This article was originally posted in EdSurge on April 19, 2018
High school sophomore Olivia Surdam thought she wanted to have a career in healthcare as a doctor or nurse, but after recognizing that her sensitive stomach would cause barriers for a career path in patient care, Surdam started considering other options with her advisory teacher.
Reflecting on some fond memories of her father teaching her to use a hammer and screw gun to build structures as a young child, she was inspired to research opportunities that would allow her to recreate that experience. She attended an event called “Women Can Do,” where one of the projects was to construct a bridge using toothpicks and marshmallows. The activity was a crystallizing moment for Surdam, setting her on a new path.
She has since altered her personalized learning plan (PLP) to include the courses and experiences she’ll need to pursue a career in architectural engineering. In a few months, she will attend the National Summer Transportation Institute at Vermont Technical College, which includes a component on bridge design and construction. Her plan may change down the road, and that’s okay because PLPs are designed to be living documents that evolve with each student as their interests grow and change.
Legislation Leads Change
All students can learn; however, not all students learn in the same way or at the same pace. Acknowledging this fact has driven the recent shift toward personalization in education.
In 2013, the state of Vermont committed itself to the value and promise that personalized learning holds for its students by passing Act 77, often referred to as the Flexible Pathways Initiative. The initiative requires every student in grades 7-12 to have a personalized learning plan—a document that guides each learner through a meaningful learning experience that leads to college and/or career readiness.
The concept of flexible pathways is what empowered Surdam to pursue her passion and enabled her to change course with ease. Vermont’s Agency of Education (AOE) defines flexible pathways as “any combination of high-quality academic and experiential components leading to secondary school completion and postsecondary readiness.” This doesn’t refer to a finite menu of pre-selected pathways from which a student must choose, but instead implies that there may be as many unique pathways as there are students, and that the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations and the resources available.
Central to the initiative is the idea that learning is not restricted to the classroom. Historically, credits were awarded to Vermont high school students based on grades and Carnegie Units—periods of “seat time” spanning 125 hours over the course of a year. With this legislation, credits will be awarded to learners based on performance rather than how much time they spend in a particular classroom.
The flexibility requires Vermont teachers and administrators to have a deep knowledge of school-based course offerings, virtual learning opportunities, community work-based experiences and dual enrollment options. At any middle or high school, a given class will have students pursuing unique pathways, and teachers are expected to support each student’s journey.
Take Mount Anthony Union High School (MAUHS) in Bennington, VT, where some students are gaining valuable practical experience outside of school at local veterinary clinics, manufacturing companies, law enforcement agencies and other local businesses. Other students are enrolled in online courses at both the secondary and postsecondary level.
During the 2017-2018 school year, 54 MAUHS students participated in dual enrollment options, earning college credit while attending high school. Two students took advantage of an early college program, which allows them to substitute their senior year for a full course load at any one of 19 Vermont colleges, earning graduation and college credit simultaneously. These programs are free for students, as long as they are written into a student’s PLP.
Developing the Plans
Vermont allows each district to implement PLPs in a way that best serves its community; however, each plan must contain critical elementssuch as a student profile, goals, action steps, reflection and revision. Students must review and revise their plans at least annually, with input from their advisor and parent or guardian.
Students are required to have PLPs beginning in 7th grade, but many schools start the process sooner. Mount Anthony Union Middle School (MAUMS) begins the process in sixth grade, giving students a head start on understanding the concept, process and language they will use moving forward. Seventh grader Asa Jelley is in his second year of developing his plan and he already speaks like a veteran. He says sixth grade focused on feelings and personal interests, but what he found most valuable was learning how to create a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) and sticking to it. He has found one-to-one time with his teacher key to reflecting on progress and adjusting his plan.
Mount Anthony’s middle school associate principal, Christopher Maguire, has seen the process empower students to have more say in their education and give parents more accurate information about their child’s progress. Maguire values the evolution of the document as students and teachers iterate over time. The original template for his school has grown from a static checklist to a flexible set of Google Slides, and the high school now provides Chromebooks for all students, so PLPs can transfer seamlessly from middle to high school.
The time carved out to work on PLP’s differs slightly between Bennington’s middle and high school. High schoolers work on their plans once a week during Seminar, a 15-minute daily advisory period. Middle schoolers work on them once a week during 20-minute advisory time; additionally, school is delayed 90 minutes monthly for dedicated PLP work. This allows students to enjoy longer activities like interacting with local college students to discuss their career paths and the courses and experiences required to get there.
Understanding, accepting, and implementing a shift in thinking takes time and patience. There is a learning curve, which can cause anxiety for some students and teachers. Seniors tend to show low interest in the PLP process, but that will change soon because this year’s graduating class will see the last group of students who didn’t have a PLP throughout their entire secondary school experience.
Some teachers also find it difficult to adjust to a new paradigm, but the cheerleaders are getting louder and better at boosting teacher spirit around the initiative. Seventh grade social studies teacher Amy Moriarty is one of those cheerleaders. She says the process has made students and teachers more aware of the value of setting goals, following a plan to achieve them and reflecting regularly on the experience to make informed adjustments. Moriarty was involved from the very beginning, attending a “Personalizing Learning Plans Institute” in the summer of 2014 with a group of educators from her district. Currently, she is developing plans to allow all of her students to include PLP work in class, not just her advisees.
MAUHS school-to-work director Kristen Kimball also uses PLPs as part of her everyday practice to help students further their career explorations and determine their work and internship site choices. Moriarty and Kimball’s practice echo Maguire’s vision for PLPs to become living, breathing documents in every classroom, where students can access their plans to add evidence of their learning or make changes anytime.
This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country. These stories are made publicly available with support from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which had no influence over the content in this story. (Read our ethics statement here.) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Frank Barnesis the director of educational technology at the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union in Bennington, VT.