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February 21, 2018

Personalized Learning: Creating Student Choice

Guest post by Darren Ellwein, Principal of Harrisburg South Middle School, Harrisburg, South Dakota

It has been well-documented that not much has changed in education in the past century. The classroom environment today has eerie similarities to the past. Students in colleges and universities around the world are trained to believe they are the holders of all knowledge. This then transfers to a ‘modern’ classroom with a teacher providing all students in a room the same information, even though some are ready to move on or need more time to comprehend the material.

This does not exemplify all schools, though. Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, South Dakota, has several examples that break this traditional model that has been in place since the Industrial Revolution. Within our walls we have learners, not students.

We have learners that are embracing the freedom to drive their learning.

My belief is that middle school students are constantly stuck ‘in the middle’ and not considered able to make adequate decisions for themselves. Well, that is a lie and/or a myth. I believe that learners from elementary age to high school are able to advocate for themselves. Unfortunately, adults hinder their growth by believing they (teachers) have all the answers. Many schools still do not want to or know how to allow voice and choice for their students.

Voice at South MS happens from the simple: learner input to the student handbook, attendance and a voice in our parent group, and feedback with our personalized learning model called Team Innovate. Student choice appears in individual classrooms and iChoose (combination of Edcamp for learners with 20% time sessions).

Team Innovate YouTube clip showing a learner choosing her learning:

Here’s another videoshowing a learner in Team Innovate choosing Instagram to prove Mastery:

How It Started

Three years ago I began researching 20% time, commonly called Genius Hour. I had a few early adopters to genius hour in the classroom and after one semester I had an entire grade level of teachers ask to create time to do this model with each student in the grade. After a few semesters of this model, another grade level wanted to engage in 20% time. Our 6th grade was then tasked to ‘sandbox’ an Edcamp model for their students. We then created time every Wednesday for our whole student body to complete 20% time projects or attend sessions they created.

During the summer of 2016, we began our work on a personalized learning model that had our social studies, english/language arts and science facilitators dovetail their standards to create offerings for a group of learners. Their work, with much assistance from Pioneer Ridge MS in Chaska, MN, was mapped into strands called iLearn, iPractice and iMaster. With this idea in mind, I penned the name iChoose.

At the same time we began a personalized learning pilot for half of our sixth graders. Team Innovate is a unique model that offers learners a choice of offerings to fit their learning. With the assistance of a scheduling software from Personalized Learning Tools,, learners form their schedule on a daily basis to match their learning needs. This form of choice has been amazing to watch this past year.


ichoose image.jpg

iChoose with guest architects from the community.

Since our school culture is being built to include creativity, innovation and choice, South MS wanted to continue providing unique pathways for learners. 20% time was already embedded, but we had a portion of our learners who did not engage in a passion project. To hit their interests, we instituted the Edcamp model used with teachers. 8-10 times per semester, we decided to create iChoose, which included Edcamp for learners with an option to continue Passion and Butterfly Effect projects.

The Edcamp portion is learner-generated. A week before an iChoose Friday, we ask the learners in the building, grades 6-8, to generate topics they are interested in learning. From this list, we form 10 or more “sessions” for them to choose. Session topics have included coding creations (2-Player Pong, Fruit Ninja, etc.), endangered animals, ASL courses, the math behind an NFL salary cap, drafting your own NBA team with a salary cap, magic, Sphero Art and so many more. Learners then take 5 minutes or less on the Thursday before the iChoose to sign-up for their session. With the scheduling software mentioned previously, sessions do have a capacity that is set. For some sessions, there is a rush to enroll in a session before it is full. Session offerings can last multiple weeks depending on interest/request of the learner and the amount of material they want to cover. Session offerings were also led or prepared ahead of time by programmers in the community and architects discussing space.

YouTube clip of learners presenting their ideal school:

What about 20% Time?

The great piece to iChoose involves empowering learners to engage in their passions. As mentioned above, we had a portion of our learners who did not engage in the 20% Time projects. These learners who did not engage can now have voice in the Edcamp model. What about the learners who DO want to work on a project? Well, they have voice and choice as well. Built into the iChoose schedule, learners can enroll themselves into the session for 20% Time or Genius Hour with again, the scheduling software from Personalized Learning Tools.

Once they enroll in this session, they will embark on a year-long project that fits one of two categories, Passion or Butterfly Effect projects. Passion projects include high-interest topics that they research, pursue or simply learn about. This past year South has had Passion projects that included creation of crystals, the production of a horror movie and a research study of Alzheimer’s.

Butterfly Effect projects involve bringing awareness to an issue or making life better for a group of people. Projects included working with patients at our local children’s hospital, creating an anonymous website highlighting positive traits of every 6th grade peer, and a group of 8th grade girls who visit with younger girls to build our school culture. A few Genius Hour projects from last year that became TED Talks at a Showcase Night were up-cycling, Anti-Bullying Campaign led by learners, discrimination study, doorstop invention, musical instrument made from PVCpipe and autism awareness.

Throughout this year, we also discovered that our Edcamp topics could evolve into Passion projects. One example was an ASL offering during Edcamp that led two girls to create a Passion project. They have led ASL during our choir concerts and created their own Edcamp offering for their peers to attend. As iChoose continues to evolve, we anticipate more learners will be leading sessions for their peers.

We All Need to Choose

I believe educators have to make a choice. We either choose to reside in a model of learning that was created a century ago, or we can think differently. I want our opportunities to be learner-driven, instead of one person holding knowledge and deciding when it is imparted to the masses in the room. The shift to more learner choice is difficult for most educators. Often I hear discouraged educators trying to institute change being told, “Just do it the way we have always done it.” or their colleagues saying, “Why can’t you just be traditional?” I heard a quote recently that fits my mindset. “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you will.” My time within this timeframe of education is short, so my choice is “I can.” Will you say the same so we can transform learning together?

Looking for some simple and easy ways you can turn your classroom into a more student-centered learning environment?Download our Easy Starters to Increase Choice in your Classroom Checklist and start to include student voice and choice in your curriculum.


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