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How next-generation learning supports every student

By Paul Beck
manager in next-generation learning initiatives, Colorado Education Initiative
March 2nd, 2018

At 3 innovative Colorado districts, students are helping to hire new teachers, developing social-emotional learning skills, and more

Teachers applying for jobs in Colorado Springs District 11 are in for a bit of a shock. There will be standard parts of their interview, of course, such as meetings with administrators and other teachers. But those interviews will also include much younger, smaller faces: students. It’s all part of the next-generation learning effort happening in several districts across Colorado.

What educators in District 11 and other Colorado districts are trying to do is find ways to prepare students for a future we cannot predict. After all, ask most anyone and they’ll agree: Today’s world is not like it was 10, 25, or 50 years ago. The one thing we can expect from the future is more and greater change.

Since we can’t teach student recognition, the best route is to help them build the skills they need to anticipate and adapt to nearly anything. That starts with empowering students to be active learners and fostering skills such as agility, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

Giving students voice and choice
District 11 is taking on this challenge by involving students through sounding boards and advisory groups. Those in third grade and above are invited to be part of these boards, and student inclusion isn’t simply a gesture. The students work together to address challenges and opportunities in the schools—including playing a role in hiring new teachers. Students interview candidates, observe them giving a lesson, and provide input into the selection of new teachers. The boards tap students not normally selected for these activities and who are having challenges at school. By going beyond the usual suspects, educators in the building get a new perspective, and the students get to be involved in changes that put them in charge of their learning.

New approaches like District 11’s are helping to ignite and realize the unique potential of every student. Involving students in decisions about how their school runs complements the work the district is doing to create ways for students to have more voice and choice. And they aren’t the only ones in the state using next-generation learning to create and deliver new learning experiences. Thompson Valley Public Schools is intentionally shifting to learning environments in which students drive their learning to better develop a set of well-rounded skills needed for our dynamic world.

Developing social-emotional learning skills
In Thompson Valley, schools are adapting weekly schedules to include a block of time for students to better understand their learning strengths and gaps, receive personalized guidance from their teachers, and take their learning beyond traditional academics. The district calls these periods “Plus Classes.”

To inform Plus Classes, students throughout the district take a culture and climate survey twice a year (fall and spring) that looks at the relationships between students, their teachers, and their learning environments. The students review the survey results and reflect on what their schools can do to better meet their needs.

Plus Classes also emphasize social-emotional learning, giving students dedicated time to focus on important skills such as setting and achieving goals, being good citizens, leadership and collaboration, and navigating social media.
For teachers, the shift creates another substantial advantage. At some schools in Thompson Valley, teachers get one day for planning, digging deep into student data, and professional learning.

This type of shift might seem like a radical change, but the effort put in is paid back in full as both students and teachers develop stronger agency in their educational journey. This is the promise of next-generation learning. In its many forms, it helps solve what’s currently wrong with our education system. In Westminster Public Schools, that includes improving career and workforce readiness.

Moving to a competency-based model
Schools in the Westminster district have moved to a competency-based education model that includes teachers helping students identify the right pathway through the content and determine how they master individual competencies. Every student moves at his or her own pace through a self-created “playlist” in the district’s learning management system. Students can dive deep through a project-based task or move rapidly through an area of content that they can quickly and easily demonstrate mastery over. This approach lets students do work that meets their needs and engages their passions.

Designing and delivering education that promotes growth and guides students to learn how to think, problem solve, and work collaboratively is education’s greatest challenge and opportunity. The work of these Colorado districts proves how capable next-generation learning approaches are at meeting that challenge head-on.

If we want to keep the promise we made to our students, their families, and our communities to create environments in which students learn to be creative, adaptive, and—most of all—understand how to advocate and apply their unique talents to an ever-shifting job market, then embracing next-generation learning is essential.

About the Author:

Paul Beck joined the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) in 2015 as manager in next-generation learning initiatives. He leads the efforts to support personalized learning across the state of Colorado. In addition to his work with personalized learning, Beck leads work with networks of schools and districts in design thinking and school redesign.

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