A short conversation with Mona Baker and Jim Hodgkin of the Western Maine Education Collaborative
Are you glad you undertook the project of implementing a learner-centered education system?
We are thrilled that we went in this direction. As a region, it has given us common ground and common language. It also has allowed districts to talk to their communities about not doing this alone.
In which areas have you excelled?
We learned from previous initiatives that it is critical that we balance the needs of the regional organization with the needs of the individual districts. This year, our model supported four regional events and four days of targeted work provided to each district by a systems change partner. We have excelled in creating the culture of change that is needed.
In which areas are you still facing challenges?
We are facing challenges from community members who are afraid of change and only know the system in which they were educated. We will continue to face challenges from business people and staff who were successful in the old system model, and from those who believe in the old "bell curve" model of teaching, which means winners and losers.
We also need to help people understand that this is not something that can be done all at once. It requires a long-term commitment—five-plus years—to a shared vision, and must be done in phases to allow for local flexibility.
What stories of change have you seen/heard in member districts?
Stories are everywhere. Conversations are happening at the grocery store, in line at the bank, etc. As a way to support these conversations, we have established a "Personalized Learning for ME" Facebook page, which is managed and used by teachers in the region.
What are Western Maine Customized Learning’s next steps?
We will continue to go slow, learn from the experiences of others, and provide professional development and support around classroom/systems change.
Specifically we have several events happening in the next couple months: A regional "Sharing Circus" in May; two regional days focused on curriculum models and instructional frameworks in June; and three days on Math in a Customized Learning World in August. We will also continue district-level systems change support through next year.
What sort of difficulties did you face having so many districts, schools and people working together? Did you often encounter differences of opinion/practice?
In the beginning, there were lots of questions as people tried to understand the vision. Because WMEC districts can opt in or out of any initiative, they are participating because they want to and at the level that works for them. At this point, we are past the need to "justify" the position of WMCL. Systems are either moving in this direction or choosing not to. Additionally, the systems change support helps districts make meaning of this work in ways that fit their needs and culture.
What can other people who are trying this sort of system learn from your experience?
Other people can learn whatever they want. Not to sound flip, but the sharing that is happening among schools is unprecedented. Those involved are very willing to share their stories. Not in a "this is how" manner, but in a "this is what we did and you can take from it whatever you want” sort of way.
It is important to balance the needs of the region and the individual districts; work slow and steady knowing that you are committing to the long haul; have leadership at the regional, district and school levels; and have school boards and superintendents publicly endorse this work while nurturing the early "implementers."