Brian Durst: 10 Observations of Personalized Learning

Brian Durst has been gathering wisdom from colleagues and creating memories with students for two decades in the classroom–a learner-centered, educational clubhouse. Brian seeks opportunities to network with other educators, share experiences, and advocate for students. He is a proud father of two, husband, varsity baseball coach, and English department chair at Grafton High School.

Read more from Brian at his website.


Brian Durst
Photo care of Form of the Good

Time to get personal.

I’m an educator. Teaching is my passion. Student learning is my purpose. I’m always thinking about the next lesson. Planning. How can I make the curriculum relevant and engaging? These are my classes. This is my classroom. These are my students. But this is not my education.

I began teaching at the end of the 20th century. Even then, I recognized that students should own their learning. Early stages of teaching focused on cooperative learning strategies. When the 21st century arrived, the classroom became more student-centered. Many learning opportunities were project based.

My Master’s thesis focused on the impact of autonomy on student learning. I have since improved my understanding of the learning process and the value of assessment for learning. Differentiation became — and continues to be — a necessary emphasis of my professional development. Last year, students produced brilliant outcomes when introduced to Genius Hour. So why limit the energy, passion, and curiosity of learning to 20-percent of our time in class?

That brings me to the present year. Now that I am confident (but never satisfied) with my craft, and have a secure understanding of course content, standards, and learning targets, the next logical, but challenging, step is to personalize learning. All of this sounds like educational jargon, but it’s really a cultural philosophy if I truly believe in my educational motto: learn with a purpose. Read on for 10 observations …

1. Personalized learning is not a free-for-all.

However, a personalized approach creates an environment where all are free to learn. The course still presents content to cover, skills to practice, and a set of standards to guide expectations. Students start with thematic unit topics, create questions as they explore the material, learn at their own pace, and craft meaningful outcomes as evidence of their learning. I have progress checks throughout the week (mostly informal) and collaborate with students to determine reasonable timelines (not deadlines) for sharing artifacts they create.

Many students appreciate a calendar to set the pace of their learning plan and maintain some sense of urgency. We schedule presentation days and whole class organizational meetings to enrich our learning environment. There are conversations throughout the room (even some laughter), but at respectful levels to allow everyone the opportunity to concentrate on individual endeavors.

2. Students are covering more material in greater depth than in past years.

In a comparable amount of time, students will read five to six books rather than one or two. Previously, students were given a choice of books — a consistent practice in my teaching. They would choose one to read in book clubs. Some of those discussions involved mixed groups where students could get a sample of what others were reading, but each student only read one book (some of the more advanced readers occasionally picked up a second book if intrigued). In addition to reading, students are finding meaningful connections like never before. I was always influencing their thoughts by asking all the questions. Now they think critically, ask the questions, and internalize the message.

3. I am realizing what it truly means to let go of control.

I thought my classes were completely student-centered. I included student voice and choice in nearly all class decisions, but always within my parameters. Now, instead of reading one book as an entire class, I added Siddhartha to the list of literature options. Relinquishing control of the Siddhartha unit is difficult. Discussions, writing prompts, and activities have evolved into something noteworthy after fifteen years. I love the unit, but remind myself, it’s not my education. Students do not have to experience the literature as I do (sigh). Naturally, I put in a good plug for the book, but will resist temptation to guide students’ reading of the material.

4. Personalized learning shifts the demands of the teacher’s responsibilities, but the workflow is manageable.

Brian Durst
Photo care of Form of the Good

I have to admit two major concerns. Initially, I thought the teacher would be overwhelmed by having every student working on something different every day. How would I keep track of the learning and monitor everyone’s progress? I have yet to master the organizational system and am currently exploring management systems (Trello, Hapara, Edmodo, Brightloop, Moodle, and Google Classroom), but I keep detailed notes on a spreadsheet. Students set agendas and update their progress.

My other concern was that I would just sit around while students work. How will that look to critics of educators? Fortunately, the teacher still plays a vital role in the learning process. I now use class time to provide students with live feedback or respond to individual questions. Many students, stunted by traditional classroom practices, do not trust their innovative spirit; they still need to be assured they are “doing it right.”

My primary role is offering support, asking open-ended questions, and listening as students talk themselves through overcoming creative insecurity. Students will check in with me as much as I with them, but we each have space and time to accomplish our plans.

5. Personalized learning promotes quality time with students.

I get to meet with individual students or small groups as a natural part of every day. This quality time is built in. I don’t have to create work to occupy others while I meet with selected students or make it obvious that several individuals are struggling to keep up with the class. Individual attention is a major benefit of personalization.

6. Students are using class time wisely.

This one is impressive. I keep waiting for students to turn my class period into a study hall. Previously, I would catch them cramming for a psychology test, copying Spanish homework, or rushing to complete the math problems due next hour. Surprisingly, my World Literature students are working with world literature until the bell interrupts their concentration. They do not even pack up early as they did when I was putting closure on my lessons.

7. Students have a clearer understanding of the relationship between learning targets, assessment, and course standards.

Students have menus for their organization and planning. This spreadsheet (a work in progress) is a sample of unit expectations and a baseline of material explore. It also links learning targets to assessment with a general rubric of performance criteria. I want to students to communicate what they know, understand, and can do as a result of learning in the class. The challenge I present is simple and consistent with the message I have delivered all year:

How can you show your understanding of the material? What can you create as evidence of critical thinking and learning?

8. Students are producing innovative, authentic outcomes.

Not only are students producing impressive evidence of their learning, they are doing so in more challenging ways than I could assign. This is where ownership is evident. When readers complete a book, they conference with me, reflect on personal takeaways, draw conclusions or pose bigger questions, and reframe literary themes. Many plans require further research (I tend grow impatient waiting for the whole class to complete such tasks and push to move on).

The first student to finish reading Persepolis found herself having to look up the political history of Iran while reading. She suggested creating an interactive, digital timeline of research to assist other readers of the book. She is an advanced reader and innovative thinker, and often grows restless waiting for peers to catch up with her progress. Another student has already surveyed classmates and is exploring the cultural upbringing of American teens, whom will be eligible to vote in the next election. She is intrigued by Marjane Satrapi’s childhood perspective of the Islamic Revolution and wants to know if American teens are informed as independent-thinking voters or more heavily influenced by their parents. Impressive.

9. Personalized learning requires a place to store artifacts.

I finally persuaded students to create electronic portfolios — one of my visions for graduates of our school district. As my juniors enter their final year of high school, they will have a collection of work neatly organized. College application essay topics should evolve from the actions taken and themes expressed in these artifacts. Students are designing websites or blogs where their work can be displayed for authentic audiences. They can showcase the product of their learning and validate the education received from our school.

10. Take small steps toward shifting a culture of learning.

After seeing the positive results of standards based learning and assessment in my class, students recognize the harmful mindset created by traditional, punitive grading practices. Building that culture takes time, patience, and persistence. I needed to be comfortable with myself in order to express a clear, consistent message and build trust. My students and I are prepared to provide a model of personalized learning and will continue to make adjustments.

I will document the process and share our experience with others. However, not every educator will feel comfortable with this approach to learning. If district leaders feel strongly about personalized learning in the 21st century model of education, they need to provide personalized professional development to support teachers through small classroom shifts. Personalization is more of a philosophical approach than pedagogical practice.

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