Personalized Learning Dudes Keep Movement Going in Colorado Springs

This is not my typical blog post, but I had a great interview with two educators from Colorado Springs, and while a shorter version was published in Fresh Ink (the online version of the Colorado Springs Gazette), I wanted to share the more complete article because they are so enthusiastic and doing really interesting work in the schools just south of my stomping ground.

Colorado Springs School District 11 sent 70 teachers, school leaders, and administrators to the Technology in Education (TIE) Conference early this summer. Many were there, following the self-named Personalized Learning Dudes, to learn more about how they can embrace the concept of personalized learning in their classrooms.

I interviewed Dudes co-founders Greg Wilborn, the District’s Personalized Learning Coordinator, and Scott Fuller, Project Coordinator for the $1.1 million DoDEA grant that is facilitating implementation in seven District 11 schools. They had just returned from four full days of presenting at TIE, but their excitement about the potential for Personalized Learning had not dimmed.

Wilborn and Fuller have presented to more than 200 teachers in the last month alone, and they claim that what has been most exciting is hearing those teachers walk out of their presentation in June saying they cannot wait to get back into the classroom. (Please watch the video testimonials from teachers who have embraced Personalized Learning.)

And it’s not just our Colorado teachers who are taking an interest. Two teams from other states have flown in to see Personalized Learning in action in District 11, and a team from Kentucky (which earned top dollars in the Race to the Top funding) arrives this month.

Wilborn left a career in sales in 2000, so that he could teach high school business classes. “Right away, I realized the education system was behind the times,” he said.

He taught for six years, tweaking the system, before taking on a grant-funded position three years ago to implement Personalized Learning in Colorado Springs schools.

Wilborn brought Fuller on to manage the grant from the Department of Defense Education Agency, which is funding implementation of Personalized Learning in classrooms for seven elementary and middle schools with a population of at least 15 percent military families.

An additional five schools have joined the movement since the District received a significant grant from the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which is helping to promote the concept nationwide. The grant empowered District 11 leadership to direct money into classroom innovations including technology, curriculum and more. According to Fuller and Wilborn, the CLF funds are being used in their first high school classroom project, where they are “trading out traditional desks for more flexible tables and chairs, a few stand-up stations, and a set of computing devices to enable 1:1 access for students.”

The CLF has also provided a model that schools and districts can customize to their student and teacher communities and their needs. It has adopted as its dual role both educating multiple stakeholders and facilitating collaboration to enlarge its circle of influence on schools’ ability to successfully implement their own models of personalized learning.

When asked how the CLF has been most helpful to District 11, Fuller and Wilborn point to how effectively the Foundation has been facilitating opportunities to collaborate with like-minded colleagues. They said, “There is incredible power and motivation in bringing together a group of educators who are solution-focused and passionate about their work. This type of cutting-edge work toward change is difficult and at times lonely. The collaboration opportunities supported by CLF are invaluable for recharging your batteries and maintaining perspective.”

While their job is to manage the implementation of programming, Fuller says it is also to sell the idea to teachers, school administrators, funders, parents and students. So being able to draw on the research done by the Colorado Legacy Foundation to educate others has made their job easier. As Fuller explained, “A lot of people confuse it with more technology.”

In fact, during his first two weeks on the job, he received lists of technology orders and “where are our iPads?”

Personalized Learning is about much more than that. While iPads and increased access to information help, the real idea is about changing how teachers view their role and how they define learning in a way that goes beyond the classroom.

I asked how prepared the teachers of District 11 are for a personalized learning approach, in light of the highly publicized results of a recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality. According to the Wall Street Journal, it gave teacher training programs a low grade.

“Teachers are very self-reflective people and very hard on themselves. The ones that latch on to our message are frustrated. They know they need to try something different in their classrooms, but they cannot picture what that is, “ the Dudes agreed, “until they see how well this approach is working.”

They added that current teacher training programs celebrate those who are in the most control at the front of the classroom. But that approach is not preparing students for today’s work world, and it does not address the wide range of interests, learning styles and skill levels in a given student population.

Personalized Learning at its core is about teachers giving up power as the providers of prescribed information and becoming facilitators who empower their students to access information that matters to them. It leverages approaches from art education, expeditionary learning, traditional instruction and technical training depending on the student – not the teacher.

“If Rumpelstiltskin woke up today and walked into one of our classrooms, would it look any different than it did fifty years ago?” asked Wilborn. “But the world we are preparing our students to enter has changed tremendously.”

Although Personalized Learning is not a new idea, it is a complex one. For each school, a customized adoption of Personalized Learning requires some, or all, of the following: changing the ways in which teachers see their role (no more “sage on the stage”), revamping classroom and school layouts, effectively leveraging what technology they have, expanding learning time, going out into the community, embracing student-directed learning, embedding an ongoing assessment of skills, and more.

But the Personalized Learning Dudes of District 11 are ready for your questions.

To learn more about Personalized Learning, go to the Colorado Legacy Foundation or watch this presentation on why education needs to change to meet the needs of our future workforce.

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