SPECIAL REPORT: The Learning Curve - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

SPECIAL REPORT: The Learning Curve

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Schools in central Wisconsin are working to keep students at the head of the class.

International tests show U.S. schools are falling behind other countries in the rankings.

Some central Wisconsin schools are shutting the book on old-school learning.

"I can take the phone out of my pocket and Google whatever I want," said Mike Schwei, Wausau Public Schools Curriculum Director.

More schools are shifting away from teaching bullet points of facts.

Now, they're focusing on teaching how to apply knowledge.

"It's more about the skills students have and their ability to learn deep concepts," said Schwei.

At the Montessori School of Wausau, it all starts at the foundation.

Four-year-old Tessa is hard at work.

After writing all the names of her classmates, she creates a booklet and then it's onto the next activity, simply because she wanted to.

These self-directed activities are all part of the Montessori methodology.

Unlike a traditional preschool, instructor Susan Missett says learning is up to the young students.

"Our goal first of all with the children is to make them independent thinkers, they're not always waiting for an adult to tell them what to do next that they learn to take those next steps by themselves," said Missett.

This learning style encourages independence that goes from learning how to button to creating an app.

Marathon Venture Academy eighth grader Mitch Kurtz is writing code for a fitness app.

His charter school requires students to complete an independent project that incorporates what they're learning in class.

The focus this trimester is the human body.

"I'm going to add where you can put in what you've been eating," Kurtz said.

Principal Jeff Reiche says these projects encourage students to take learning outside the classroom.

"We're not going to use textbooks to assign chapters for kids to read and give them the questions at the end," said Reiche. "That's really old school. It's not what these kids are about anymore. It's not how they're cut and wired."

But mixing in applied learning isn't always an easy transition.

Public schools in Wisconsin and 45 other states are adopting Common Core.

The system created set standards for math, english and literacy for each grade.

"Without a doubt this is very hard for the kids to adapt to and it has been a challenge and it will continue to be a challenge for the next couple years," said Mark Beversdorf, a 7th grade math teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau.

Math problems now introduce some concepts earlier in school, so students will be more comfortable in higher level classes.

Teachers say they're noticing a difference.

"We certainly have higher level critical thinking, problem solving," said Peggy Grieser, a 4th grade teacher at Hawthorn Hills Elementary School in Wausau. "They might work with a group and that encourages them to think beyond the quick answer."

But how do we know if all these classroom changes are paying off?

This spring, the Wisconsin state assessment is switching to a Common Core-based test.

For the first time, all state-funded schools will see results based on the new standards.

"It's possible the scores may drop," said Schwei. "It will take us a few years to get our legs under us to be able to move our instruction to match the assessment in a real critical way."

Psychologist April Schaack at the Achieve Center in Wausau researches child development.

She says no matter the school's style learning changes from child to child.

"There's different kids who learn best through auditory means, by hearing the information, whereas other kids learn best through hands on information visually being able to see the information as well," said Schaack. "So as much as we incorporate all the different aspects and all the different ways that kids can learn that information."

She says picking up on a child's learning cues makes the difference.

"The big takeaway is that all kids learn differently, so being aware of what our sons and daughters' weaknesses are can be really helpful as we move forward," said Schaack.

To help move forward in a society that's pushing students to break the molds of the past and adapt to our changing future.

For more information on the Common Core, click here.

To learn more about the Montessori methodology, click here.

For more on Marathon Venture Academy, click here.

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