Ray Huard… When students in Ramiro Santana’s third grade class at Temple Heights Elementary School were learning how to use fractions, percentages and decimals, they did it by coming up with salad recipes, preparing the salads at home, and making a video of themselves doing it.
“That was their idea,” Santana said. The students had to measure the ingredients and portions, and they used computer coding to make the videos. They’re learning a lot of math, they’re learning science,” Santana said. His students also built model cars out of recyclable materials they found at home.
“This is very fun,” said 9-year-old Emily Macias, who created an animated character using an iPad to represent her in the video. “I love using the iPad. It’s a better way of learning.” Santana’s class is among those leading a drive by Vista Unified School District to move from traditional teaching methods to personalized learning in which lessons are tailored to build on the strengths and interests of each student, guided by teachers who help them explore.
“We call that our moon shot,” said Matt Doyle, assistant superintendent for innovation. “A moon shot is something that we’re aspiring to.” The allusion to a moonshot is particularly appropriate for Temple Heights, where the school motto is a quotation from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
The rocket Vista Unified teachers are riding with personalized learning is a change “from one-size-fits-all, where the teacher is the leader of the learning, to the students becoming stewards of their own learning,” Doyle said. “We’re not spoon-feeding them learning.” Among other things, the switch includes a different way of evaluating students.
Instead of thinking about deficits that need to be remedied, teachers look at a student’s strong points and work on those to help a student succeed. If a student is hit with a barrage of criticism about his failings, “He isn’t super excited about coming to school,” Doyle said. “If we can tap into their strengths and interests, that will help them persevere through their challenges.”
Teachers answer questions the students raise, and help them find resources they can use in their research. “We do mini-lessons and then we let them explore,” Santana said. “They’re still learning that background to get them started, then they experiment with it themselves.” Doyle compared personalized lessons to an improvisational show, adding, “Traditional education is more like a scripted show.”
Temple Heights was one of five schools in Vista Unified that were piloting personalized learning in the 2015-16 school year. Principal Kim Morton said that teachers and students were enthusiastic over the change. “The teachers are saying the kids are calling them at home, asking for projects,” Morton said.
The same has been true at Casita Center for Technology, Science and Math (STEM), a Vista Unified elementary school which also is piloting personalized learning. “It’s way different from the way I was taught,” said Jenny Anderson, a STEM and International Baccalaureate specialist at Casita. “Before, it was teacher directed. Now, it’s student directed. You really have to understand each child.”
Superintendent Devin Vodicka said that early indications are that the move to personalized learning is paying off with improved student achievement.
“I am pleased with our bold efforts to shift to personal learning as we strive to achieve our vision of becoming the model of educational excellence and innovation,” Vodicka said. “While much work remains ahead, I am proud of our dedicated staff members who are finding new ways to engage our learners.” Not only are teaching methods changing, but so is the look of the schools and the classrooms.
Instead of sitting behind desks, arranged in rows, students roam about the classroom, gathering in small groups to work on projects with their iPads or sharing ideas on writing projects, or using the more traditional paper and pen while others work on individual projects.
“It’s fluid. There’s a lot more interaction among students,” Doyle said. “Learning is social. People learn when they’re engaged in something that’s meaningful to others.”
Rigid desks have been replaced by movable chairs and tables and beanbag chairs where students can stretch out. Some of the tables can be raised or lowered, so students can stand or sit while they work.
“The more comfortable students are, the better they learn,” Doyle said. “Students tend to move around and be fidgety. We bought different types of furniture where they can be fidgety.” At Temple Heights, some students work outside on surfaces that resemble picnic tables or in shaded chairs. “They like an environment where they’re not just sitting at a desk,” Morton said.
The move to personalized education is in its early stages and Doyle said it will take several years to be fully implemented in all district schools. “It’s like, that old adage, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” Doyle said.