You are here

Feature

Setting the pace in schools

How to overcome the hurdles of giving students more control over their learning
  • TEAMWORK TIME—Self-paced, personalized learning programs allow EPiC Elementary School students to remain together in the same classroom, which gives them more opportunity to collaborate.
  • STUDENT-CENTERED—Students at Upton High School in Wyoming set their own schedule each week based on the projects they are working on. They also collaborate with peers in multi-grade classrooms. Teachers offer guidance in setting priorities and organizing time.

When Upton High School in Wyoming switched from a traditional to a self-paced education model last year, Weston County School District Superintendent Summer Stephens’ 15-year-old daughter reacted the way many students did.

“‘I don’t know how to make choices,’ she kept saying,” Stephens recalls. “But now a year later, she has organized her classes and projects so that she can take two weeks off to go be a legislative intern.”

Upton students set their own schedules every week, reserving time in classrooms based on their current projects. These projects are designed by students, under teachers’ guidance, to meet the grade-level standards in a particular subject. At various times, students work online, in small groups, with a teacher and in traditional class settings.

It’s part of a self-paced learning model—now in its second year at the high school—that helps students make choices, set priorities and accomplish things that are meaningful to them, says Stephens, who is also the district’s curriculum director.

“Traditionally we used an industrial or factory model of education, with students doing what they have been told, how they have been told to do it, when they have been told to do it,” Stephens says. But today’s world demands workers who can think critically and creatively, and quickly learn new skills—and the old model isn’t necessarily delivering, she says.

Across the country, self-paced learning takes place in classrooms, online and as a hybrid of the two. While growing numbers of schools are adopting the model, it’s not without challenges. Here’s how schools and districts overcome six potential pitfalls.

1. Lack of motivation

Not all students possess the motivation to lead their own learning. When Upton High students began setting their schedules in the 2017-18 school year, “some students simply took themselves out of the schedule so no teacher would be expecting them, and skipped school,” Principal Linda Crawford says.

Now, each student meets twice weekly with a mentor teacher who helps them schedule their time appropriately during 50-minute class periods. (Some classes, such as band and chorus, all meet together at the same time.)

Several days each week students have Opportunity Time, when they can choose to stay and pursue projects or leave for the day, creating more time for teachers to work with students who need individualized support.

Along with scheduling, mentor teachers also work with students who need to develop “the learner mindset,” which includes skills such as goal setting, time management and meeting deadlines, Crawford says.

Graduates continue to struggle with these skills in college and the workforce, Stephens adds. “The old methods didn’t help empower students—the adult set the adult’s pace and the weight-bearing walls of school regulated the what, when and how of learning,” she says.

2. Lack of supervision

Critics may assume that turning students loose on a wholly digital learning platform may leave them unsupervised, but the most effective uses of self-paced learning require teachers more than ever, says Sandy Roth, director of curriculum and assessment at Albuquerque Charter Academy, which is part of Albuquerque Public Schools.

“It is much more expensive and complicated than buying a subscription to an online curriculum package and assigning students the courses they need,” she says.

As a blended learning school, Albuquerque Charter Academy combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods. It requires the physical presence of both teacher and student, while allowing students some control over time, place, path and pace, Roth says.

Most students follow a set class schedule and attend different classes every hour, but when they go into the science classroom, for example, everyone is likely working on different material. There are two teachers in each content-area classroom who deliver instruction in one-on-one and small group settings.

“Teachers and students are intermingling, rather than a teacher being at the front of the room delivering information to a class,” Roth says.

3. Isolation

The most successful self-paced classrooms and schools do not simply restrict instruction to the online realm. For instance, at Upton High School, educators focus on small-group interactions, and students are partnering on projects in multigrade classrooms.

“If you go in a classroom, it’s pretty social,” Crawford says. “The social studies teacher may be discussing government with two seniors, and two sophomores also in the room may be working on something else but participating in the conversation.”

At EPiC Elementary in Missouri, students who set their own pace avoid the isolating stigma of working ahead of or behind the rest of the class, Principal Michelle Schmitz says. The school, part of Liberty Public Schools, uses a personalized learning program to guide students in setting academic goals each week.

“Students sitting next to each other could be working on a variety of standards,” Schmitz says. “Students remain in the same learning area no matter their ability, rather than having to be moved to a different teacher group or room to receive instruction.”

The software also increases teamwork, as students more often collaborate on projects through online apps and other platforms, Schmitz says.

4. Inexperience with digital platforms

Today’s students may be digital natives, but that doesn’t mean that using self-paced learning platforms comes naturally. “It’s not intuitive to kids like we might think it is,” Stephens says. “Kids aren’t masters of the learning process in any realm—they’re used to being told what to learn and how to do it.”

To better support students, all Upton teachers were required to participate in at least one online learning experience of their own last year. Gaining firsthand experience as online students lets teachers design better online courses and assist their students in navigating learning platforms.

5. Lack of immediate human feedback

Critics of self-paced learning assume that students don’t get the immediate feedback that traditional instruction provides. That’s not the case, Crawford says. “Our teachers are constantly interacting and discussing with students. As soon as students take an exam [online or on paper], they go to the teacher to review it and discuss it.”  

The nature of self-paced learning means teachers must be ready at any time to discuss a wide variety of topics with students studying various subjects—and sometimes it’s simply not possible for a teacher to have every answer.

“It’s OK for kids to know that teachers don’t know everything, as long as the teacher is willing to say, ‘Let’s figure that out,’” Crawford says. Online programs provide teachers with detailed reports on student performance that can also be used as roadmaps for providing feedback, Schmitz says.

The reports ask three questions of students: What do I know? How can I get better? What are my goals for the week?

“The questions follow a pattern of every student establishing foundational knowledge, reflecting and creating goals to grow,” Schmitz says. “On any given day, you can see teachers going over these questions and reports with individual students.”

6. Technical access

Having technology available and ready to use is crucial for successful self-paced learning, Stephens says. At Upton, a BYOD policy, along with available mobile devices, has given students the freedom to work in the ways they need to, rather than being tied down to desktop computers.

Liberty Public Schools has a 1-to-1 initiative, so each student has their own machine to manage their learning experiences, says Christopher Hand, director of testing and assessment. A cloud-based online learning platform eliminates the need for extra server space.

Ultimately it’s the educators who first must become comfortable with this new learning approach. Many teachers did not experience self-pacing when they were in school and may have to overcome the same motivational challenges students face, says Stephens.

“I have seen young children learn to regulate themselves and direct their own learning, so I know it is possible,” Stephens says. “What a fantastic idea it is for our young people to do this. It will blow up the world of work and higher ed as we know it—for the better.”


Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.