Beginning My Personalized Learning Journey

Craig Gastauer

Craig Gastauer is currently Internal Director of Pedagogy at Vista High School in Vista, CA. He is proud to be working with great teachers and students to create a more learner-centered public high school experience.

personalized learning journeyThroughout my 20+ years of teaching, I have struggled to help ALL students learn deeply. Sure, a large number succeed but I cannot allow myself to be satisfied with that. Some students succeeded because they learned (and learned very well) how to play the game of school. Some succeeded because of hard work. Yet others slipped through the cracks, and, with shame, I must admit that I allowed it.

Regardless of the group, I need to do a better job. Learning in my classroom must not happen on accident or happen because students are good at the game.

I must help them learn to shift their learning process:

  • From studying content out of context to engaging them in an examination of issues, identifying problems, brainstorming potential solutions, and acting on their thoughts.
  • From mechanically trying to memorize content knowledge and rotely practicing skills to actively requiring students to apply and build knowledge within the identified issues, problems, solutions, and actions.

Actually, I have been at this work for a long time. I’ve designed problems in which students collaborate to propose solutions, created scenarios for students to analyze and make meaning of content, and written experiments for students to perform and make inferences based on data. Unfortunately, this means I have done all the work and assumed that all students would find my passions as exciting as I do. I also expected students to passively follow the way I think they should learn. As a result, not all students were motivated to make the process or the learning their own.

personalized learning journey

I believe that by co-constructing learning WITH the students, more students will be able to actively engage in learning and do so in more motivating and meaningful ways. In an article from Nature, biologist Tammy Tobin at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, sets up learning environments in which students are invited to co-create their learning experience around a real-world problem rather than professors transmitting knowledge via lecture. She has noted that students take charge of their own education, develop questions and pursue answers.

This change resulted in more students engaging in the learning and doing so with a growth mindset. Their experiences open up the opportunity to develop hypotheses, test them, and learn from both their successes and mistakes. These students develop persistence in their learning. Additionally, students are retaining their learning far longer than students in more traditional, lecture-based environments.

Neuroscience seems to back up these findings. Students setting up their learning experiences actively pursue knowledge using multiple strategies and develop a stronger curiosity. This means that students are processing knowledge, synthesizing their own understanding, and learning the concepts and knowledge in a deeper manner.

In Zmuda’s Learning Personalized (2015), she points out that there are many elements around which students and teachers can collaborate to co-create personalized learning experiences. In order to help my students, I have decided to begin the year by focusing on five:

  • Task – What is the challenge?
  • Audience – Who is the audience? How does that shape communication?
  • Process – Who controls the sequence and pace of learning?
  • Feedback – How is feedback provided and how is it used?
  • Demonstration of Learning – How do we show cumulative evidence of learning across time?

personalized learning journeyWhile I may want students to immediately drive all their learning, I realize that this ownership of learning is foreign to most. They also need to learn and practice the Habits of Mind that will help them successfully develop as a 21st-Century Learner. Therefore, I need to prioritize my actions to deeply benefit my students. In order to accomplish this, this year I will dedicate my actions, and write about my own learning, in response to the following questions:

  • What are the most effective ways to help our students learn to shift from passively following teacher-driven lesson to driving their own learning process?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster wonder, fascination, and curiosity within our students? How can we act as catalysts to student imagination?
  • What are the most effective ways to convince our students to want to persist when faced with feelings of failure, challenge, and/or anxiety?

Through this school year, I plan to post insights learned from actions taken to answer the above questions, developed lesson plans that are both successful and utter failures, as well as questions to elicit advice from you, the reader, to assist in positively impacting our students. So here is my first question to you:

How are you helping students shift from a teacher-driven to a co-created learning experience? Please share your efforts in the comments section below!


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