Jeffrey Thake, the superintendent of Williston Public School District No. 1, has a quotation he goes back to regularly to explain why it’s important to try new things in education.
The words of wisdom — “Without deviation from the norm, progress cannot happen” — doesn’t come from an educator, though, it was said by musician Frank Zappa.
Looking for inspiration in unorthodox places is necessary when you’re trying to do something unorthodox, though. And Thake’s passion — creating a school system where every student learns at his or her own pace — is unorthodox.
“It’s challenging a system that hasn’t changed a whole lot in 150 years,” Thake said.
Personalized learning has been on Thake’s mind for years now. Before coming to Williston in this summer, he was superintendent of a small school district in Illinois, and he led that district’s efforts to implement personalized learning.
In the little bit more than four months Thake has led District 1, he’s already made moves to help teachers understand personalized learning and put new ideas into practice into their classrooms.
One thing he’s done is take teachers and principals on trips to school districts around the country that are already successfully incorporating personalized learning.
In October, he led a group to a school district outside of St. Louis, where they saw students using an app called Seesaw.
Once the students have mastered a concept, they use Seesaw to create a video that’s then emailed to their parents, so they can demonstrate what they’ve learned.
The group saw students taking ownership of their own learning and using technology.
“It was so inspiring,” Thake said.
Thake knows from personal experience how powerful seeing personalized learning in action can be.
Several years ago, he was on a classroom visit and a student in fourth grade explained to him how a self-paced math class worked. Each student would listen to a recording of the lesson for the skill they were learning. Students would place stars by their names on a chart in the front of the room based on whether they needed help or were available for peer-to-peer tutoring.
“I was schooled by a fourth-grader on what a personalized learning classroom looks like,” Thake said.
Thake cites studies that suggest in any given classroom, about a third of the students have already mastered what’s being taught and are bored, while about a third are struggling, Teachers end up teaching to the middle third, while some students get more bored and some students fall further behind.
Moving toward personalized learning allows students who’ve grasped concepts to learn new things while teachers focus on the students who need the most help. That requires re-thinking how teachers teach and how students learn, but it’s not an entirely new concept.
At the beginning of Thake’s career, he was an elementary and junior high band director. Each student was at a different level and each required individual attention in addition to group practice.
“Why can’t we do that across all areas of the curriculum?” Thake asked.
This year is going to be one of discovery, both for him and for the district’s teachers. He’s spent much of his time visiting schools and getting to know the district, and he’s given teachers permission to try new things.
Some classrooms have already done away with traditional rows of desks, moving to a flexible seating arrangement where students can be more comfortable. Other teachers have started small-scale tests of personalized learning.
For example, Jan Bergstrom, a fourth-grade teacher at Wilkinson Elementary, had students create math and science-themed carnival games, and then had her students share those games with kindergarteners.
There are plenty of questions to be answered still, including how to assess each student’s progress and make sure students are learning what they need to.
But the goal to Thake is clear — to make sure students in the district is able to learn in the way they’re best able and teachers are able to teach in the way they’re best able. He’s seen a lot of excitement about those ideas.
“It’s impossible not to be passionate about meeting kids where they are,” Thake said.