I did not know what I was doing when I decided to change the way I taught. I did not know that somewhere out in the education world there was already a term floating around for some of the ideas I had for change, a term that would capture so many of my ideas in one. It was not until a few years of blogging about the changes I had made that someone left a comment on my blog suggesting I learn more about personalizing learning because it seemed like that is what I was talking about. That day, as I googled the term I realized that in my endeavor to create passionate classroom, I had indeed been personalizing learning for all of my students. I was seeing them all as individuals and trying to cater our multi-faceted classroom to fit all of their needs; personalization at its core.
Yet, now when I see all of the discussion of personalized learning, I do not really recognize the term anymore. Over time the term has become associated with technology-laden, self-paced learning, preferably on a device, with little adult teaching and much more student autonomy. While I recognize the inherent good in those components, those are not the powerful aspects of personalized learning and I worry what will happen to those that attempt to personalize learning if they think this is all it is. Because personalizing a child’s learning is so much more than a device, or even a student figuring things out by themselves. Instead it is about knowing your students so well that you can help them navigate their learning journey. That your students have ample opportunity to find out how they learn best and then implement this knowledge as they master the curriculum we have to cover. It means that every child has voice in what they do and that the teacher knows their students well enough to help them grow.
When I wrote my book, Empowered Schools, Empowered Students, as well as Passionate Learners, I kept thinking about the type of environment that I would have thrived in as a child and that my own children would thrive in now. I kept coming back to a few tenets that used to be a part of personalized learning but seems to have gotten lost in the powerful PR campaign of Personalized Learning in 2015. Those tenets are so simple that we often forget to plan for them or even consider them as we craft our curriculum.
The five tenets of personalized learning:
- Student Voice.
So much of what we do is about promoting the voice of our students and yet while we ask the world to listen to what our students have to say, we often forget to listen ourselves. Therefore, for any personalized learning journey to be successful, we must start to ask the tough questions. I ask my students what they dislike about school, what they dislike about the subject I teach. I ask them when they started disliking school and why. It is not just to have students feel validated in their emotions, it is so I can work with the demons they bring into our learning environment. If a child dislikes school because they feel powerless then I can combat that dislike by giving them power back. If a child dislikes school because they find it irrelevant well then that becomes my mission for change. If we do not ask our students the tough questions, and also figure out what part we play in their disengagement, then we cannot change it, we cannot personalize. So the true journey into personalized learning begins with getting to know your students really well and then acting on the information they tell you.
- Student Choice.
Choice, of course, is a must in any type of class or curriculum, and yet choice to some means chaos or that every child is doing their own thing. Choice can vary depending on the day, on the task, on the curriculum to conquer. Choice does not mean that everything needs to be a free-for-all but instead that choice is always present throughout the day. Choice starts with choice in learning environment. It is time to stop dictating where students sit in the classroom. It is time to stop dictating that all student sit while learning. Choice involves how they learn something, so for some that may mean by listening to a lecture, by working with a partner, by using technology to uncover information. Students must be exposed to many ways of learning so they can discover how to navigate all of the ways, as well as determine how they learn best. Choice also becomes in how they show mastery. I always have a laid out path for students, as well as one where they build their own. Students needs change and so their show of mastery has to change as well. Finally, there must be choice in when they show mastery. Children learn at different rates and so we must find ways within our curriculum to allow for re-application of content if a child had not mastered a standard earlier. Yes, there can be deadlines and cut-off dates, but please allow a child to circle back to a previous standard if they have grown in it.
- Student Planning.
This is one of the biggest things for me when I think of personalizing learning. We cannot plan our lessons in isolation anymore, at least, not all of the time. We can certainly be the gatekeepers of where we need to end up and we can also bring our ideas to the table, but at some point, please allow for students to plan with you. It is simple yet so powerful when we discuss our learning goals and then plan together how we will reach them. I have always been inspired by the ideas that my students have brought to the table, as well as been educated on how students learn best. You do not have to do it all of the time, but take the chance and ask students how they would like to cover something, I guarantee you will be surprised at just how much wherewithal the students will have as they work through this process with you, as well as the increased engagement and buy-in simply because they crafted part of the lesson.
- Student Reflection.
When I moved to 7th grade, I remember feeling the rush of the curriculum constantly. With only 45 minutes to teach, and oh so much to cover, there was no way we would ever have time to reflect; yet, I discovered the true power of reflection on the days where my lessons were met with disdain. It is easy to dismiss an eye roll or a groan, but when a majority of a classroom participates in such displays, it is our cue to stop and ask why. So reflection became a natural tool for us in 7th grade as we personalized the curriculum that we had to cover. I had to find out how my students felt they were doing. I had to find out what their path forward would be, and that started with a journal and a prompt. Sometimes rather than a written reflection we would speak; as a group, in partnerships or one on one with me. The prompts did not change much throughout the years; how are you doing, what have you learned, what are you working on now? And yet as the conversations grew, so did their understanding of what they needed and where they had to grow. Personalization to me means that a child knows how they learn best and that is not something I can tell them. I can offer them hints and I can point out things they may have missed, but at some point during our very busy days, reflection has to be done so that students can decide their own path.
- Student Action.
This final piece is one that gets a lot of attention it seems because this is where personalized learning becomes a thing of beauty; when our students start to change the world. When our students make, create, and have authentic purposes. Yet, student action, to me, is an inward piece as well. Yes, I want students who have a voice in the global education debate, that is why they blog, but I also want students who know how to advocate for themselves as human beings, and as learners. I want students who can successfully navigate tricky conversations and come out feeling like their voice was heard and respected. I want students who when they see a problem, do not just think about it, they do something about it. Whether that problem is a global one or a personal one. So involving students in action, setting up situations where they can see the impact they may have, guiding them through tough conversations, becomes part of personalized learning as well. I have realized that part of my job as a teacher is to help students discover the tools they already have to help them learn best, even if they are faced with an environment that allows for little personalization. I need to help them discover what they can do to make it better for themselves and for others. I need to help them see that their words have power as well as their actions.
So if you are starting on a journey of personalized learning, keep these tenets in mind. Sure, add on the technology but do not make it the focal point. That is not the point of personalizing, however, it can enhance it. Personalizing learning is the key to keeping students engaged and curious, but it also means that there is not one system to follow. Instead, spend the time to truly discover who your students are and help them find their path. Be the teacher that made a difference, not just because you cared about them, but because you taught them how they could be better learners. Our jobs have never been just about covering curriculum and personalizing learning reminds us of that.