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'Aha moment' leads to new wave of instruction

The first and second waves of a newly adopted teaching technique that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is implementing is underway, with the third “wave,” as the teacher training is called, to begin soon.

John Pothast is the director of elementary and secondary education with the district who has ushered in the Personalized Learning program.

“A couple years ago that ‘aha moment’ was the realization it’s not a thing. It’s a verb. It’s how are we conducting business," he said.

"We have the tools at hand, we have technology, we have great teachers, we have the concept of differentiated instruction. What we really needed was that mind-set shift. That shifting our thinking on how we are reliving the education rather than what product we are delivering.”

Pothast gave the example of teaching fractions to a classroom of 25 students, all at different levels of competence, to show how teachers will be able to group the kids for personalized learning.

“In that class of 25, I have maybe five kids who already know that, because they learned it the year before that or the year before that. And you have the higher end kids who know how to divide fractions. And you’ve got a group on the other end who really struggle with that. And then you’ve got a middle group that maybe with some basic simple instruction they’re going to pick up on it pretty quickly," he said. "So part of the idea of Personalized Learning is, those kids who already know this, do they have to sit through a 30, 40, 50, 70-minute lesson on how to divide fractions when they already know to divide fractions?”

It’s kind of like having a one-room school house in each classroom, where different groups are taught differently, based on their learning needs and, as school district liaison Pegge Erkeneff points out, their learning style as well.

“I’m a really visual learner, and somebody else may need that. The handwriting and everything, or be a learner who learned with audio," she said.

"So we all learn differently, so it’s not just the rate we’re learning, but it’s how we learn and how we engage."

The first schools with teachers receiving the training were the district’s large elementary schools as well as Skyview Middle School and Seward High School. To make the program work, Pothast said the district needed to partner with a company called Education Elements to provide training and training materials.

“When we talk about scaling this to 600 classrooms, 43 schools, 8,000 students in our district all deserve to have this, that’s a pretty large lift. And that’s where this company Education Elements comes in, and in fact, that’s what they do. They deliver the professional development," Pothast said. "They’ve worked with hundreds of school districts across the nation on moving this concept, at scale, throughout an entire school district, not just one or two teachers who want to take it on as kind of their personal ‘I kinda like this one and I’m going to do it.’ And that decision was made a year ago.”

Pothast called the program a “heavy investment” in teacher development.

He said complete roll out of the Personalized Learning style will take three years to reach every classroom in the district.

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