How Personalized Learning Fosters Trial, Error and a Healthy Dose of Risk

By: Brandy Holton

“Class, today we’re going to learn about the scientific method – please open your notebook and begin silently taking notes.”

Does this take you back to middle school? Remember your teacher standing in front of the room guiding your class through a rigid lecture on the principles of scientific experimentation?

I do. But now that I’m a middle school science teacher, I do everything I can to upend this traditional framework. My students are able to go at their own pace and often build a project according to their academic level. Likewise, my experience has taught me some valuable lessons about how to create innovative, student-led projects that give kids space and independence to own their learning.

For example, in a recent project on Chemical Reactions, rather than sit through a lecture on how chemicals mix with one another, I gave my students the flexibility to discover for themselves what materials induce chemical reactions and why. I encouraged students to make their own choices in everything from selecting which chemicals to mix (from a pre-set array I made available), to how to set up their experiment to test for specific variables.

Even though everyone – including me – was eager to jump into mixing chemicals, I began the project by posing a simple question: how do chemicals react?

I broke my students into small groups and encouraged them to think creatively about how to establish a framework for testing chemical reactions. Heated debates broke out across the classroom as students began to build their experiments by asking questions within their peer groups, challenging each other.

As I walked from group to group, I gently nudged students to consider questions about how they could most accurately collect data, what variables were they testing for, and what results they expected to see. Soon, and almost without even knowing it, my students weren’t just learning about the scientific method – they were soaking up its principles from conversations, debates, and questions about how to best structure their group’s experiments.

The results were incredible, and student engagement was off the charts. Every single one of my students and groups did high-level work. They created data tables independently, learned from peers’ successes and mistakes, and became genuinely inquisitive about the scientific method and its impact on the physical experiments. So much so, that I ended up doing an unplanned side lesson on balancing chemical equations!

In years past, I found that students were often daunted by rigid experiments and by the fear of making potentially catastrophic mistakes. With Summit Learning, an approach to personalized learning that my middle school has adopted, students’ sense of ownership of their education has blossomed. They’ve taken greater control over their coursework and they work together to complete experiments and write lab reports that reflect their own ideas, thoughts and findings. Although at first, a little bit of controlled chaos in my lab was a scary thought for students, and this teacher alike, soon we were all actively engrossed in our experiments. In a nutshell: these projects have not been basic, everyday science experiments.

This process got me thinking. Even if you teach in a school that doesn’t utilize a personal learning model, you can still infuse some of these principles into your work and create your own innovative projects and lesson plans that empower students rather than lecture them.

The subject matter you teach and the content of a particular unit or project will vary. But there are a few universal principles I’ve distilled from my work that have broad application within traditional classrooms as well as those with a personalized learning model.

  1. Classroom management is critical. When you’re doing an interactive project, especially with potentially hazardous materials like chemicals, it’s essential to be prepared and manage your classroom carefully. I planned my lessons extensively and well in advance, including where chemicals would be placed with ample time for safety preparation beforehand and cleanup afterward. Where possible, I asked my colleagues to support the lesson by stepping into my classroom to float for additional assistance.
  2. Engagement matters. As each group was presenting their experiment and findings to me, I made sure other students were immersed in their own hands-on activity. It’s not enough to say, “work on the next topic independently.” Think outside the box – look up a related game online you can print materials for and think about ways to encourage students to work in small groups on it together. Keep the classroom setting dynamic.
  3. Do your homework and strategically sequence your pacing. I began the Chemical Reactions project by modeling a sample chemical reaction for the class. Then, my students spent a significant amount of time thinking, theorizing, debating and organizing hypotheses, variables, and more. By the time kids were ready to run an experiment and write their lab reports, they were living and breathing the scientific method without being explicitly told to constantly apply its principles. And, because as a class we put in the structured time and research legwork at the outset, when the time came to do the final experiments I noticed a greater degree of student investment in, and ownership of, the end product.

As a teacher, I live for that spark – that inspiring a-ha! moment when a child fully and for the first time grasps a concept. For me, that moment occurred in a big way in our Chemical Reactions project. What innovative project will you design to achieve the same spark for your students?

Brandy Holton is a 7th grade teacher at Chicago International Charter School Irving Park (managed by Distinctive Schools), in Chicago, IL.

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1 Comment


We need more like her! Support teachers!!

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