Goodbye grade levels, and hello personalized learning! Northern Cass's new plan to help students

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CASS COUNTY, N.D. (Valley News Live) - “I’ve always been the go-getter student. I’ve always gotten all As, 4.0 GPA. Last year, I had a 4.167 or something because I had an AP class,” says Jenna Maker, a junior at Northern Cass. “I was bored a lot in school. And I loved coming because I love learning and all, but I just learned it so much faster that I would get stopped and have to wait.”

Jenna’s story is one that has been shared by students year after year - and her teachers knew it. But for some of her peers, it was the exact opposite. And either way – the students’ needs weren’t being met.

“If students are in a class where the challenges are much higher than their skills, then they feel anxiety, they feel overwhelmed and learning isn’t optimal. But the other way around – if they’re in a class where the challenges are much lower than their skills, then they feel boredom, like – ‘Why am I here?’ And the learning isn’t optimal there either,” says Professor Joel Hektner, Head of NDSU’s Human Development and Family Science Department.

And so Northern Cass decided it was time to change.

It’s called personalized learning, and this is the first year the school district is rolling it out for every single student.

“We need to change. We’ve been in this same system for over 100 years. And our outside world is forever changing – technology is changing. But school has not changed,” says Jessica Stoen, Northern Cass’s Personalized Learning Coach.

“We’re meeting kids where they’re at. In a traditional system, you typically would have all of your seven and eight-year-olds come to your room, because that’s the age they’re at. And you teach them those state standards. Although some of them may already know them or not need them. And others might not be ready for them,” Stoen continues. “Now, it’s – well, if they can prove they’re proficiency, why are we going to make them sit in the class that they can already prove to us that they know that content or understand that?”

“It challenges our kids who need to be challenged. And it’s meeting our kids who may need a little extra, more time, extra support, it’s giving them that time. It’s not just pushing them on because of their age and time constraints,” she says.

“It’s not a one-size fits all aspect to school,” adds Tom Klapp, Northern Cass’s Director of Personalized Learning. “This isn’t a program – it’s a fundamental structural shift. So we’re not buying a bunch of stuff to make it happen, it’s just that we redesigned what we’re already doing to best fit the needs of our learners.”

Students say it’s a refreshing change that supports them and challenges them at the same time – and development experts say that puts them in the best position for learning.

“You’re not looking at it like, 'I’m this old, this is my grade' anymore. It’s, 'This is how I can take and view school and this is how I can apply my learning,'” says Jack Metzger, a Northern Cass sophomore. “I think it makes more sense. It’s like – personalized learning right in front of you. You see you’re going at your own pace.”

“I no longer feel like if you’re ever struggling on a topic, you no longer feel like you’re the only one behind. You know that it’s ok and you’re able to talk to an educator, you’re able to get help on that,” says Northern Cass junior Hannah Williams.

“One of the more positive things is that it may be stress-inducing from taking harder classes and challenging yourself, but it’s also less stressful because I have not worried about my grades all year. I know I’m passing my classes because I’m confident in what I’m learning,” Jenna says.

“Learning is best when skills are very closely matched with challenges. So you’re operating at the edge of your skill level,” says Hektner.

Hektner also says giving students more ownership over their learning is also beneficial.

“Intrinsic motivation is key to learning. And by that it means that you’re learning because you love to learn, you’re doing it for the sake of learning itself and not for some external reward. And we know that intrinsic motivation is higher when people have autonomy. So that means when we give people a choice in what they’re learning. And it seems like autonomy is a lot higher in this structure,” he says.

The system does have some potential drawbacks though. Hektner says it’s such a new concept that there isn’t a lot of long-term research on its effectiveness. He says the system could also hurt students’ self-esteem.

“One issue might be social comparison. And that’s the process where children evaluate themselves by looking around and comparing themselves to other children their same age. So if a child is working through the curriculum at a much slower pace than the child’s peers, that could be somewhat detrimental to their self-esteem,” Hektner says.

But Northern Cass staff and students say that’s not something they’ve witnessed yet.

“I haven’t seen a struggle with it – or kids ashamed that they’re with a different group. And I think that’s due to our culture, and due to the relationships that we value at our school,” Stoen says.

“If you’re at level two, but you need to level one work – that’s still acceptable, as long as they’re still continuing to have that motivation to work every day,” Jack says.

Hektner also says students might hold themselves back academically to stay close to their friend groups.

“It could be possible that friendship groups settle into a pattern as a group and just kind of all follow the same pace – even though the individuals in that group may be able, as individuals, to go deeper or faster. They may just settle in to keep themselves with the group,” he says.

But for Jenna – that hasn’t been an issue. She’s settling into the new system, and says it has allowed her to reach higher than ever before.

“There’s no stopping. I figured that at the end of this school year, I will have at least five college classes done. And I’m only a junior. And so to me, that’s insane. And there’s no stopping – I just keep going,” Jenna says. “At this moment this year, all of our dual credits and college classes are paid for by a grant. So I’m taking as many as I can because it’s free for me right now. And then it’s out of the way for college and that’s less that I have to pay for.”

Northern Cass is the first school district in North Dakota to fully implement the personalized learning approach, but West Fargo and Oakes school districts are also piloting the program on a smaller scale as well.