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Buckfield middle school embraces new teaching model to transform 'industrial age' education
REVOLUTIONARIES — Gretchen Kimball and Seal Rossignol, two middle school teachers at Buckfield Junior/Senior High, are part of a group that has been experimenting with Mass Customized Learning in their classes this school year.
BUCKFIELD — Since September, teachers at Buckfield Junior High, along with their colleagues across RSU 10, have been quietly revolutionizing the way they teach.
Their goal? To drag the U.S. education system out of the 19th century and deliver a classroom experience that makes students excited to learn.
It's called Mass Customized Learning – a way to adapt education to fit the individual needs of students.
Current education structure doesn't allow students to learn at their own pace, says Gretchen Kimball, a science and language arts teacher.
Rather than recognizing different rates of learning, the current system creates artificial benchmarks that students move through with their peer group on a set time line.
The end result, Kimball says, is frustrating for students and teachers.
"I think, systematically, by the time a kid is in sixth grade we've beat them over the head with 'sit down, be quiet, wait for me' ... until you have these passive, apathetic people who think learning is done to them," Kimball says.
"They've learned to be passive about their own education and it's sad. We want them to engage, we want them to take control – and this model is going to empower them."
By implementing MCL, the Buckfield teachers are trying to reform that structure.
"One of the linchpins in MCL is time," says Kimball. "Time is no longer the constant, learning is the constant – you'll move forward when you're ready."
That means making education customizable, transparent and flexible.
"Everything has been customized," says Donna Whitney, a history teacher at Buckfield Junior High.
How it works
At the classroom level, personalized learning even looks different, Whitney says.
Students are presented with learning targets for a particular subject – it's up to them to do the work and prove their comprehension.
For each learning target, there are different benchmarks students need to achieve, like reading from the textbook, completing online worksheets and taking quizzes to prove they know the content.
Students finally prove they understand the subject matter by working with the teacher on a final project they design.
"Some kids just take off with certain content," explains Seal Rossignol, a seventh and eighth grade language arts teacher.
"If you can just get them going, they can go, and then maybe you can spend your physical time with some kids who need extra help."
There are, however, no due dates or pop-quizzes – the goal is to give students the opportunity to move through the units at their own pace.
“It's less stressful,” says Whitney. “They don't all have to be ready to take the big test at the same time, they can take it when they're confident about it.”
They might not even be taking the same test. In MCL, choice is key, so one student could prove they know the subject matter by completing a vocabulary quiz, while another writes a short essay.
Kimball thinks it could go even further – have students design their own assessments.
With the concept in place, the classroom is a very different place. Rather than sitting in rows, students are all around, working at their own pace and doing work in a way that makes sense to them.
A class full of students all working on different parts of the same curriculum can present management challenges, Whitney admits.
"Sometimes, it's a little bit of controlled chaos," she says.
"But other days, it's really quiet, you walk into the room and they're all just sitting their doing their work ... and the teacher, or facilitator, goes where she needs to go."
Of course, teachers aren't excused from teaching – mini-lessons and demonstrations break up the students' work.
But the emphasis is on having students take responsibility for their own learning – when students are engaged and interested, the whole classroom dynamic changes.
“It's helped with discipline,” says Whitney. “They're not just sitting there, they're not disengaged. They know they have to do their work but they become more interested in it because they're not stressed.”
Making the switch to personalized learning hasn't been without challenges.
The teachers say they've had to scramble to stay on top of how fast some students move through the learning targets and design new ones for them to meet.
In some cases, Kimball says, students have been clamoring for her to introduce MCL into more subjects, adding another layer of complexity.
They're also trying to implement MCL within the exiting system. Even if a student might not be ready, they still need to move on to the next grade.
Adopting a new learning standard is also a concern. Does assessing students with a letter grade still make sense?
Classroom management has been a challenge too.
In order for MCL to work, teachers need to know students are progressing, but without a unified system to show progress in place, keeping that information straight can be difficult.
Communication between classrooms can also be improved, says Kimball. Students should expect the same procedures in each class in order to make the whole system work.
Providing real choices on how students hit learning targets has also been tough. The teachers still need to teach to state standards, which only leaves so much room for individual choice.
Implementing MCL districtwide is also challenging, says Curriculum Director Gloria Jenkins.
So far, MCL has really taken off in middle school, but adoption has been tougher in the elementary and high school.
Support for the initiative has been varied on the school board and in the community, Jenkins says.
Some board members and parents are concerned that high school transcripts from schools using MCL might not be accepted by colleges, although Jenkins reports many universities have assured her that's not the case.
Teachers are still figuring out how to leverage information technology, a key component in MCL.
It's clear that all the bugs haven't been worked out yet – the Buckfield teachers are the first to admit that. It seems like every new solution only creates more questions.
Then there's always the risk that MCL will be labeled a fad by some – a fanciful concept that's doomed to fail.
“Even if they're right, who cares?” asks Rossignol. “This is still better than what was going on.”
Even though MCL in the classroom is new, the research behind it isn't, Jenkins says. People have been studying how learning occurs for decades.
Kimball is wholly taken with the concept – she envisions a world where students learn organically and not necessarily in a classroom.
“If it's clearly articulated, you could meet a math standard in music … if you're musically gifted, why should you have to go back?” she asks.
“Why not allow those kids to show you what they know and give them credit for it?"