Students Lead the Way

Since initiating a personalized learning plan pilot project in the 2013-2014 school year, I’ve been amazed at the power this tool has to meet the developmental, creative, academic, and technological needs of students.

And that’s not just my opinion. 79% of 8th grade pilot project participants responded with a 4 or 5 on a survey asking students if they enjoyed working on their PLP site (answers of 1 = Not Really, answers of 5 = Absolutely). As recently as Monday, January 26th, 82% of 17 students new to the project answered with a 4 or 5 to the same question.

One would think that these results would be cause for celebration, and indeed, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the marriage of technology, adolescent brain development, and the autonomy provided by the personal learning plans is a very good match. But these developments have also been cause for a great deal of reflection about the pervasive, standards-based, assessment-driven educational philosophy that has become the norm.

Are standards important? Absolutely. They provide a common framework for educators seeking to improve those skills that have been determined as most important for college and career readiness. I use them all the time to structure lessons, develop instruction,  and to create valid and proficiency-based assessments. I have no problem with utilizing them to make my classroom a more structured and productive learning environment.

At the same time, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the authoritarian nature of a standards-based, top-down system that asks students of wildly different interests, abilities, and aptitudes to “meet the standard”. Should educators contemplate a different framework? One that allows students to develop understanding related to personal interests, utilizes intrinsic motivation, and encourages the use of technology to explore and differentiate the learning?

As a small test of these ideas, and in an effort to develop student interest in a new unit on Industrial Revolution, I shared a Google Doc with the class. I created a simple table, some basic instructions, and three time periods that would be of importance. Students then were allowed to explore resources. The results were amazing. Check out this time lapse video of student minds at work.

Next up? We’ll classify the ideas, re-define our questions, and then compare what they have found to the unit I had tentatively planned. I can use student interest to help guide the way. To my thinking, this constructivist approach, on a foundation of standards and teacher guidance, contributes to a positive learning culture. More importantly, this framework is one that has resonated out of personal learning plans and into the curriculum. Students, indeed, are leading the way.

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