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In Experimental Approach, Some Maine Schoolkids Get to Learn at Their Own Speed

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Teacher Susan Muzzy teaches a small group of students inside her mathematics classroom at Cornville Regional High School.

Across Maine over the past five years, a group of schools has tried out an experimental approach to learning. They call it “self pace,” and the idea is that if students decide how quickly or slowly they learn, they can stay more engaged and become more independent.

“Self-paced learning” has helped some students, but it’s left others lagging behind.

Inside the Cornville Regional Charter School, math class is somewhat unconventional.

“So today, when you’re not in small group with me, you’re going to be working on analyzing errors in other people’s math,” teacher Susan Muzzy tells the students.

For about 15 minutes, Muzzy stands in front of a mixed-age class and gives a short lesson. But when she’s done, class suddenly changes. Muzzy turns to the students and tells them that for the rest of class, learning is going to be individualized.

They get to decide what they’re going to work on, and where they’re doing to do it.

“OK. So I’m going to get stuff ready at the board. Put music on,” she tells them. “And you can get started getting out what you need to do for math today.”

For the next 50 minutes, the roughly 25 students in Muzzy’s class scatter across the room. Muzzy then calls up small groups for short learning “appointments” every 15 minutes or so.

Some kids work on integers, some on adding and subtracting. When they’re not with Muzzy, they work alone or in pairs on different worksheets and computer programs.

It’s all based on the individual student, and what he or she needs at that time.

“So I equate it to the medical field,” says Cornville Regional Charter School Executive Director Travis Works. “When you got a doctor, the doctor will look at your symptoms. They will diagnose, prescribe a course of treatment and work accordingly. And that’s what we want educators to do.”

This two-year-old system, he says, has been a work in progress. But this model, with kids freely moving from lesson to lesson and class to class, reduces any barriers to learning.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Teacher Susan Muzzy teaches a small group of students inside her mathematics classroom at Cornville Regional High School.

“This gives us a lot more flexibility.” Works says. “It doesn’t create those barriers or structures that get into this group versus that group, high versus low. It becomes very fluid, but very manageable.”

Cornville is at the forefront of self-paced learning instruction, but it’s been discussed for some time in Maine. About five years ago, a group of schools came together to form the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, to find ways to comply with the state’s new proficiency-based diploma guidelines.

Cohort Executive Director Linda Laughlin says the key is to keep students engaged.

“The theory is, if we build systems of engaging learning experiences, where learners look forward to coming to school to learn, then they’re going to move forward. And they won’t lag behind,” she says.

In schools like Auburn and Messalonskee, there are systems of team teachers, who group and regroup students every month or so based on how far they’ve grown academically. But this experimentation has often led to some confusion.

“At one point in our process, we called it student pace,” says Mark Hatch, principal at Messalonskee Middle School, which adopted the approach about five years ago. “It created a lot of confusion.

“Many students liked to define that pace as, as slow as they wanted to go,” he says. “Parents were really confused on how or what should be done. What could be done.”

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Students John Shea, Adam Savage and Kaden Roman study inside Susan Muzzy's mathematics classroom at Cornville Regional High School.

This has been a common issue across the schools that have adapted student-paced learning. A report three years ago from the University of Southern Maine highlights those problems.

Parents talk about having to create deadlines for their children at home because there were none at school. And students said without firm time limits, they fell behind.

Even the Cornville Regional Charter School has had to change its curriculum only a few weeks into the current school year. At the beginning of the year, the school let students move back and forth between English and math classrooms in the morning. They could choose how much time they wanted to spend in each one.

Some students, like 9-year-old Sydalia Savage and 7-year-old Natalie Cooke, say it all felt confusing and overwhelming.

“For me, it was kind of intimidating. I forgot half of what I was supposed to do,” Cooke says.

“Like, where am I going?” Savage says. “What am I doing? It’s like, ugh.”

“It took a lot of energy,” Cooke says. “My classrooms had different spots, and I was going back and forth across the halls. It was wicked tiring.”

Cornville has since changed its approach. But the solution, these schools say, is communication. Hatch points to the computer program eMPower, which was created for students and parents to monitor learning goals.

“So we had to work through with kids and parents to say, ‘No, no. There are still deadlines. There is still homework.’” he says. “There should be work being done outside of school. And how do we let you know what that is?”

Cornville, meanwhile, has created a customized newsletter for every kid. The school also sets aside an hour every Friday for kids to meet with teachers who serve as their “learning coaches.”

But the biggest change, Works says, has been in helping students learn responsibility and resilience themselves. For 13-year-old John Shea, the new learning style has already taught him to manage his time.

“You need to know when you have done enough on one thing and you should go to another, so you don’t spend your day on a paper when you have multiple things you could be doing,” he says.

Based on limited data, the approach hasn’t changed test scores drastically yet. In Messalonskee, scores dipped a few years ago, but are now above the state average. Last year in Cornville, about 60 percent of students reached their expected growth on standardized tests, which is below their rates from the year before.

But these schools say implementation takes time, and that if test scores go up, they expect “self pacing” to spread across other districts in Maine.