Teachers, are you ready to let go?

Teachers who are empowering students to take more control of their learning are helping create a modern, personalized, and more successful learning environment.
Historically, teachers were required to be classroom “control freaks”. So how can teachers learn to let go and “trust” students to successfully take more ownership of their learning? edSurge continues to provide informative material that is insightful and helpful to educators as they go about their daily routines in the classroom. As you know by now, Silverback Learning is a strong advocate for improving personalized learning environments, and on our blog we continue to publish stories that catch our attention and provide commentary that is meaningful and encourages discussion.
edSurge recently caught up with Shane Donovan, a 9th grade Physics teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington DC http://bit.ly/1dWIByh  E.L. Haynes currently serves 1,100 students PK-11; 66% of students are economically disadvantaged and 80% are African-American or Latino. Shane is doing some remarkable things in his classroom completely absent of fancy equipment or devices to create a personalized environments for his students.
Shane demonstrated how educators can begin to personalize learning immediately working with existing resources in the classroom. We applaud his point that “better is possible for underserved youth in our public schools and that letting them learn at their own pace is more than the stuff of legend and folklore”.

What Mr. Donovan did and learned:

  • Took his existing curriculum and broke it up into modules: 33 standards and 15 labs. He is now recording videos for each module as an additional student resource.
  • Shane didn’t change his assignments but rather gave students more control of their learning.
  • Shane determined students’ needs each period and spends his time accordingly.
  • This program frees most of his traditional teaching instruction time to devote to 1:1 or small group instruction and tutoring, creating a much more valuable and personally connected interaction between he and his students, and the students to the curriculum.
  • Rapid feedback and goal-setting tools were critical in environments where students control their learning.

Results & Feedback:

  • This approach requires more upfront teacher investment to change instructional practices and adjust to student experiences.
  • Mastery-based classrooms value learning over time, affording Mr. Donovan more time to talk to his students about learning and less time worrying whether his class will “get through” all the material–a profound and “freeing” shift in mindset for both teacher and students.
  • In traditional classes, students who fail assessments take their bad grades and move on. In a mastery-based environment, they get additional practice and instruction until they can show proficiency before moving forward.
  • Some students who had felt constricted or held back by traditional settings rocketed through the curriculum. These students can also be leveraged to help peer mentor others, creating a larger instructional base within the classroom that empowers kids to help and receive help from their classmates.
  • Other students kept the minimum pace needed to complete everything by semester’s end.
  • Some students lingered over the standards they are good at, and were at times a bit more reluctant to take on new curriculum challenges. Peer support can help to mitigate this.
  • Some students rejected this learning environment, preferring teachers to tell them what to do.

Summarizing edSurge’s take on Mr. Donovan’s success…. Shane has newfound flexibility in the classroom, and spends a lot of time coaching students to build independent work habits not just academics. According to Shane, his “biggest instructional skills are in-person differentiation and tutoring” and the personalized environment allows him to play to his teaching and inter-personal strengths.

Taking it a step further…
Personalized learning in the classroom takes many forms and as edSurge points out so well, creating appropriate lessons, adapting curriculum to learning styles, monitoring progress and achievement, both from the teacher’s perspective as well as from the student’s point of view. This is a big but rewarding challenge. Some educators and industry experts often make it too complicated, but teachers like Mr. Donovan are proving that you must start somewhere and often it really begins with teachers letting go just a little and trusting their students to be in the driver’s seat of their evolving education.
Let’s take a step further than Mr. Donovan’s experience for a minute. Imagine what it would be like if educators had the ability to first understand how each student learned most effectively, and could then create a personalize “Learning Plan” for them to measure and adjust throughout the year? Solutions such as Silverback Mileposts can help teachers set personal learning goals and objectives, and track each student’s progress over the year. But the key in this scenario is behavioral, in that students as young as 5 years of age are successfully embracing the opportunity to take incremental ownership of their learning. We’ve seen it first hand in classrooms using Mileposts, where even these youngest students will often speak about their “plans” and how much fun they are having being involved in their learning. Relinquishing “traditional” control of student learning isn’t just a mindset shift for teachers, but also for parents too. It’s almost instilled in us to control and manage our kids in many aspects of development from homework to how much time they can spend using electronics. Mileposts can support aligned student learning goals and teacher/parent collaboration that helps to harmonize personalized student learning goals with student accountability both inside the classroom and at home, and is a helpful resource in establishing that “trust”.
Well done, Mr. Donovan at E.L. Haynes! We need to talk!


One response to “Teachers, are you ready to let go?”

  1. Sherrilynn Bair says:

    Thanks for showcasing innovative educational models. Just visited Innovations High School in Salt Lake City Utah yesterday. If you have talked to Ken Grover yet, please do. It’s a remarkable personalized educational experience for students and teachers. Adults must have faith that students can learn well, without teachers standing at the front of the classroom lecturing. Students are empowered when we let them own their own learning. Thank you!

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Posted: October 3rd, 2013