Flexible Learning Classrooms

At the ties conference, there was a presentation given by several math teachers from the Bloomington Public schools regarding flexible learning classrooms. The idea is that all students in the district are enrolled in the same course but working at their own pace. Here is a link the the presentation that the teachers gave at the conference. Based on everything that I’ve heard and from what I’ve seen this model may be where education is headed.

This was very much the goal of the WALT program, as originally envisioned. I’m a big fan of this approach.

In practice, it’s much tougher to implement than it sounds. It connects to teaching practice, student motivation, scheduling, grades, curriculum, architecture, technology, etc., so a lot of things need to change for it to work.

Thanks for sharing Rob. I am going to try to implement a similar model next semester for a Biology class. I will let you know how that goes. It helps that we have so few students in our classes (~8) and computers for every student–that way I can keep up to date on their progress easier. The biggest problem we face at our school is absences and I feel that this model would help students who ‘feel behind’ since it is easier to find and make up work compared to the standard teaching model.

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I agree that flexible learning is much tougher to implement than most models of learning. I taught at WALT last year and I saw that this model was not really working there. I think most of the struggles stem from motivation and student abilities. Many of the students that I worked with at WALT lacked the basic skills necessary to tackle curriculum on their own and as a result would just get defeated and quit before really trying. (I found Angela Lee’s TED talk on grit to be very inspiring on how I approached the students at WALT.)

Anyways, that said many of my classes at Gateway to College seem to gravitate towards this model simply because the students are more motivated and the speed at which they understand concepts seems to vary greatly. I am trying flexible learning in my afternoon biology class this quarter and it seems to be working very well. Several students are way ahead, most are on pace, and this gives me the ability to work with any students that are struggling or falling behind. We still do activities and labs together but no one is held back or pushed ahead of where they should be individually in the curriculum.

I wonder if this approach might be helpful in programs such as Explore middle - particularly if implemented across districts. I know the thought of several districts using the same curriculum and practice might sound like crazy talk, but if 287 acted as a hub of sorts, it would certainly make continuity in learning across settings more seamless.

I think there is something important here that we need to address district-wide. Flexible learning is not about having students “tackle curriculum on their own”. Not even our online program would suggest that students do this. The key to all types of class layouts is support. How are we supporting students. Independent study should be a very small component to a flexible class environment.

We can focus on:

  • student conferences/check-ins;
  • group work;
  • direct instruction
  • and a small component of individual work time.

No matter what type of learning we are going for, teachers need to be the facilitators of content and help coach, support, encourage students through it. Whenever it starts feeling like a digital packet, we’re doing it wrong.

Jon makes important points on this. I have often struggled with doing more innovative kinds of things in the classroom, because they do tend to call for significant student buy-in to work. Then sometimes you get buy-in and get something off the ground, but when the students realize what they signed on for, the motivation doesn’t sustain long enough for the real learning to happen. These are the struggles of teaching. Many students, especially low achieving ones, are habituated to rote work and at the high school level it is an up-hill battle to break that mold.

All that being said, there are great things that I’ve seen come of more student-centered, flexible style learning too, in the relatively small doses we’ve been able to really do it. Ultimately it takes some courage to shed the fear of “some students will fail” if you try something more risky. Everybody is already failing if all students are doing is completing enough worksheets and assignmens to make a 60% or better.


This has been a significant barrier to EdReady adoption. Students know how to play the game. If you can earn your credit by not being to disruptive in class and make attempts at daily work that are weighted more than the quizzes and tests that you fail, then why would you opt-into a program where you are responsible for actually mastering the skills? It’s hard work, especially in Math. Students experience failure in that subject maybe more than in any other. They’re starting from a place of frustration. If all I wanted was a diploma and to move on, I know which option I’d choose.

We can’t offer credit without demonstration of mastery/understanding. But for that to happen, we have to have a massive shift in what students are expecting to get out of coming to school. There is a huge culture shift needed in order to make it a reality.

That’s why I think that the whole Start with Why/Early Adopter-Late Majority messaging is so important. We need to convince people to buy in before we roll it out.

Couple of thoughts…

Sometimes, the “I don’t like to learn on computers” is really just this same “I don’t want to actually have to think” sentiment.

I think the stories of kids who are using things like EdReady to have strong success can be an inspiration to other kids. If kids can see another student reaching beyond their circumstances that is so many times stronger than a teacher telling them the same thing.

A big part of this, however, is that as educators we’re constantly asking ourselves whether we’re teaching stuff embedded in relevance and connected to the kids’ world. Opportunities for relevance are all around us, but we have to seek them out. I don’t blame kids for being disinterested in learning if the learning is disinterested in them.

Sounds like yet another argument in favor of using Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies. I’ll also keep putting in a plug for comic books/graphic novels. The industry is so far beyond just the typical hero genre that it’s time to give them a look if you haven’t lately. Have students check out books like March or Yummy. Powerful stories with lots of opportunities for students to connect and reflect.

Agreed! And PBL, and authentic service learning, etc.

Do you think this circles back to the effort question though? I know that one of the things that comes up with PBL is that on occasion students who are struggling in school aren’t interested in coming up with a project to do. They realize that being interested in a topic and learning about it takes quite a bit of energy and initiative.

I’m not so sure. I would say that I have a very strong work ethic and put in incredible amounts of effort. If I think back on my own educational experience, I put in almost no effort because I didn’t care. If teachers mentioned something that piqued my interest I put in a lot of effort to go look up more information on my own and find out about it. We have students that put enormous amounts of effort into social media and engaging online. We have to hook them to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their level of effort. Just saying it’s for a credit isn’t the thing.

For those students who aren’t able to verbalize their interests enough to commit to a project (I’m sure some specific kids pop up in people’s minds as you read that), we have to be ready to give a few targeted suggestions to them based on what we know about those students.

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