By Meredith Allen

I am a mother, wife, and teacher who lives in rural Iowa. The closest music store is 35 miles away, the closest art museum is 106 miles away, and the closest science center is 152 miles away, but we nonetheless manage. Interestingly, Iowa even happens to be quite the leader in “outside of the box” educational institutions, in spite of many of its schools’ remote locations–how is that possible?

Personalized learning.

What does that look like for Iowa, how can others get there, and what emerging technologies support us?

Today, I’d like to showcase a few Iowa schools that I think are absolute gems of personalized learning, with some key takeaways for educators and administrators implementing personalized learning in their own classroom, school or district.

Waukee Apex

I had the opportunity to visit Waukee Apex in Des Moines, Iowa. At the time, I wrote about my experience, but the long and short of my takeaways is that through inquiry-based learning and authentic experiences driven by their interests, students build skills in key areas: productivity, accountability, complex communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, flexibility and adaptability.

Take Away – When considering your course design and/or offerings, think about how you can allow your students’ to bring their own interests into their learning (check out what APEX offers).

Iowa BIG

Head east a couple of hours to Cedar Rapids and you’ll hear the Iowa BIG Co-Creator & Associate Superintendent Trace Pickering evangelizing for personalized learning: “Let your passions drive you to do something great and be open to building authentic relationships and teams.” I was lucky enough to visit this learning space a couple of years ago, which shares a space in a co-op building with many local start-ups. Their model is competency-based with deep roots in personalizing the educational experience to honor student interests and goals. It started (by accident!) when the founders started evaluating the current K-12 model and wanted to #makeitbetter.

Take Away – Have a conversation. How does your classroom/school score with shifting from our traditional model? (This is a great starting conversation piece with your leaders).

Iowa BIG North

A few schools a couple hours north wanted to adapt a version of BIG for their rural area, and did just that with Iowa BIG North. Four districts came together and embraced the same pedagogical foundation of personalized, passion-based learning, but did so while facing a different set of challenges and opportunities given the location and community sizes. They are doing this beautifully with their program, helping businesses in their communities finding solutions to real problems. The students and businesses work on authentic problems together.  Students from participating schools work as one across district lines on their initiatives.

Take Away – What challenges are your community facing, and how can your young learners help solve them? Check out the current initiatives going on in Iowa BIG North’s small communities for inspiration.

Van Meter Schools

And last, head back to the west-central part of the state to Van Meter Schools (student enrollment 500), which was one of the first districts in the state to implement a 1:1 student computing initiative, and also one of the first districts in Iowa to be named an Apple Distinguished School. That being said, their more recent work on project-based learning, standards-based grading, competency-based education and flexible schedules where students have voice and choice in how much time they need to spend on their learning is very inspiring. Not to mention, the voice/choice has bled into the teacher professional learning. Rarely do the teachers learn in whole-school scenarios…instead, they identify the skills they have and need, then personalize their learning for professional growth. Simple yet genius!  

Take Away – After you and your colleagues feel somewhat comfortable with the idea of shifting towards more personalized learning – do it. Dive in head first and turn your classrooms into a personalized learning environment!

Any time you’re using technology in the classroom, whether to personalize learning or otherwise, you must keep the tech relevant to the goal. I also encourage you to consider creation tools versus productivity tools (some my favorites are WeVideo, Soundtrap, ExplainEverything, Minecraft, Code.org and Seesaw – stay tuned for a follow-up piece on these!). Most of all, have fun and get creative, and it will be contagious for your learners!

For more, see:

Meredith Allen is an education consultant and Educational Ambassador for Soundtrap.


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