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A Smorgasbord of Learning

• Mike Thomas

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Maddison likes her school – a lot.

“We can sit wherever we want,’’ she says. “We can do whatever we want.’’

Obviously this can’t be true because Maddison is in first grade at Lost Lake Elementary in Lake County, Fl. And as we all know, children at that age must be subject to strict control and adult supervision at all times.

Sit. Listen. Learn. Answer when called on.

Anything more than that, raise your hand.

That is life as first graders have known it throughout time. But this is something totally different.


“We don’t have to ask the teacher,’’ says Brandon. “If something is on the check list, we don’t have to ask. We can just go do it.’’

I am surrounded by kids, just doing it. Some are hunched over work books, collaborating on solutions. Some are working solo. Some are on tablets. Some are with the teacher.

While students sometimes seem to be going in different directions, they all have a clearly established and mutual goal, which is mastering the Florida Standards. The check list is the pathway. But they have more freedom in how to follow it, giving them a sense of empowerment and increasing motivation.

“We like this because you get to learn at your own pace,’’ says Nadia.

I’ve read plenty of policy briefs about personalized learning. But this is the first time I’ve seen it in action. And what I’m seeing is impressive.

The kids get up. Move around. Talk to each other. Work together.

They are free range students.

There are no rows of desks or neatly dispersed series of small tables with four chairs at each.

The centerpiece isn’t the teacher’s desk, but a couch. It currently is occupied by two kids and several stuffed superheroes including Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Iron Man. The teacher picked superheroes for her class theme and did the motif, down to capes for the kids. As they achieve an academic milestone, they get a sticker for their capes — like the Ohio State system of putting Buckeye stickers on football helmets in recognition of great play.Cap3

Snarling overhead is the Hulk. He has cotton for brains.

In another classroom, third-grader Charlotte obviously does not.

“I like it better,’’ she says of her class. “You don’t have to wait for everyone to finish. You can go on by yourself.”

A nearby boy chimes in: “Sometimes she finishes the whole week in one day!”

Once that happened,’’ says an embarrassed Charlotte.

This is not an experimental school. These are not a select group of genius kids. The Lake County School District is making a full transition to personalized learning by 2022. Lost Lake was chosen as one of the trailblazers.

“I want a do-over,’’ says district spokeswoman Sherri Owens. “I want to learn this way.’’

The kids are happy and they are learning. The teachers are happy even though the model requires more up-front work as they must plan out activities and organize resources to accommodate the students’ interests. For teachers who crave creativity, this is a great place to be.

Some parents initially are confused by the learning model. One said, “I heard the teachers aren’t teaching.’’ But there is quick buy-in once they grasp the concept.

“Some people think personalized learning is putting a student in front of a computer,’’ says Principal Susan Pegram. “And that’s far from the truth.’’

Yes, they do use computers and other digital devices. After all, learning how to navigate on a computer and find answers on your own is necessary in the world they will inherit. But there still is group instruction. There is small-group teaching. There are pencil and paper worksheets. Students help each other out. It is a smorgasbord of learning.

“Whether below grade level, on grade level or above grade level, it is focused on where students are and allowing them to excel,’’ says Pegram.line

Read other posts in the Secrets of Great Schools series:

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at