot in these off-campus opportunities.

Now, the enrichment time still exists, said Berry, but as a period within a traditional school day.

For the most part, all students are moving at about the same pace. For example, most 11th graders take chemistry at the same time, every year. But some teachers at the district are finding creative ways to let students move at a nontraditional pace, within a traditional schedule.

Take that 11th grade chemistry class. Michael Quist, a chemistry teacher at the district’s only high school, knew early on in his career that he didn’t want to spend every class lecturing, delivering the same content to all his students at the same time. “I was so over that after my first year of teaching,” he said.

He knew that all his students had to master the same content and skills. But he wanted to let students move through material at different speeds and learn it in the way that made most sense to them—whether that be research reports, projects, labs, or some other approach.

So Quist broke down his units into two main parts.

The first he dubbed “foundation"—the core ideas that students need to understand before moving on. In every unit, there’s a reading and writing assignment, a math piece, and partner work—skills that are essential for students to develop in science class, said Quist. Still, students can tackle these assignments in different orders and at their own pace.

Once they can demonstrate that they know the foundation skills, through a written or oral test, students can move on to “exploration.” That’s when they have the opportunity to do enrichment projects, like conducting lab experiments, building molecular models, or writing research papers. Taking on more of those activities can lead to a higher letter grade at the end of the course.

On any given day, Quist said, there will be four or five different activities going on in the classroom, with some students in foundation and some in exploration.

Still, equipping students with the time-management and reflection skills to self-pace can be challenging. He sometimes needs to intervene when a student is far off-schedule. Within each three-week unit, Quist expects most students to be done with foundation by the end of week one. “By the end of week two, I’ve already stepped in if they’re struggling,” he said.

One student, for instance, couldn’t focus on getting a reading and writing assignment done. It was the only step he needed to move on to exploration. Quist assigned him to finish it on a specific day, at a specific time. “I had to be very, very particular with him on getting that done,” Quist said.

Overall, though, most students learn self-regulation skills through the process—skills that are just as important as the science content, Quist emphasized. He focuses a lot on procedure and expectations during the first few units, so that the framework is second nature to students later on in the year.

Tough Questions, Technological Responses

In Quist’s class, students sometimes use Excel to analyze data or simulation software to explore chemical systems. But technology isn’t ever-present, Quist said, and it isn’t necessary for the work he’s doing around pacing. Instead, he tracks each student’s progress on a paper cover sheet that he gives them for the unit.

But what happens when teachers are experimenting with pace across classes—and across subjects? How do you manage the schedules of hundreds of students, when each one is slightly different?

Those are the questions that educators at Pioneer Ridge Middle School in Chaska, Minn., were wrestling with when they decided to dismantle part of their block schedule.

The decision was made in service of a larger goal at Pioneer Ridge: Make school more learner-centered. The school’s principal, Dana Miller, had tapped three teachers to come up with a new instructional model: Carly Bailey, now a personalized-learning coach; Dan Thompson, an intervention specialist; and Jennifer Larson, a language arts teacher.

After researching different student-centered models and visiting other schools to see them in action, the teachers decided they had to remove scheduling constraints that divided up subjects and kept each student in the same space for the same amount of time. They wanted to differentiate for student ability, while allowing for more interdisciplinary connections.

So they decided that for most of the school day, they would blow up the bell schedule. The three teachers offered a variety of options: whole-group instruction, small-group work, one-on-one coaching, seminar-style discussion.

“Kids would say, ‘I need this tomorrow, I’m ready for this,’ ” said Bailey. Teachers could also assign students to specific activities, based on their assessment of students’ needs.

Thinking Big, Starting Small

The 500-student school started small, with a group of 60 students in 2012. Even so, keeping track of all the moving parts was challenging.

At first, teachers used a giant whiteboard covered in hundreds of magnets that represented individual students’ time. But the magnets would fall off, or get lost, or students would switch them around when they weren’t supposed to. They also tried Google Docs and Microsoft Access, but neither of those applications could do what they wanted: a flexible system that would allow for a lot of activity offerings with different participant caps, where some could be assigned by administrative users (teachers) and others could be selected by regular users (students).

Because they couldn’t find the perfect system, the school decided to create one. Working with a developer in the Eastern Carver County district, Pioneer Ridge created software called Flex Scheduler. Since then, the school has expanded the program to other grades.

“It was critical for us to have that collaboration with somebody who knew how to build and how to code, so that we could talk about the philosophy of things, and the pedagogy behind it, and make that technology work for education,” said Thompson.

The technology makes varied pacing possible, but it doesn’t drive instruction—it’s a scheduler and a tool to analyze students’ progress. That’s an important distinction, said Miller, the principal.

“There’s this myth or this confusion out there that [personalizing pacing] means all these kids are sitting in their room on their devices, and they’re going at their own pace, and the teacher is a check-in spot,” she said. “That’s not the case at all.”

But it takes more than a well-run scheduling system to personalize pace effectively. Teacher buy-in is essential, said Miller, and it’s something Pioneer Ridge is still working on.

Much like teachers at other schools around the country, a good number of Miller’s teachers prefer lecturing, or mostly direct instruction. “The biggest struggle has been helping teachers to move beyond, ‘I have to be the person in charge [in the classroom],’ ” she said.

She’s had to halt the implementation process this year to allow for more professional learning. Some teachers are still on the flex schedule, but the school is deciding how, or if, to incorporate other subjects, like math. Going slow could make the difference between success and failure.

“Forcing people to do this work isn’t how it’s going to be successful,” Miller said. “You need them to be on board.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Learning Too Fast, Learning Too Slow


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