Rural Students Turn to Personalized Learning

While individual projects and independent study can be staples of higher education, personalized learning is not normally considered when one thinks of secondary schools. But for a group of rural New England high schools taking part in a federal grant program, such innovation has become commonplace. The Education Insider offers a closer look at the types of opportunities this network provides and the positive impact it can have on students, teachers and even entire communities.

By Harrison Howe


Extended Learning Opportunities

A biotechnology student spends a few hours each week under the supervision of a pharmacist as part of a project she created under the guidance of her teacher. Sound like college? It does. . .but in this case it was a student at a Laconia, NH high school. This and other activities taking place beyond the walls of the classroom represent the innovative methods being used by a network of high schools that allows students to more actively participate in their education.

The New England Network for Personalization and Performance consists of 13 high schools throughout Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The network is funded with $5 million through the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant program, which supplied a total of $650 million to 49 school districts and other educational organizations. The grants are meant to improve student success, teacher effectiveness and college preparation.

A goal of the i3 grant program is to have every student in the schools participate in at least two personalized learning projects and ultimately display competency in performing the tasks associated with each project. It is also hoped that this type of personalized learning, or inquiry-based learning, will be continued even after the grant program ends.

'More Than Completing a Project'

Personalized learning not only changes the way students are taught, but also how they are assessed. Through projects conducted outside the classroom and the traditional methods of teaching, students are more actively pursuing information rather than having a teacher stand in front of a class and recite facts. Students are assessed by performance rather than the retaining of information which is typically tested by the administration of exams.

Personalized or inquiry-based learning shies away from the 'right or wrong answer' approach in traditional classrooms. Instead, students might be asked to do comparative research, present a paper for class discussion and then later be asked to relate what they have learned from the experience. Thus, presentations take the place of tests and students have become more engaged and proactive.

Some feel such an approach will better prepare students for life after high school, be it college or work. New Hampshire high school teacher Christopher Geraghty told Education Week in June, 'It's more than completing a project for a course. It's a project to help you prepare for the real world.'

Personalized Learning Makes an Impact

Can personalized learning lead to increased student achievement and reduced dropout rates? Can unconventional learning methods lead to success after high school? While it's hard to say just yet, teachers and administrators at schools participating in the New England Network have noticed a difference. Steve Beals, principal of the aforementioned Laconia, NH high school, told Education Week in June that students have been more engaged and less have dropped out.

Personalized learning seems to work best in rural settings simply because there tends to be smaller schools in these areas and community relationships are closer. It also helps students in these areas to apply what they have learned to real-world situations. And the impact doesn't stop with the students. Combining school from different rural areas allows for teacher collaboration, which can be helpful to teachers who may not typically communicate with other educators teaching the same subject.

The New England Network will begin its second year in October. It is hoped that evaluation of the program will lead to it being implemented in other locations.

Find out how Michigan is using the innovative Student Achievement System to help lowest-performing schools.

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