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Teacher Inquiry Labs in South Carolina Demonstrate Personalized Learning in Action

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Topics: 101, Continuous Improvement, Helping Teachers

One of the first questions teachers ask about personalized learning, no matter how excited they might be to implement, is, “What will this look like in my classroom?”

While professional development may provide educators the tools and resources they need to begin creating student-centered classrooms, there’s nothing like seeing it in action to really understand how it works and how it empowers both students and teachers to make the most of their time together.

For South Carolina educators, the answer to this question was to introduce inquiry labs. The labs, part of the state-led support for personalized learning, are all volunteer and educator-driven. A host district highlights one personalized learning practice that they are using across the K-12 continuum and district leaders, educators and instructional coaches from across the state will visit to observe, learn and share feedback with the hosting district. The hosting district chooses the practice they feel they can best highlight, whether it’s student ownership and agency, flexible learning environments or assessment, and attending educators will choose to visit either elementary, middle school or high school classrooms to align with their own professional development needs.

“By giving our teachers a voice in highlighting practices and strategies, we feel like we’re really empowering them.”

Stephanie DiStasio
Director, Office of Personalized Learning, South Carolina Department of Education

“Teachers are getting a chance to ask the questions that they want answered and hear from one another,” said Stephanie DiStasio, director of the office of personalized learning at the South Carolina Department of Education. The state department is helping teachers expand student-centered practices and make personalized learning in South Carolina a priority, and inquiry labs are just one of the ways they’re doing it. “As hosting teachers reflect on their own practice, they’re pushing their own learning forward. By giving our teachers a voice in highlighting practices and strategies, we feel like we’re really empowering them.”

Professional development opportunities by teachers, for teachers.

“I was a little bit nervous when we hosted an inquiry lab, but it became a celebration: it was a moment to pause and reflect on where we were in this process,” said Heather Rollings, instructional technology coach with Rock Hill School District, which recently hosted an inquiry lab on developing student agency through flexible learning environments. “Our teachers and principals don’t really have an opportunity during the year to reflect on all of the good things they’re doing; they’re busy supporting students. The inquiry lab provided us an opportunity to help our teachers and administrators connect the dots.”

Reflection plays a large role for everyone involved with inquiry labs. Each lab ends with the opportunity for attending educators to reflect with each other and the hosting district, as well as a teacher and student panel to dive deeper. Much like the state-led professional development supporting personalized learning, these aren’t sit-and-get sessions. They’re deeply interactive, collaborative and reflective.

“It’s a real practice; we’re not just listening.”

Era Roberts
Assistant Principal of Instruction at Batesburg-Leesville High School

“We’re all here getting the same professional development, experiencing it together, using common language with lots of opportunities to talk and apply,” said Era Roberts, Assistant Principal of Instruction at Batesburg-Leesville High School. “It’s a real practice; we’re not just listening.”

For Roberts and others, there’s value not only in the ideas presented, but in the opportunity to hear from other educators and share ideas.

“Teachers don’t often get to get outside of their building, let alone outside their district,” said Lauren McCauley, lead associate for personalized learning with the South Carolina Department of Education. “But these teachers have made connections and continue to run with them. That’s how good ideas spread.”

DiStasio sees networking opportunities as critical to advancing personalized learning in South Carolina, and in equipping educators with the knowledge that there’s help and guidance to be found across the state, whether it’s a 15-minute drive to a neighboring district, an email or a phone call. Almost all of the districts who have hosted an inquiry lab were attendees at other labs first, and saw the value both in visiting other districts and in inviting educators from across the state into their own classrooms.

“We have a lot of schools saying now that they want to host an inquiry lab, too,” said DiStasio. “They see the value that as a host school, you get a lot of feedback. And as an attendee, you’re leaving with ideas you can implement right away.”

“The inquiry lab was probably one of the most rewarding experiences that we’ve been a part of and the excitement about personalized learning that it brought to the surface has been huge.”

Heather Rollings
Instructional Technology Coach with Rock Hill School District

For Rollings, it was the experience of attending an inquiry lab that cemented her desire to see her district host – and in the value these labs provide to really shine a light on the day-to-day practices of personalized learning that resonate most with educators.

“The first lab we went to was motivating in knowing where we are and where we want to go,” said Rollings. “I knew we wanted our teachers to have that experience of someone validating them, having conversations with them, learning from them. The inquiry lab was probably one of the most rewarding experiences that we’ve been a part of and the excitement about personalized learning that it brought to the surface has been huge.”