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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Personalized Learning Is ‘a Partnership With Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 25, 2015 15 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

What does “personalized learning” mean, and what can it look like in the classroom?

Personalized learning is an often-used buzz word in education, but it means different things to different people.

To me, it means building relationships with students so I can better connect lessons to their interests, hopes and dreams; providing them with many opportunities for organizational and cognitive choice; and creating situations where they can get positive, as well as critical, feedback in a supportive way from me, their classmates and themselves.

It does not mean having students work on algorithm-generated drill-and-kill worksheets that are delivered electronically.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources For Understanding “Personalized Learning.”

Today, several educators have joined me to respond to this question, and several more will contribute to Part Two. Several readers have already left comments, which I’ll include in Part Two.

Contributions from Diana Laufenberg, Allison Zmuda, Pernille Ripp, Barbara Bray, Kathleen McClaskey and Steven Anderson are featured in this post. You will also be able to listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Diana, Allison and Pernille at my BAM! Radio Show, which will be posted in a few days. You will be able to listen to the show here, and see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught 7-12 grade students Social Studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Pennsylvania. Most recently, Diana Laufenberg partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a new non-profit working to create and support student centered learning environments that are inquiry driven, project based and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the Executive Director and Lead Teacher for Inquiry Schools:

Personalized learning has been invoked to mean a variety of things: predictive software, individualised learning paths, interest driven project based learning, increased student voice and choice. I see the difference of definitions in largely two camps. One camp believes that technology can be used to predict what a student needs to remediate and enrich the student learning experience and who the student is as a person, not just a learner, is largely absent the experience. The second camp chooses to focus on the ‘person’ portion of the personalized learning phrase. In this camp a multitude of technologies and methods are used to allow students to follow their own learning path by using the methods of inquiry and project based learning as the driving forces. Camp One is about tailored learning, faster. Camp Two is about focusing on the person in their own educational path.

My personal classroom approach and work lands squarely in the second camp. Personalizing the experience for a student takes on many forms in a school. It can be a senior capstone, internships and genius hour. I would posit that many of those programs and choices are the most prevalent forms of personalization in schools today. Making the learning personal in the subject level classroom though is less likely to exist in the average school.

Personalization in the core subject areas asks the students to pull content through their own lens, make sense of the information, extend their exploration of that information through their own questions and then consider how they would like to use that information to demonstrate their learning. In American Government class I asked the students to take part in a Citizen Lobbying project. The project spanned the entire semester and was completely driven by the student’s interests. Following a set of steps related to citizen lobbying, each student chose an area to focus on and then began the process of participating as a citizen in their community around a topic of interest. There was no wrong was to do this unless they did not do anything. Students chose to dig into local school issues, poverty, AIDS/HIV activism, the Philly Student Union and many more. This type of assignment says that as a curricular goal I want you to consider how to impact the decisions and systems that exist in our community and then honor the person that sits in that classroom with the room to pursue topics of their own passion and interest.

Another example I will offer comes from the middle school classroom. At the close of the 2014-15 school year I worked with 7th graders in a History of Anything unit. The curricular goal was related to having students use their research and primary source document analysis independently to demonstrate skill with telling the stories of history. Students could choose anything (within reason for appropriateness) and they had complete control in how they would like to evidence their learning. Many students chose sports heroes, the NFL, superheroes, fairy tales, Disney characters, etc. The stories they uncovered were exciting, the layers they peeled back to understand how something came to be was illuminating to all of us. The choices and struggle they incurred when deciding how to tell that story they now wanted to share was real. At the core, I was able to assess their overall research, writing and historical analysis skills while they were able to read and consume copious amounts of information about topics they loved.

Personalization is one of those things that can be invoked as with Camp One to do real damage to the meaningful experiences and relationships that schools, teachers and classrooms provide. Step carefully when discussing this as a topic so as to make sure that what you mean when you say personalized is actually what the listener understands it to be. More, better, faster is not an effective way to engage the modern learner, do not use computers as the new age of the assembly line. Crafting thoughtful learning experiences by focusing on each student as a person is the most powerful way to modernize and personalize the student experience.

