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Personalized Learning Opinion

Developing Wayfinders With Learning Plans

By Contributing Blogger — March 27, 2019 4 min read
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By Jin-Soo Huh, the executive director of personalized learning at Distinctive Schools

Driving around in an unfamiliar city can be stressful as you try to read street signs, avoid other drivers, and weave around construction zones. Our students are similarly navigating through unknown situations or problems in which they need to have the ability to chart their own path and find solutions. The development of these skills will help students identify opportunities and develop solutions in a rapidly changing world.

For these reasons, Distinctive Schools aims to nurture in students wayfinding abilities for which they are able to set goals and exercise agency (check out the MyWays Report on Wayfinding Abilities for more). Just like with content knowledge, these abilities are developed over time. We continue to work on ways to develop these skills across all ages, from elementary school and up. Third grade teacher Meaghan Rohan and 4th grade teacher Stephen Malone are seeing success with learning plans.

Malone and Rohan both teach at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Irving Park, managed by Distinctive Schools. Malone introduced learning plans in his classroom to build engagement. “I want them to feel like they are in charge of their learning and have a real say in it,” he explained. Malone’s students use them throughout their math class. Rohan’s students use weekly learning plans to guide their independent work time during the English/language arts block while she pulls guided reading groups.

These learning plans include two main components:


  • Goal-Setting and Reflection: Students set weekly goals for their work with adaptive online programs. Without a daily goal, students need to track their daily progress toward their weekly goal and allocate their time appropriately. This turns students into the owners of these goals.

  • Menu of Activities: Students choose from a selection of activities that they need to complete by the end of the week. Items are designated as “Must Do’s” or “Can Do’s” to help students complete the required work and provide further opportunities to learn.

Check out a sample 3rd grade ELA learning plan and 4th grade math learning plan.

Modeling to Navigate More Freedom

Just providing choice does not mean that students will use their time appropriately. Both teachers noted the importance of modeling. “Lots of options can be overwhelming for students,” Rohan said. “Although students have lots of choice, they may not know exactly what that means—modeling is necessary.” She also has had to model for students that just because they completed all of the “must do” activities, that does not mean they are done.

Early on, Malone noticed that some students struggled with setting goals; now he coaches students to develop their goal-setting skills. “At first, some students set unrealistic goals so I asked them questions that led them to conclude that even though they worked really hard, they hadn’t set an attainable goal,” he shared. “Now I’m coaching kids into picking stretch goals by asking them that if you’re not proud of hitting the goal, then what might be a goal you’d actually be proud of?”

Creating Ways to Seek Resources When They Are Stuck

Students are going to get stuck and instinctively want to ask the teacher for help or shut down. Both teachers model the ask-three-before-me strategy. If the teacher is busy leading a small group, students are also taught the strategy of working on another activity until the teacher is available.

In Malone’s class, students sign up for workshops on a whiteboard when they get stuck. When Malone sees three or four students have signed up, he pulls them for a mini-lesson until they get the light bulb moment. Developing a safe culture for learning is critical for this to work. It is still a work in progress; not all students are comfortable signing up for a workshop when they do not understand a concept. “Students at first were superscared to make a mistake. I’ve had students raise their hands if they came to a workshop and then were able to demonstrate mastery. Just seeing that helped, and more students signed up for a workshop,” Malone said.

Students in Malone’s class also select a buddy each week who serves as their cheerleader. “We choose a classmate who will help us meet our goals and we help them meet their goals,” 4th grader Charity explained. “We choose a classmate who we will work best with, and it’s usually not a friend because we might talk and go off task.”

Next Steps for More Personalization

Creating the weekly learning plans is a lot of work on the front end for teachers. Both teachers expressed a desire to build off these lesson plans to make them even more personalized and provide students with more agency. Rohan works closely with her co-teacher to provide accommodations and modifications, and Malone will vary activities students must complete based on areas of development identified through assessments.

Malone ultimately wants students to truly understand the learning process. He explained, “I want students to buy-in truly and develop that metacognition of knowing what they know and what they don’t know. I also want to start giving them various types of ways to show their learning. And then ultimately I want them to propose how they will demonstrate their learning and design their own assessments.”


Photo courtesy of Stephen Malone: The workshop sign-up in Stephen Malone’s afternoon class. The messiness is due to students erasing their names after they have their light bulb moment. As soon as they go “OHHH!,” they get up, erase their names, and get back to work.

The opinions expressed in Next Gen Learning in Action 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.


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