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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Personalized Learning Plan: Creating the Schools that We Want

By Peter DeWitt — March 08, 2012 4 min read
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We all know what it’s like to get on the computer and research a topic of interest. For some of us, it doesn’t matter how many hours we spend or how much money we make when we complete the research. The journey and the final product are what we truly care about.

As a writer, there are many topics that I find interesting. With the internet at my fingertips and a lifetime membership to my alma mater library systems (those pesky loans are worth something!), I can research what I want, when I want it. If it comes to presenting on the topic, I can go to Twitter and work with my Professional Learning Communities (PLC) to find the most innovative presentation tools so that I can engage my audience.

Many educators spend months, and in some cases, years of hard work to be able to present on topics that are very close to their hearts. Everyone has a passion and many people have known that passion since they were young. They turn that enthusiasm into careers, and some become experts in their field. Do we allow this same respect to our students? Do we allow students to choose their topics and do full year research studies? In most cases the answer is no, although there are good examples of this happening in some schools around North America.

Many times students are allowed mini-studies but they are not allowed to goal set at the beginning of the year, meet with their teachers throughout the year and present on a topic at the end of the year. If schools allowed this to happen, students would be much more engaged in their own learning.

Creating the Schools that We Want
Recently I read a great article by Will Richardson in Educational Leadership called Preparing Our Students to Learn Without Us. For a moment I sat back in my chair blocking out the barriers that come to mind when I think about transforming schools. I tried to think about school without high stakes testing and the accountability that is forced upon us by politicians.

It would be easy to do if we did not have those aforementioned barriers. To me it equates to what I do with my teachers every year. Teachers choose their own action research studies that we turn into a goal for the year using the Charlotte Danielson Framework. Teachers are more engaged in their own learning when they choose the topic.

We have informal conversations throughout the year to see if they are on target and meet formally in the middle of the year to discuss how the goal is progressing or if it is not progressing at all. At the end of the year we discuss how the whole process went and they bring data to show whether their goal setting research was successful.

We could easily afford our students the very same courtesy. At the beginning of the year they could goal set with their teachers, much like some teachers and students do in Project Based Learning (PBL) classrooms. Those same students could work one on one with teachers or in groups with other students finding research on their project.

Many private and independent schools offer this kind of experience to students, and some of those schools do not offer graded curriculum which takes the emphasis off a grade and puts it on the actual learning experience. Those schools offer courses that allow students to do their own research over a semester (Poughkeepsie Day School). Many of those schools have a few different electives (ex. archeology, ecology, etc.) that students can take and they spend one full day a week with a teacher focusing on their specific area.

Teachers in other content areas such as reading, writing, math, science and technology could work with students on the same topic area. Going cross-curricular is nothing new for schools and the projects would be the glue that holds each content area together.

Although the whole idea seems overwhelming it really involves maintaining good records to account for each project and checks and balances to make sure the project is being completed with integrity.

Some of the pitfalls to look out for are the following:
Finding proper resources
It’s really important that students use valid and reliable resources during their research.

Finding topics worth researching
Students need to make sure that they have topics worthy of research. Part of the checks and balances aspect to the project should be to equate it to the future. How will these students benefit from their research? How will it help their future development?

Negotiating unchartered territory
This experience is new for many schools so it is a bit like negotiating unchartered territory. Just like with anything else there is an implementation dip that comes along with trying something new.

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On March 22nd Peter will be presenting at the National Association of Elementary School Principal (NAESP) Conference in Seattle and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Annual Conference in Philadelphia on March 24th.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.