Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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Tech helps a school in S.D. eliminate grade levels

In a tweet that seems more like an advertisement for software than learning, Freedom Elementary in Harrisburg, South Dakota, sent a message yesterday about history: “You can’t learn about westward expansion w/o playing the ORIGINAL Oregon Trail! Brings me back to the early 90’s…”


2 years ago, 4th graders competed against a school from Kansas in a “Mystery Hangout” game.

These are two things computers help us do in our schools that ordinary teachers, unequipped with technology, simply can’t do:

  • bring students into a world that is far away or in a different historical context
  • eliminate geographical boundaries to encourage collaboration

The first could probably be done with a book as well, but that’s beside the point. With computers and the Internet, kids can get some of our most up-to-date research delivered in full color, with nice animations, and with quizzes that not only check their learning periodically but also deliver results immediately to teachers, their parents, and, importantly, to themselves, so interventions—or, more likely, student action—can ensue.

Computer programs are helping the school replace the whole idea of grade levels. This fall, the school will make a bold move away from “teacher-centered” classrooms to groups that are more “learner-centered,” according to Travis Lape, a technology integration specialist at Harrisburg South Middle School, who worked with Harrisburg Freedom Elementary on this change. The studios will be associated with levels in the curriculum for each subject but won’t use any numbering or grade-level system.

The tech tools chosen will help to engage students by keeping them in instructional groups called “studios” according to their progress in specific academic subjects, not according to their year in school. For example, if a student is progressing at the third-grade level in math and the fifth-grade level in science, he would work with teachers who are devoted to those different studios in those subjects.

When students arrive at school next fall, they’ll get the daily announcements, establish learning goals for the day, and then head into Reading and Writing, where they’ll select a studio activity. It’ll be their choice each day.

Of course, there’s a set of “must do’s” to complete, but once students are ready to show mastery, they’ll be able to show it however they choose. They’ll also share with teachers information about what they learned that day, and that will help teachers prepare materials for each student on the next day.

Student-driven learning like this has happened often in schools, of course, even before the tech-ridden classrooms found at Harrisburg Elementary dotted the landscape. With technology like this, though, some students will be more proficient at driving their own agenda, at asking questions, at organizing inquiry, at evaluating their products and progress, than others. This is where technology will help teachers, and the software can also help them keep parents informed about their children’s progress in school. Mr Lape promised to keep the world posted on how effective the program was.

Freedom Elementary School is one of five elementary schools in the Harrisburg School District in South Dakota, which also includes two middle schools and a high school. The total district enrollment is a little under 4,000 students, 93 percent of whom are white and fewer than 20 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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