How to Start A Personalized Learning Conversation

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Any time I begin a personalized learning conversation, I start by posing the following question:

How do we design space in our classrooms, our schools, and our homes to help all children develop and achieve their dreams?

I ask my audience to consider what space could mean in that context, typically resulting in the following four responses:

#1. Intellectual Space

The first to be brought up in a personalized learning conversation is usually intellectual space, or a space to engage in deep thinking, problem posing, and idea generation.

#2. Safe Space

Conversation around intellectual space immediately leads to safe space. A safe space is an area in which students feel comfortable to:

  • Ask questions
  • Say and do things that may appear foolish to others
  • Voice their opinions freely regardless of others points of view
  • Generate with clear intention a continued series of improvements

#3. Respectful and Interdependent Spaces

In order to engage in and solve rich, complex problems, challenges or ideas, we must collaborate … and that collaboration must be respectful and interdependent to achieve a common objective.

Examples include:

  • An expert coming in to offer feedback to student work
  • A teacher and student collaborating to identify next steps
  • Students designing a prototype
  • A service project that immerses students with community members
  • A student interviewing a parent or grandparent about family history

The idea is for us to support our students’ construction of information, ideas, and actions.

#4. Digital Space

Digital space is frequently mentioned along with an overwhelming and exhilarating level of being connected. There is an almost dizzying level of information, access to people with diverse perspectives, collaboration with others around the globe, and opportunity to affect change.

personalized learning conversation

Why ask?

If I know the answers to the questions, why do I ask my audiences to go through it time and time again?

Because this exercise frames the norms for our work together and bridges understanding that — if we want to create these spaces — we must engage in specific actions.

  • Intellectual space requires that we demonstrate questioning and problem posing. We must create, imagine and innovate, think about thinking, and take responsible risks.
  • Safe space requires that we communicate by listening with understanding and empathy as well as think and communicate with clarity and precision.
  • Respectful and interdependent space requires that we apply past knowledge to new situations, as well as think flexibly and interdependently.
  • Digital space requires that we manage our impulsivity, gather data through all senses, and remain open to continuous learning.

The spaces we identify from our first conversation following the Essential Question don’t change, but the level of appreciation and complexity of staying true to each type of space deepens as we go.

It’s why I find it a lovely place to start and revisit periodically.

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