Help Your Students Get Over the Fear of Personalized Learning

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is a Biology Teacher in San Diego County. He is working to understand how he can improve the student experience for all students at his high school. Follow him on Twitter at @CG_Bioteach


help students get better at personalized learningWithin my AP/IB Biology class, students were tasked with learning about large molecules (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids) needed for life.

Traditionally, the vast majority of students find this to be their least favorite and most tedious unit of the year, therefore I wanted them to engage deeply in studying the content that AP and IB require, but to do so around a focus that was interesting to them.

Unfortunately, many of my students appeared genuinely frightened while contemplating how to co-create their own learning experience. To assist in their process, I arranged the beginning of the unit with an introduction to the various molecules and then led them through a series of questions to help them identify what and how they might study the required content.

1. How does our study relate to larger world issues?

help kids get better at personalized learning

Having been lucky enough to attend the Camp 21 Professional Development during the summer of 2015, I heard Heidi Hayes Jacobs and her team share the idea of beginning with a broad issue to help engage students.

Issues — like global warming, teen pregnancy, legalizing recreational drug use, etc. — can be approached from a multitude of smaller problems and perspectives. Asking students to examine different perspectives within the issue allows them to explore and find focused problems interesting for them to study.  Student teams then added their generated brainstorms to a class “Issues” Google Doc.

Questions that helped students brainstorm:

  • Why is it important to study this content?
  • What debates concerning this content have you heard of?
  • What larger issues in the world are related to this content?

Sparked by those questions, students identified a large range of issues, including:

  • Feeding the 3rd world
  • Building a nutrition program for weight loss or health
  • Pharmaceuticals tailored to individuals genomes
  • Sustainable agricultural practices

2. What is intriguing about this study?

help kids get better at personalized learningWithin the “Issues” Google Doc, student teams were required to generate and record questions or problems to address within the larger issue and add a link to a source of information that may jump-start research.  Many of my students who were initially struggling to think of how to begin personalizing the task or challenge were able to build upon the ideas of others and add to the brainstorm list of questions.

Upon completion, students examined their perspectives as well as those generated by their peers to find something that intrigued them and motivated further engagement.

Questions that helped students brainstorm:

  • What are problems scientists examine within this broad issue?
  • What do you want to learn more about within the broad issue?
  • What aspects of this broad issue do we need to be concerned with in our community?
  • What aspect of this larger issue do you think we could solve or positively impact?

Generated questions for this project included:

  • As a high school student-athlete, how does consuming different carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins promote or negatively affect my health and performance?
  • With the existing obesity epidemic in the United States and endless list of diet fads, the general public is confused as to what is and isn’t healthy. What type of  carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins should be consumed in the healthy diets of different aged people? And based on this knowledge, what would a generalized nutrition plan look like for different aged people?
  • What farming plan should be adopted by wealthier nations to ensure that crops are grown which will provide starving populations of people around the globe with the carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins they need to be healthy?

3. What research exists around this problem?

help kids get better at personalized learningStudents were asked to build background knowledge around the issues, problems, and ideas they found interesting to study before selecting the one question they would choose to focus their efforts upon. When students approach a problem they find interesting, often they know of one perspective within the problem.

This next step allows students to explore and discover more about the larger issue, problem, and various perspectives before choosing one potential solution. I also asked students to share their links to sources with a concise summary of their findings on the same class “Issues” Google Doc. In this way, students benefit from their efforts as well as the perspectives found from the efforts of their peers. The biggest challenge of this step is the preconceptions that students bring to the table.

Questions that helped students find and curate resources:

  • What do we already know about this problem?
  • What solutions have been, or are being, attempted?
  • Have any proposed solutions helped to solve the problem?
  • Have any proposed solutions failed?
  • What background knowledge is required to truly understand this problem?

4. What position do you take regarding this problem?

Students were asked to analyze and evaluate the curated research to develop a position regarding the problem and inquiry, supported with evidence. It is important that students learn to evaluate sources rather than take them at face value.

In this step, students learn to discern between reliable and unreliable sources. This often allows students to find trends within perspectives that help them narrow their thoughts to potential solutions for their identified problem and inquiry or synthesize new solutions that combine ideas they are learning about.

Questions that helped students evaluate their curated research:

  • Which of your curated resources are primary source documents with research or cited evidence which could support conclusions?
  • Which of the curated resources have conclusions validated by multiple lines of research?
  • Which of your curated resources do not have cited sources to support conclusions?
  • How do you know that your sources provide you with reliable information?

Questions that helped students curate resources:

  • Which resources help you to propose answers or solutions to your inquiry?
  • Which resources are supporting similar positions with regards to the focus of your problem?
  • Which resources support different or antagonistic viewpoints to your original stance?
  • Which resources have caused you to rethink your original position?
  • Which resources have made you question what you thought you knew about your problem/inquiry?

5. Who needs to hear this argument?

personalized learningStudents were asked to determine the audience which most needed to hear the argument they were generating and determine the manner in which the argument would best be communicated to the chosen audience.

A focus on a specified audience impacts how one examines the curated resources to craft an argument. Likewise, students imagining how to present their understanding to authentic audiences results in students thinking about what might make the presentation more (or less) powerful.

Students should also be encouraged to reach out to various audiences to ensure authentic interaction with people with differing perspectives. Hearing supporting ideas, as well as critiques, increases the depth of understanding and helps students test their own understanding.

Questions that helped students determine the audience to interact with:

  • Who else thinks the way you do?
  • Who would need to hear your argument?
  • Who doesn’t have the information necessary to make an informed decision and would benefit from your learning?

Questions that helped students determine how to present their thoughts or arguments to their selected audience:

  • In what manner would your audience want to hear or see your ideas or arguments?
  • If trying to sway people to your side of an argument, in what manner could you effectively help them learn about your perspective?
  • If trying to educate an audience, in what ways do you learn best?
  • If trying to help an audience understand your perspective, how could you break down their arguments to help them embrace your own?

In what ways are you setting up your students to be more successful in co-creating their learning experiences?

Share your innovations and experiences in the comments section.

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