MAPLE Districts Display the Future of Learning

Last week I wrote about my visit to Westview Elementary in Berkeley County, South Carolina and how it related to South Carolina’s overall efforts to move to more personalized learning for their K-12 students. This week I visited Melrose Public Schools in Massachusetts, which is part of the MAPLE Consortium, a public-private consortium of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and LearnLaunch, of which I am a co-founder. The MAPLE districts are also moving to student centered, personalized learning, and form a network of support for each other. A more comprehensive overview of Melrose work recently appeared in the Hechinger Report.

I was particularly interested in the visit to Melrose High since many education leaders consider high schools, with their disciplinary academic organization, more difficult to move to personalization than elementary and middle schools. Yet studies of student engagement show that student engagement falls with every year of schooling. 

Melrose, led by Superintendent Cyndy Taymore, has been on its journey for nearly 5 years. The Melrose team studied the “why?” of personalized and competency-based learning for several years before embarking on a system-wide initiative. Visits to other schools, including in 3 other states, helped bring the possibilities into focus. By 2017-2018, they were ready to move forward to change in the classroom. Defining learning progressions was key. Defining clear outcomes and describing what progress looks like fostered alignment, focus and shared ownership of learning while promoting equitable outcomes. They also delved into what student-centered practices might look like. They defined Habits of Learning for Melrose: Problem Solving, Responsible citizenship, Self-directed lifelong learning, and communication. Melrose was supported by the Barr Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership provided technical assistance.

By 2018-2019, they continued to work on strengthening and supporting instructional strategies for student-centered learning. For example, we saw three book groups in an eighth-grade class which modeled roles and protocols for the students to lead the deep exploration of a book. The district also worked on aligning standards and assessments for grades 6-12. This year they continue to deepen their work.

During the tour, we saw lots of group work at the high school level, especially in the elective courses. In Algebra 2, we saw an effort to have students set goals. During senior English, eighty percent of seniors are doing capstone projects. A prospective nurse’s senior capstone involved studying the use of music therapy at a local hospital. Enrollments in AP Seminar/Research, in which students do original research and present it at the conclusion of the school year, are growing. We also heard from students who started a recording studio for their classmates, who now make podcasts as well as produce music. The school already provided a video production lab and sequence of courses. Students were streaming school sporting events and more to the community via YouTube. Local cable rebroadcasts their work.

Melrose teachers told us they see more student engagement with learning menus and playlists. Students learn to regulate themselves and learn about time management, even in third grade. They like to set goals, make choices and exercise independence.

When asked if there has been pushback from parents, teachers said no. The kids appreciate their ability to make choices and parents have shared excitement that their kids are engaged. Kids actually share more with parents on topics they are enthusiastic about. Teachers see their role to help students make good choices.

Twenty teachers are part of a personalized learning cohort, sharing their experiences in moving to student-centered learning. The teachers are also supporting each other on a Twitter professional learning network (PLN). Teachers report that they offer all students to present their learning in different formats, guided by Universal Design for Learning (UDL). But several mentioned that they find it harder to relax control.

When asked what they wanted to more of next year, the Melrose teacher panel said: do more for advanced students and more leveraging technology; better math playlists.

The school has a strong tech infrastructure. It is a “bring your own device” school, but Chromebooks are available to borrow from the learning commons. Gsuite is used extensively, and Newsela and Brainpop are used extensively for personalization. Lexia and IXL are also considered important, and Edulastic is being piloted for formative assessment.

The twenty Massachusetts educators who participated in the MAPLE tour of Melrose will bring back their excitement and possibilities to their districts. In the states embarking on student-centered learning, these visits are essential to enable educators to see how instructional practices can change to engage students. Taymore recounts how the changes are even showing results in moving student achievement on standardized tests. And while Melrose is a relatively affluent and well-educated community, it still indicates the requirements needed to move forward to more personalized learning:

  • A shared understanding of what a high school graduate should be able to know and do 
  • Leaders who will support teachers’ professional development so they can unlock student engagement with student-centered learning
  • Teachers who experience joy in working to develop children academically and socially
  • A technical infrastructure which supports teachers’ need for personalized data on student growth and engages students in learning
  • A community which supports its schools and provides opportunities for real-world learning

Taymore recommends the following: How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper, by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement, by Mike Anderson.