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Classroom Q&A

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 ‘Based On Relationships, Not Algorithms’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 30, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

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

Contributions from Diana Laufenberg, Allison Zmuda, Pernille Ripp, Barbara Bray, Kathleen McClaskey and Steven Anderson were featured in Part One.

You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Diana, Allison and Pernille at my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

Today’s post includes responses from John Spencer, Andrew Miller, Heather Staker, Jeffrey Benson, and Louis Cozolino, as well as from several readers.

Response From John Spencer

After eleven years as a middle school teacher , John Spencer recently became Assistant Professor at George Fox University in Oregon focusing on educational technology. He blogs at Spencer Ideas:

Too often, the notion of “personalized learning” means choice-based programmed rather than truly personalized. This comes from the tech world, where “personalization” is synonymous with user choice. It’s the idea of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down on Pandora. It’s the idea of having adaptive programs that change based upon one’s personal preferences. It’s the Facebook algorithm that tells you what information is the most relevant to you. It’s about content delivery rather than user creation.

In a way, it’s a confusion between customizing and personalizing something. Outside of the tech world, if I personalize a message to a friend, it means I am going off-script and sending something unique to the person based upon who they are. It is inherently personal, based upon a relationship of trust. It is the antithesis of choice-driven, algorithm-based programs. I think the same thing is true in the classroom. While tech companies promise personalization, they often promote independent, isolated learning. True personalization is interdependent rather than isolated. True personalization is based upon a horizontal relationship rather than a top-down customization. True personalization is based upon a deeply human relationship rather than a program or an algorithm or a set of scripts. True personalization is a mix between personal autonomy and group belonging. It’s a mix between what someone wants and what someone needs. It’s a chance to make, rather than simply a chance to consume.

So to go back to the notion of Pandora, I think the big difference is that the ed tech version of personalized learning is just like Pandora. However, true personalization is much more like a jam session where people go in and out between solo and group, trusting one another, making their own tunes while changing what’s already there. It is inherently creative and it is inherently human. What it isn’t is a flat menu or choices for consuming content.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is on the faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, and is a regular blogger with ASCD and Edutopia. He is the author of Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? (ASCD, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @betamiller:

Personalization encompasses a variety of pillars and tenets, but the overall paradigm shift is a move towards student centered learning. While the term “student-centered” is often thrown around, many don’t know what it really looks like in the classroom, and how to move towards this type of environment. I think the first key piece towards personalization is knowing your students, both in terms of academics, but also in terms of passions and interests. Teachers who personalized learning not only know the academic level of their students, but also leverage the passions of their students to reach academic goals.

The teacher is a sort of navigator and translator. As students seek learning in their own ways and on their own paths, teachers help align these journeys to more traditional grading systems. In addition, a teacher provides “just in time” instruction to support students as they learn. As students come up against a wall, teachers jump in with their teacher “bag of tricks” to give students what they need, not what they think they need.

Teachers also design the infrastructure for the learning. Personalization isn’t a lack of structure, but a more open structure. Many of us, as well as our students, need some level of structure, so we need to provide that to students. This infrastructure might be in the form of technology, guides, reflections, task lists, and the like.

Ultimately, true personalization would call for prescribed standards and curriculum to vanish for the system. Many claim they are personalizing learning, but in fact they are not completely. Simply putting an iPad in front of a student and allowing them to play an adaptive learning application or game is not true personalization. Although this is a step in the right direction, it’s still prescribing what students will learn, rather than asking students “What do you want to learn?” If we want to truly personalize, we let students completely choose what they learn. This is the biggest hurdle and paradigm shift that needs to happen if we truly want personalized learning.

Response From Heather Staker

Heather Staker is the president of Ready to Blend and a spokesperson for student-centered learning. She is the co-author of Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools (San Francisco: Wiley, 2015). She co-founded Brain Chase Productions, which stages online-learning challenges disguised as worldwide treasure hunts for K-12 students:

Nearly all of us have had an experience of being stuck in a class in which no matter how many times the teacher explained the concept, we just couldn’t grasp it. The class whisked along, we fell further behind, and frustration mounted. Many of us have also experienced the reverse. We grew bored when the class repeatedly drilled a concept that we already understood. A stunning number of students--nearly half, according to one report--drop out of school not because they are struggling, but because they are bored.

There are several notions of what personalized learning is, but when most educators use the term today, they mean tailoring the instructional environment--what, when, how, and where students learn--to address the individual needs and abilities of each student. One benefit of a personalized model is that it opens the door for students to exercise agency and ownership for their progress and a subsequent ability to guide their own learning. They are no longer batched in classrooms where they learn the same thing on the same day in the same way. Instead, they have the flexibility to persist on a lesson until they fully comprehend the material, to receive one-on-one help when necessary, and to take the path that works best for them.

The classic example of personalized learning is the individual tutor, although of course paying for a private tutor for every student would be impossible! That’s why schools are using the power of blended learning to bring the benefits of personalization within reach. Blended learning is when brick-and-mortar schools provide online lessons for students. In most personalized environments, students spend part of the course or subject online, where software adapts flexibly to differentiate for their needs. Meanwhile, teachers use the time to meet one-on-one with students, facilitate small-group experiences and Socratic discussion, and plan collaborative learning experiences, such as hands-on projects and apprenticeships that deepen the learning when laptops are shut down.

