Putting Students in Charge: A Hands-off Approach to Personalized Learning
Blended learning. Adaptive learning. Virtual learning. There are plenty of ways educators are taking on the shortcomings of the traditional classroom environment to offer more personalized instruction that is supported by data and in tune with their students’ individual needs.
What would happen if we gave students the opportunity and tools to direct learning for themselves?
Some schools and districts might cringe at the very question. However, for Flex Academy — a tuition-free public charter school located in Little Chute, WI — the answer is to allow students to use their personalized data to identify gaps in knowledge, set and meet goals and gain autonomy in their educational success.
What is Student-Centered Learning?
Student-centered learning is an approach to personalized instruction that maximizes potential through engaging students in their own progress, allowing them to learn concepts at their own rate and encouraging self-reflection on their progress. This method is becoming more and more popular in schools today as educators begin to see the positive impact on students who are mastering curriculum, not just checking the boxes to complete it.
It is the backbone of Flex Academy, where we embrace the student-centered learning approach because we believe students are best positioned to succeed academically when they are trusted with the responsibility to self-direct. Flex Academy uses a digital curriculum with aspects of traditional school blended in to fuel its competency structure. In our mastery-based curriculum, students have the freedom to move ahead at their own pace, but only once they’ve mastered the lesson at hand.
Students spend two days a week in the classroom getting valuable face-to-face time with teachers, but the rest of their time is — as the school’s name suggests — flexible. Their digital curriculum powered by Edgenuity solutions allows them to do the rest of their learning wherever they are, whether that’s at home, between community service projects or taking advantage of the free YMCA membership that comes with admission to the school. Because of the school’s flexibility, students are able to choose for themselves which day to spend doing on-site learning, meaning they get smaller class sizes and individualized attention from instructors.
Data Ownership is the Key to Student-Directed Success
Most schools leave performance data in the hands of the teachers to evaluate and decide what is best for students. This is likely because they feel data is too complicated and students would not be able make use of it themselves. However, Flex Academy believes that data is the lifeblood of personal progress and potential, therefore we work to ensure that each student understands what their data means and is capable of turning that analysis into active goal setting.
In lieu of receiving letter grades that are limited to assessing overall performance to a certain point, our students are constantly aware of their strongest and weakest skills. This data-transparent system allows students to understand where they are, why they’re there and what they need to do to move ahead. Understanding their own data puts them in the best position to control their own goals — such as advancing grade levels on mastered subjects or reinforcing skills that are slipping behind.
One seventh grader who recently joined Flex Academy after attending a traditional school initially struggled because she expected her teachers to tell her what to do and how to do it. By mid-year, she began taking on ownership of her learning by understanding what her Edgenuity data meant and how to use it to accelerate her learning across all subjects. From that point on, she had no problem developing the skills she was deficient in while excelling in her more advanced areas.
Her learning didn’t stop there. During the summer months, this student continued working — encouraged by the fact that she was able to continuously watch herself accelerating and meeting her goals. Now, not only is she planning on tackling the eighth grade curriculum, which she has caught up to, but finishing it early so she can begin taking high school classes ahead of schedule.
This growth would be atypical outside the Flex Academy environment, but is common within it.
Giving Students What They Need Without Telling Them What to Do
Putting students in charge of their own learning can seem scary to any educator. However, our system is a far cry from handing students a book and telling them they are on their own. Environments like ours that put students first by allowing them to take the wheel — while still providing support to keep them on track as well as advice and guidance when a new path is needed.
When students have a deep understanding of not only where they are, but where they are heading, that is how we get them engaged and becoming lifelong learners. Putting learning in students’ hands isn’t hard. You just have to be flexible.
Kent Swanson is the lead teacher at Flex Academy in Little Cute, WI.