Recently, I have started documenting some of my journey with personalized learning. It might amount to nothing, but my dream is that one day I can fill a void in the current professional literature on personalized learning - that is, a lack of books on how to personalize an English classroom.
Again, it might amount to nothing but a collection of Google docs with my ramblings about why and how, but its important to me that I am always on a mission. That I have a focus which I care about. In the process of filling these pages, I keep coming back to the idea of pacing, or in this case, self-pacing a classroom.
It’s also taking up a lot of brain space because next year, my school is transitioning to a block schedule - which means my current approach definitely needs re-design. (The thought of students pacing themselves for 75 minutes haunts my dreams). But - even with the need to reconsider - I have already felt a shift in my own beliefs about flexible pacing over the years.
First of all and much to my surprise… my kids like deadlines. One semester I kept them entirely self-paced, with the kids allowed to move through all units at their own preferred pace. When I surveyed them after, they overwhelmingly said that more deadlines would have been helpful for them. In response, I took a step back from entirely allowing them to pace their own learning. Now, I allow them to pace themselves within a unit, but I have suggested deadlines AND a hard “blackout” deadline for each unit. It allows them to practice some self-pacing, but also keeps them from getting so behind that they end up in a terrible situation at the end of a semester.
Students also tend to rush through material. I have an open re-attempt and revision policy, which means that kids take assessments with less anxiety about their grade. (Very important in an advanced class…). One downside to this is that they tend to rush through preparing for these assessments. They choose between videos, reading and small groups to learn the content, but in so many cases, they are barely engaging with these options. They are just checking a box for me. This results in them frequently having to re-attempt and revise assessments. While I have no problem with that (and actually see a ton of value in having to revise and try again), I’d rather they learned the material before the assessment instead of through trial and error on assessments. (And if I’m being selfish… it would save me time on feedback and grading).
Perhaps most unsettling for me is that self-pacing isolates kids. While my kids are regularly working together on class activities or working through material in-step with a small group, overall, a self-paced format isolates them from one another. On any given day, a small pocket of kids are a week or more ahead and another pocket is a week behind. The distance between these two groups of students is immense. While I would love for the kids who are ahead to help those who are behind, I have never found a routine or procedure that doesn’t make this entirely embarrassing for both.
Beyond that, multiple days I feel like an online class monitor - just sitting in the back and checking their progress on Schoology. In fact, last week another teacher came to my room to grab a student and she apologized. The kids were so quiet that she thought they were taking a test. In fact, they were all working on their material, but they had no reason to interact with one another. Too often, the only way they are engaging with each other is for unproductive chatter. In a post-COVID era, it’s my responsibility to bring students back to the table, so to speak. While they are well trained in independent work, we all know their ability to engage with others will take them further in life than any amount of time management skills.
So with the change of schedule next year, I am carefully reconsidering the value in self-pacing. That said, I feel I must acknowledge that there are advantages…
What it really comes down to, therefore, is what is more important - that kids engage with one another or that they practice managing their own time. The challenge for me is to adjust to a version of personalized learning that can allow for both, because in all honesty, both are non-negotiable.
One idea that I am dreaming up right now is to incorporate collaboration into their choice learning. For instance, the students who prefer to watch videos could watch their videos, but then they could be asked to collaborate on a practice task like a structured summarizing activity. This would create something similar to tracks or pathways for students, based on how they like to learn. The drawback is that everyone needs to be on the same step of their learning… so the self-pacing is pretty much gone. How can I find a way to make this happen where students can either take more time after these practices to review or for me to re-teach, or they can move on to the assessment. Figuring out what this looks like is my next big step.
What are your thoughts on self-pacing? Is it worth the challenges?