In this way, personalized learning can make the classroom experience not only more effective, but more humane. Personalized learning is not only about personalizing the acquisition of knowledge, but also the relationship between teachers and students. This switch can be as rewarding for teachers as it is for students. Diane Tavenner, who led the effort to personalize learning as CEO of Summit Public Schools, said, “Our model has more of the stuff that teachers got into education for. There’s more meaningful one-on-one work, more opportunities to get to know their kids very well.”

As blended learning paves the way for increased personalization, it is freeing up teachers to become learning designers, mentors, facilitators, tutors, evaluators, and counselors to reach each student in ways never before possible.

Response From Jeffrey Benson

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson’s first book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014), shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. His latest book, , 10 Steps to Managing Change in Schools: How do we take initiatives from goals to actions? (ASCD, 2015), provides educators with a proven, practical, and broadly applicable system for implementing new practices methodically and effectively. Connect with him at his website, www.jeffreybenson.org:

Learning is an accomplishment of attention and effort that can take place in an auditorium filled with 2,000 people, or at a corner table in a library. It takes place with a teacher, or a coach, or with peers, or when you are alone. Learning is always a personal experience for the learner.

Our factory model of schooling obscures the fact that all learning is personal. We’ve been forcing too many children at the same time to be presented with the same stimulation in hopes they develop the same understanding. Because we are all evolutionary cousins, with similar brains that are wired from birth to find patterns in the environment, the factory approach sort of works-- if you like mediocrity, and if you think it is inevitable that only a few students reach mastery in classes.

Enough of us did pass the tests through the years for our schools to consider themselves hotbeds of learning. Schools have gotten away with this mediocre assembly-line delivery of lessons for so long that we find the notion of personalized learning to be innovative. But all each of us ever did, even in the stultifying rigidity of our most boring class, was to personally make sense of what was going on. Or we didn’t learn. No one could do it for us.

Personalized learning as an educational imperative has at its root a very radical notion: almost all students can reach mastery in almost every subject. If you don’t believe that, you will have no drive to change our factory system of education, which is as much about sorting students into successes and failures as it is about educating them. If you do believe that each student truly has the capacity for mastery in all subjects--in your subject! in your school!-- personalized learning asks two fundamental questions:

  • What is this child ready to learn?
  • How do I best help this child learn?

Throw out your pacing guides. Do not chain yourself to the end-of-the-chapter tests. Fill your classrooms--and I mean you in secondary school--with stuff to build and model and draw and craft. Listen to the students. Be a guide, a coach, a teacher, an inspirer, a challenger, a fellow explorer. This is not an easy path, but it will be your special path into the most interesting part of your career. Personalize your learning; no one else can do it for you.

Response From Louis Cozolino

Louis Cozolino, PhD, is an education specialist, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and a private mental health practitioner. He is the editor of The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education and author of The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom and Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom. Watch Dr. Cozolino speak on why education is life here:

Personalized learning means that the persons involved in education--students, teachers, and administrators--are deeply involved and invested as living, feeling, and embodied participants in learning. They are not there for someone else or fulfilling a function in the greater “educational system;" they are there in body and soul.

Our children and teachers are in no way a homogeneous population. They come from all classes and cultures with a wide range of social, emotional, and cognitive abilities and challenges. They also present a variety of individual needs that require teachers and administrators to possess considerable parenting, counseling, and psychotherapeutic skills along with their core professional training.

The first step in personalized learning is to question all of the “givens” of our present, “one-size-fits-all” system. Consider that we evolved to learn in tribes from closely related others, and that our brains are social organs. They are triggered to learn in the context of secure attachments, a sense of belonging, and deep affiliations. It is within a social context that maximize exploration and turbocharge neuroplasticity. (Neuroplasticity is the ways in which the brain changes in response to new experience--something we call learning.) When children feel safe to express themselves--their interests, desires, and dreams--you can discover how they learn best, what to teach them, and how best to approach that teaching. It is the very quality of teacher-student relationships that creates the possibility of learning.

This suggests that being an excellent teacher requires being an excellent listener in both your own inner world and the inner worlds of your students. Personalized learning accordingly means listening for passion, interest, curiosity, pain, joy, curiosity, shame, courage, fear, heart, and soul. Teachers should also be trained in expressing and deepening their passions and search for ways to integrate their passions in the classroom. We all remember the difference between teachers who taught from a book and those who taught from their passion. A teacher’s passion turns on plasticity in the brains of his or her students. These deep emotions, both our students’ and our own, serve as the glue of all content learning.

Finally, administrators have to shift from being accountants and fundraisers to tribal chiefs and wise elders. For every tribe needs a visionary and compassionate leader.

Responses From Readers

Noa Daniel:

I think the real definition of personalized learning is that each student has an IEP (which is the term used for identified students here in Ontario). Instead of a list of accommodations and modifications, it is a result of teachers really learning about their students and how they learn best. It includes knowing their students interests and hobbies outside of school where lessons can be easily tweaked with analogies from the student’s world and projects can have the student’s unique fingerprints because they have been invited to become a part of the learning equation.

Angela de Guzman:

Personalized learning for educators means looking at data from my students and reflecting on the next steps to improve knowledge and pedagogy in order to improve student data. Based on the data, explore various choices of professional learning from my school, district, or state and decide based on the way I learn what I want to do to improve my practice.

Thanks to John, Andrew, Heather, Jeffrey and Louis, and to readers, 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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