Response From Allison Zmuda

Allison Zmuda is the lead author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2015) and co-author of Real Engagement: How do I help my students become more motivated, confident, and self-directed learners?(ASCD, 2015). A former public high school teacher turned education consultant and author, her current consulting work and writing centers around personalized learning where students play a seminal role in the design and development of their own education:

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven experience where students have a role in co-creating investigations and ideas. The contemporary reemergence of personalized learning is appealing to students and their families who want to have a curriculum that is designed or at the very least responsive to them -- one that opens up space in the schedule, the topic, the audience, and the development of meaningful work. But the historical roots of personalized learning can be traced back to the progressive era. In 1922, Helen Parkhurst authored the Dalton Plan in which she advocated that the beacon lights of schooling should be making students “industrious, sincere, open-minded, and independent.” This conception of personalized learning goes well beyond an individualized approach where students control the pace of their learning but the assignments are fixed. Personalized learning is designed to augment student voice and choice in what they do, how they approach the experience, and how they demonstrate achievement.

Every educator can pursue a learning partnership with the students to develop tasks around problems, challenges, texts, and ideas that are both meaningful to the student and aligned with expected outcomes.

  • Imagine two kindergarteners at work. They are extending an investigation the class did on buoyancy, testing new objects that the visitors to the class website suggested to see whether each one will sink or float. They will make predictions, record findings, and post the results on the class website.
  • Imagine a third grader at work. She is using a web-based platform to create a digital folktale/fable around a current issue that she cares about. Because the reader will interact with the text, she is working on adding illustrations and sounds to make the writing come alive. She is going to exchange stories with another classroom (around the city or around the world) and get feedback on how to improve their writing and make those changes.
  • Imagine a team of three 12th graders at work. They are investigating the perception of local policing in their community through an extensive series of interviews with community members and police officers. They are currently examining what they learned to see if there are any generalizations that can be drawn from identifiable groups (i.e., age, race, neighborhood). Their goal is to present findings and offer recommendations to their Community Action Group, a partnership between police and community members.

These scenarios can exist within current structural parameters (in terms of how we group students, organize courses, indicate mastery or report progress) or innovative ones. Regardless of how traditional or innovative the structures and policies are, the pedagogical model moves beyond the traditional hierarchical relationship where the teacher determines the assignments and pace and the students follow that lead. The teacher is more relevant than ever to build trusted relationships, demonstrate steadfast belief in students’ potential competency, provide timely and high-quality feedback, and approach new learning with a proactive and reflective attitude.

Response From Pernille Ripp

Mass consumer of incredible books, Pernille Ripp, helps students discover their superpower as a former 5th grade teacher, but now 7th grade teacher, in Oregon, Wisconsin. She opens up her educational practices and beliefs to the world on her blog www.pernillesripp.com and is also the creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, a global literacy initiative that since 2010 has connected more than 600,000 students. Her book “Passionate Learners - How to Engage and Empower Your Students” has been published by Routledge. Her second book “Empowered Schools, Empowered Students” was published by Corwin:

There seems to be a lot of hype surrounding the term “Personalized Learning” right now. There seem to be many companies telling us all exactly how to personalize our learning, which, of course, often means purchasing their tool or program. Yet, personalizing learning has nothing to do with following what others tell you to do but rather quite the opposite. Personalizing learning is finding a way to create learning spaces where all students have a say in what they are doing, and all teachers have a say in how they are teaching. And that does not come from following a prepackaged program.

So how do you personalize learning, particularly if you work with more than one classroom? The easiest way to start is always by asking your students how they would like to be taught? Simple questions should be asked on the very first day of school allowing students to shape the education experience to suit their needs while still covering what needs to be covered. This may sound utopian, but for the past several years, this is exactly what we have been doing in Oregon School District, Wisconsin. Teachers are finding a way to give students more choice in how they cover content, what they cover, how they show mastery and how they learn. We utilize surveys, conversation, and a consistent stream of feedback between student and teachers.

