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Belle Fourche School District exploring mass customized learning

November 18, 2017 GMT

BELLE FOURCHE — The Belle Fourche School District is considering the adoption of a major shift from traditional instructional methods to a method known as Mass Customized Learning (MCL) and heard Monday from the district’s administrators who recently got the opportunity to experience the model first-hand.

A number of South Dakota schools have begun to integrate principles of Mass Customized Learning (MCL), according to a South Dakota Department of Education’s (DOE) Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) State Plan Summary. The plan explains that in recognizing that students learn in different ways, at different paces, and with individual end goals, MCL is an alternate approach to the traditional Industrial Age model of learning that currently characterizes the K-12 system.

In the long-term, according to the report, such changes to the system will serve to honor the diversity of the state’s student body, while maintaining equity through equal access to opportunity for all students. This paradigm shift is being supported by the DOE and will be reflected in its approach to accountability provisions under the 2015 ESSA. The report added that the state’s plan under ESSA supports South Dakota’s aspiration-related work by laying out an accountability system that is credible, meaningful, and relies on multiple measures that contribute to a student’s preparation for postsecondary education, the workforce, and life.

MCL allows learning systems to leave the Industrial Age and enter into an Information Age learning-based system by tailoring individualized instruction for each student. School districts can implement aspects of MCL in a variety of ways that best suits their students’ needs and goals.

Members of the Belle Fourche administrators recently visited Mitchell and Sioux Falls area schools to get a glimpse at what MCL in the Belle Fourche School District could look like.

High School Principal Mathew Raba shared that the group visited one of the Mitchell area elementary schools that currently employs the educational model. Raba said the group visited one classroom that had 63 first- through fifth-graders with varying abilities, led by three teachers.

“It’s very interesting to see the different instructional models and approaches to education,” he said.

One of Raba’s main questions about the teaching style was what it would be like having an 11-year-old in the same classroom as, for example, a 6-year-old, socially.

“They said that, actually, those older kids really look out for those younger kids, and it almost becomes like this big-brother, big-sister type of thing, and they’re looking out for them at lunch, and they’re looking out for them at recess,” he said. “I felt that a little bit in the classroom, too.”

Elementary Principal Ryan Young echoed Raba’s sentiments.

“Mitchell (elementary) was pretty interesting in the fact that they had 63 kids in a room smaller than this (the school district’s central office meeting space where the board meetings are held),” he said.

The level of varying abilities especially caught Young’s attention, and he said that some of the students in the group had Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs), a document developed for each public school child requiring special education that is created through a team effort and periodically reviewed.

“My biggest worry going in is that it would turn into a gifted program of students that worked at their own pace that were self-motivated and driven,” Young said. “But the principal sat in with us, and in having conversations (with her), she said, ‘You have every ability level; you have students with behaviors.’ She took one kid out for a walk while we were in there because he was having some problems.”

“It was really a pretty cool experience and very unique way of looking at education,” he added. “It’s kind of a big drastic mind shift of our traditional setting of, ‘We’re going to teach this for this amount of time and everybody’s in their row of desks,’ and it’s very unique in that regard.”

Young said that when the idea was initially described, he had the preconceived notion that the students would be handed iPads and disperse into a corner and “not be heard of for the next couple weeks.”

“I would say there was probably more interaction between the teacher and the individual students by far because they are strategically placed in groups and the teacher is constantly at one group, at the next group, at the next group, and they’re all working at different ability levels,” he said. “It was really neat to watch the interaction between the staff and the students. That was my big thing - I don’t want these kids to be given an iPad and that’s what teaches them. And it wasn’t even close to that.”

Middle School Principal Kevin Smidt was equally struck by the uniqueness of Mitchell’s MCL’s model.

“It (the elementary classroom) was actually an L-shaped classroom; they’d torn out a couple of walls,” he said. “And so you had fluid movement of students. It started in one room and (they) talked for a bit … and then they kind of split up into three different abilities and it was possible for a student in fifth-grade to be at the lowest level working on a math concept while maybe a first- or second-grader could have been at the highest level working on a math concept.”

Ability grouping was one thing Smidt said stood among his observations.

“They were kind of fluid in movement and changing on the go … they did regrouping constantly which is really a challenging concept to pull off,” he said. “But it was pretty interesting to watch. It’s like a paradigm shift; it is definitely a step away from the traditional.”

In Smidt’s observations at a Sioux Falls middle school, he said students were given the opportunity to pick out their morning schedules.

“They just had to pick out, ‘Do I need to work on math today, is that where I really need to put all my effort, or should I work on science or should it be social studies, or language arts?’” he said. “And those kids would sit down right after their initial talk, and they’d go to their computers and they’d plug in their schedules for the morning and they’d send it to their homeroom teacher (for approval), and then boom, they’d all scatter and they would kind of be on their own for the morning. They’re just trusting them that they’re working on what they’re supposed to work on.”

The most critical aspect of such a drastic paradigm shift in teaching models, Smidt said, is teachers who are on board with the idea.

“If you really want to do something like this, your teachers have to know what’s going on,” he said.

The next step, Smidt said, is sending teachers to MCL instructing schools to observe.

“Once the teachers start to look at it, then you’re going to get a real feel for whether its possible or not,” he said.

Raba agreed, saying, “It’s not something that we as administrators can come in and say, ‘You’re going to do this’ because it would just not work. You have to, I think, expose your teaching staff to it and get them to kind of start to see and feel that, ‘Yeah, this is something that could really work, at least for a certain population of kids.’”

Raba said the Belle Fourche High School is in its third year of a pilot MCL program and the staff who have participated find it very rewarding.

“They’re all appreciating the challenge and it’s a unique relationship you develop with those students as well; it’s a little bit more personalized than it is in a traditional classroom,” he said.

Steve Willard, superintendent, spoke to the administrators and instructed them to continue sending teachers to observe the alternate teaching method and gauge the response.

“This train is coming down the track,” he said. “And we can either get run over by it or we can be part of the process. I think this is where education is going to go.”

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