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One Teacher Makes the Case for Personalized Learning

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When Nolen Peterson was asked to be a part of his district’s design team in support of personalized learning, he knew it was because he’s a doubter.

“I’m an experienced enough teacher to know that some things are fads and some things stick,” said Peterson, who teaches middle school social studies at Oakes Public School District in Oakes, North Dakota. “I was very much against another change in our school. I didn’t necessarily see personalized learning as a fad because I thought we were already doing it, looking for mastery, looking for kids to take ownership of their learning.”

Peterson worried that his district’s efforts to become more student-centered were just another process that would get in the way of teachers teaching, but a few months into the work, he realized what was at stake.

Personalized learning is rooted in our belief that all children can learn, should be challenged to take ownership of their learning as individuals and empowered with the academic knowledge and social-emotional skills they need for the future.

“In January, we did some breakout sessions and I thought, wow. This has really got a lot of real-life applications to it,” Peterson said. The real-life applications are powerful for Peterson, and he believes they’re powerful for parents and community members, too.

“What do you want out of your kids? Do you want your kids to make hard decisions? Do you want your kids to know that they can’t always please everybody? With personalized, competency-based learning, you’re really teaching decision-making,” said Peterson. “You’re giving them practice making decisions every single day. You’re creating life skills over everything.”

For Peterson, the decision-making and critical thinking that personalized learning demands is a perfect fit for social studies.

“You’re teaching students to be prepared for a real-world situation, a family situation, a financial situation, that you’ve got make a decision and create your own path. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong, but you learn from it and you’re better for it.”

Nolan Peterson
Middle School Social Studies Teacher in Oakes, North Dakota

“Just like any subject, there’s not always a right answer. This is what happened, these are the decisions that were made,” said Peterson. “You’re teaching students to be prepared for a real-world situation, a family situation, a financial situation, that you’ve got make a decision and create your own path. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong, but you learn from it and you’re better for it.”

Peterson is still learning, too, benefitting from regular convenings with his district’s design team and from changes to the professional development that Oakes staff are receiving. Anna Sell, the elementary principal at Oakes and also a member of the district’s design team, explained that it was important to the team that everyone feel a part of the work to personalize learning.

“We wanted the teachers that were with us [on the design team] not to just be the keepers of the knowledge, but the spreaders of the knowledge,” said Sell. Design team educators facilitated one-hour professional development sessions with their peers at the school on things like learner agency and engagement. As an administrator, Sell participated, too. “It was a different look at professional development when I was in the audience, getting to learn from them. I’m just a learner. We’re going forward as a group.”

Sell, like Peterson, recognized that the first few months of considering a shift toward personalized, competency-based learning required some slowing down and not having all the answers and the “how” of the work right away.

“When we started this we just wanted to know, what does this look like? We wanted the whole thing. We just wanted to get to the end,” said Sell. “But KnowledgeWorks has walked us through this slowly. Let’s get this base, let’s get our culture, let’s get the mindsets. I can see now how that’s very valuable because now that we’ve got those in place, we know where we want to go and why we want to go there.”

Just how impactful are peer learning opportunities for teachers? South Carolina educators have the opportunity to learn from each other with teacher inquiry labs.