But the personalization does not end there. Rather than being forced by a top-down approach to change their instruction, as often happens with new initiatives, teachers were instead ask to also personalize their own change. To start of the journey toward a more personalized learning environment, but to do so at a pace they felt comfortable with. This aspect of personalizing learning is often something that is overlooked when we try to change our teaching. Not all teachers will feel comfortable doing everything one way and so within our own classroom communities, we as teachers need to have a voice as well. I often engage in conversation with my students about how I can change as a teacher to fit their needs better, while still maintaining my own personality and integrity. What arises from these conversation is a symbiotic existence within instruction that flows between teacher and student.

So do not buy into personalized learning as an easy way to teach. It is not, at least, not without a lot of work and a lot of personal reflection on how you need to change as a teacher to fit the needs of students better. What it does mean, though, is that every child we teach has a voice. Has a choice in some way in how they are taught. Choice does not just mean content, it can mean content delivery, classroom setting, tools used, and even timeline. At least one of those components should be active at all times within our classrooms. I set out to change the way I taught several years ago and ended up trying to create classrooms that students actually want to be a part of. It is our job as teachers to engage students, re-engage the disconnected, and recover the lost. Personalizing my teaching to fit all the students I teach has allowed me to do that.

Response From Barbara Bray & Kathleen McClaskey

Barbara Bray (@bbray27) and Kathleen McClaskey (@khmmc) are co-founders of Personalize Learning, LLC and co-authors of Make Learning Personal. You can contact Barbara and Kathleen at personalizelearn@gmail.com and follow them on Twitter using @plearnchat:

Personalized Learning is a controversial term that means different things to different people depending on where and how it is referenced. Some believe it is about promoting programs or tools that personalize learning for you where others emphasize that learning starts with the learner. Teachers have used multiple methods to personalize learning in their classrooms for years, but the opportunities to advance it are new. Consider personalized learning as a culture shift and transformational revolution shaking up teaching and learning.

Personalized Learning means...

  • the teacher guides the process so learners have voice and choice in learning.
  • learners acquire the skills to choose appropriate resources and tools for tasks.
  • learners develop learning plans based on goals, strengths, interests, and passions.
  • learners understand how they learn best using Universal Design for Learning.
  • teacher and learners monitor progress of learning and adjust strategies as they learn.
  • transforming the system so the focus is on the learner first.

What does Personalized Learning look like in the classroom?

Consider a learner-centered classroom where there are two or more teachers who co-teach multiple grade levels. They are in one large room that combined two classrooms with a garage door made with glass windows that can stay open or close to separate the rooms. You look around and do not see any desks. In fact, you don’t even see a teacher’s desk. There are multiple areas with different shapes of movable tables and chairs, two sofas, different colored cushions for learners to sit on the floor, ball chairs, and tall tables where learners can stand or pace to learn. There are some learners meeting in a closed/open area called the cave that has invisible walls made out of something like PVC pipes.

The noise in the class sounds like a hum of a coffee shop. At the creativity station, several learners are collaborating and building things. One learner was demonstrating a project in the show off area to other learners. One teacher was meeting in a private corner with a learner who needed to review content to check for understanding. The other teacher was sitting on the floor listening to several learners sharing their prototypes for their projects on the interactive whiteboard.

This is only one picture of what personalized learning looks like from many examples that we shared in our book, Make Learning Personal. It is about the What, Who, Wow, Where and Why of Personalized Learning to help change the culture of schools and to build a common language around the term: personalized learning.

Response From Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson is a former teacher and Director of Instructional Technology, a member of the ASCD Faculty, and a 2012 ASCD Emerging Leader. Anderson is author of The Tech-Savvy Administrator: How do I use technology to be a better school leader? (ASCD, 2014) and co-author of The Relevant Educator: How Connectedness Empowers Learning (Corwin, 2014).

Personalized learning is one of those terms that gets thrown around all too often with so many different meanings, many aren’t sure exactly what it means. For me, true personalized learning is that in which students decide their own path to understanding and mastery. It’s not a computer program deciding they need a harder or easier problem based on performance. It’s not differentiated content or assignments based on ability. Personalized learning is setting learning goals and objectives and the student, with guidance from the teacher, deciding on the best path to take to understand the content and the best methods to demonstrate understanding of that content.

Thanks to Diana, Allison, Pernille, Barbara, Kathleen and Steven for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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