Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wildlands School Personalizes Learning…

Guest Post by Liz Seubert and Paul Tweed, Directors of Wildlands School, Wisconsin

It’s time people stop underestimating the power and intelligence of students. It’s time personalized learning is about the person, the learner, and all the possibilities within.

Most teachers would agree that they go into the profession wholeheartedly believing that students come first and every student deserves personalized learning. Yes! We agree. However, few seem to have an opportunity to put that philosophy into true action for one reason or another. Content, curriculum, state averages, standardized tests, school report cards, or whatever else government officials feel is important should not be driving education. But it seems to be.

Wildlands School (introductory video) has taken a stance and said, learners are at the top of the list.

Let’s be clear. We strongly believe personalized learning is not about checking off curriculum, content, standards, or anything that comes from a template. It is about a learning journey for young people, and getting out of their way. For the last 10 years, Wildlands has been continually redefining and elevating the implementation of personalized learning.

The outdated industrial format of school, which is still reflective of the time when it was invented in the late 1800’s, presents infinite challenges to truly make learning personalized. That’s why we blew up the old mold, restructured the school day, redefined relationships, and focused on the students. As told in our story, An Improbable School, the creation of a teacher-powered, student-centered, project-based learning environment with 60 students in grades seven through twelve was born.

Beginning in 2005, we, regular teachers from Wisconsin, were given the opportunity to develop a dream school from scratch. We were given the responsibility and freedom to create a school model that centers upon teacher autonomy. From the beginning our teacher team has been 100% in the driver’s seat regarding budget, administrative services, staffing selection, curriculum, school schedule, and support services. This has created a culture of school responsibility and autonomy necessary to completely shift the design of our school to students first and build a robust personalized learning system linked with projects-based learning.


Every ounce of our new learning model, and the purposeful differences from mainstream education we’ve embraced, has been by design. We know not all schools should be the same, and we also know students and parents need options for schools. At the beginning we wanted to create a learning environment that fit the needs, learning styles, and personalities of the students that attend. The top priority has always been to maintain a place where students want to come every day, because it is their school, and they should enjoy learning.


When it comes to personalized learning, Wildlands emphasizes personal relationships with individual students. We have learned it is more important to provide opportunities for students to be heard, be involved, be connected, find relevance, and play an important role in the school, than to tell them what we (or some far away committee) think they need to know. Honest conversations build relationships. Quality relationships build supportive and open learning environments where learners feel valued, connected, and are willing to take part.

Through conversations with students, we can look at personalized learning and projects in a multitude of ways. First, shifting the roles from teacher and student, to learner and guide, with the learner always being first. Initially this maybe uncomfortable for both, but over time the progression of the learner owning their journey will feel natural and authentic.

Our personalized learning journey with students has resulted in a wide variety of projects; some simple, some complex, but each of them owned by the students involved in them. (Just a few examples)

Being asked by local government to help preserve local conservation efforts by creating a documentary film

Learning information that is typically out of reach through a Weather Balloon project.

Learning about the local environment through projects that track walleye, mammals, and wolves.

Working with local professionals to create trail maps of a nature reserve.

Creating a healthier working environment for everyone by growing the Zahrada Project.

Teaming up with a local lake association and resource agency to Map a Lake.

Sometimes projects are based more on content areas, sometimes projects take students outside of our walls, and sometimes projects have a deep connection to a community need. Regardless of the project, our goal is for every student to have learning experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and authentic. It’s more than just a project. When given the opportunity to make their own choices, build on their own talents, and own their learning students understand that it’s not an assignment, it’s a contribution.

We do not rely on standardized tests, quizzes, or exit exams for information regarding our students understanding of content. Instead, we allow students to demonstrate their skills, knowledge, and abilities through real-world situations, involve them in meaningful projects, and present to authentic audiences. The results have been nothing less than phenomenal.

We have learned in the last 10 years that personalized learning cannot be canned and planned, based on rubrics or worksheets, it is between people: the learners and their guides and advisors. Our book, An Improbable School details our rewarding journey.

Liz Seubert is an experienced project-based learning advisor and member of a teacher-powered school staff and is an innovator in the field of student-centered learning. As one of three founding staff member of Wildlands School she has led many expeditionary learning trips with students, developed community-based learning and service connections, and been a project-based teacher since 2005. She has consulted with Project Foundry to develop better PBL management strategies and tools, presented at numerous conferences, and developed and taught summer institutes for teachers in the areas of PBL, student-centered learning, and school culture. Liz also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.

Paul Tweed is a visionary in areas of inquiry based science, active learning, project-based learning, and community-based science research for over 30 years. He founded Wildlands School in 2005 with two colleagues and was active in the science teaching community for 20 years before Wildlands. He has presented at conferences all over the country, taught at the secondary and university level, has been on textbook authoring teams, and consulted with school districts and state education departments in the areas of science, constructive and inquiry learning, project-based learning, and school culture change. Paul has been recognized for his efforts with awards such as Wisconsin Biology Teacher of the Year, The Wisconsin Presidential Award in Science, Genentech Access Excellence Fellowship, GTE GIFT Program Fellow, Kohl Teacher Fellowship, and Wisconsin Charter School Teacher of the Year, and more. He has worked closely with Project Foundry to develop more effective means for managing and assessing project-based learning. A founding and current board member of ISN he also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.,,