Blended learning opportunities in the classroom bridge the gap between older 19th century learning models and modern approaches
By Amber Schumacher
EDGEMONT - If you walk into any of the elementary classrooms in the Edgemont School District you may be surprised to find couches, bean bags and floor pillows scattered amongst the chairs and tables. The flexible classroom environments, which are a stark contrast to traditional classroom settings with perfect rows of desks and chairs, are a product of Customized Learning, an educational movement sweeping across the nation.
Customized Learning isn’t a widespread practice yet amongst the majority of schools in South Dakota. Edgemont is near the front of the pack for education in South Dakota in this regard, being one of the first schools West River to implement the Customized Learning system in its elementary. Their initiative in revamping and redesigning the learning methods in the Edgemont School District has inspired other schools in the area to follow suit and address their own school systems’ way of delivering knowledge to students.
Belle Fourche has made a couple visits to Edgemont to observe teachers and students in action, taking ideas and inspirations back to their own classrooms. New Underwood teachers have also made the trek to Edgemont to see first hand how Customized Learning has impacted the classrooms and students. A school from Rapid City is slated to come to Edgemont sometime in January to observe the classrooms and talk to the teachers about the new approach in learning as well.
According to customizedu.net, a leading online resource for Customized Learning, “The traditional school structure is not adequately serving student learning needs and personalizing alone is not enough.” For many classrooms, teachers choose to personalize the curriculum to the individual needs of their students, although organizations that push for a more customized approach believe that more needs to be done.
Amy Ferley, principal at the Edgemont School District, shares this belief and has been a major proponent in bringing customization into the classrooms and training to the teachers in Edgemont. Ferley says, “the current education system is based upon a 19th century model that was structured around the industrial revolution with a production line mentality, thus preparing students for industrial jobs.” Ferley adds, “so much has changed since then.”
Not only is Edgemont paving the way for Customized Learning in Western South Dakota, but two K-2 teachers, Pam Koller and Terri Brown, were given the opportunity to speak at the National Summit for Customized Learning in Portland, Maine, this past July. It was only two years ago that Ferley learned about this concept at a similar conference, and fell in love with the premise of the program. The process that followed involved doing book studies and a study with the school board.
After the completion of those studies, Ferley went on to apply for a Bush Grant being offered by T.I.E. The grant was approved and the Edgemont School District was given about $20k worth of training and $20k for teacher implementation per year for a total of three years. This particular grant was given to approximately 19 schools totaling $4 million.
Ferley shared that the school was awarded the Classroom Innovation Grant in December 2016 through the state of South Dakota. This grant is for $60k for classroom customization innovation and additional training through T.I.E. and is available within a two year time frame.
Edgemont Student advisor Becky Harding, who is in her fifth year with the Edgemont School District, stated that Customized Learning provides the teachers and advisors a “way to meet them at their needs and on their level. If you’re not catching a certain math concept, instead of pushing them through and saying, ‘Good Luck’, we can back it up and allow them to learn what they need.” Harding went on to give an example of what this might look like. If a 5th grade student is missing some math concepts that he or she should have retained in 4th grade, they get the opportunity to catch up to where they need to be. This goes the opposite direction as well, for students that are excelling beyond what their “grade level” mandates, they have the option to move along with their skills instead of waiting for their classmates to catch up.
Harding and Ferley both confirmed the lower elementary classes are the only classrooms thus far to implement this new learning and teaching style. However they hope to move into the older classrooms as they adapt and implement this system.
Ferley explains that the concept of Customized Learning is “giving students a voice and choice in their own education.” Think of it in terms of the Goldilocks challenge, Ferley explained, “we want students to find the learning style that is ‘just right’ for them.”
Naturally, she added, this style of flexible learning has had an impact on the student body by improving their behavior and their attitudes towards learning. Ferley was excited to report that, although you will always have some behavioral issues, overall behavior has improved and kids are showing more excitement about being in school and learning. “This allows students that wouldn’t otherwise be leaders, to become leaders and to become experts.
Throughout the last school year, the school has addressed certain obstacles that Customized Learning views as “weight-bearing-walls,” such as curriculum and scheduling. According to customizedu.net, the structural rebuild covers the following:
• grading practices
• schedules and courses
• grade level assignments vs mastery levels
• rigid curriculum vs flexible curriculum
• in-school learning vs in-world learning
• 9-month school year vs year-round learning opportunities
Following the guidelines of Technology, Innovation and Education (T.I.E.), the school has combined its K-2 and 3-5 classrooms with two teachers each. According to both Ferley and Harding, they have altered scheduling to open up 50 minutes a day with 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon when both students and teachers schedules are cleared. This opens the door for one-on-one study time between teachers and students.
“This allows students the option to schedule help when they need it, where they need it. If a student wants some one-on-one math help but does math best in the English room, then that is available to them. But it also goes the other way and teachers are able to request certain students that they may need to ‘re-teach’ a concept to, or who are lacking in a certain area.” Explained Ferley.
The next step for the Edgemont School District is to tackle the issue of traditional grading and move towards a mastery style grading system. According to Ferley, the mastery style grading would allow students to learn a concept until they master that concept and become experts in that area. This will also help with the issue of students memorizing material just for the test day.
“The true test of mastery,” explains Ferley, “is when a student can turn around and teach that concept to their peers. If they can teach it, they’ve mastered it.”