Creating an Example of What We Are Trying to Achieve

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.

It is our mission to nurture creators, inventors, and innovators — students prepared to learn, grow, and take ethical action to solve real-world problems — through exploration, analysis, debate, imagination, collaboration, and calculated risk-taking.

Why is this important? Educational success can no longer be about reproducing content knowledge, but about applying behavior, knowledge, and skill to novel situations. We must change the way we perceive jobs and careers because automation is reshaping the workforce. This means that many jobs/careers of our students’ futures may not yet even exist. Additionally, university professors often lament that students enter colleges unable to think for themselves and are unable to use information to create solutions to novel problems. The set of skills and dispositions students need for university are the same that they need to successfully thrive in the workforce.

Empowering a new generation of learners

In order to help students become creators, inventors, and innovators, a traditional style of education in which the teacher talks about information while students only engage to memorize for the purpose of regurgitating it back on an end of unit exam no longer meets the needs of our students. Students must learn more than how to compliantly follow directions. Instead, teachers must empower students to engage in a learning process to understand and direct their own study by developing the skills and dispositions required to:

  • identify, learn, and curate knowledge relevant to a challenge or problem,
  • empathetically understand a challenge or problem’s differing perspectives,
  • ideate solutions when the answer is not immediately apparent, and
  • act upon their developed plans.

Developing personalized learning experiences

For our site, this means that from the 9th grade year, teachers will construct learning experiences in which students and teachers collaborate in order to make their opportunities increasingly student directed within the context of complex, messy challenges or problems. This is what we mean when we say we are developing personalized learning experiences at our site.

We defined personalized learning as:

Increasingly putting students at the center of the design of their learning experiences where they leverage growing strengths, interests, passions, and ideas to engage in authentic problems and challenges that are aligned to standards and students’ personal goals.

To be clear, this does not mean that teachers throw out sound pedagogy or plop students in front of computers as the only method of instruction. Teachers continue to set the curricular goals to ensure that students have a quality education. However, depending on the needs of the student and the goals of the lesson, students and teachers collaborate to help students take increasingly more control of their learning.

Moving from teacher directed to student directed learning

Based on the work of Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda, we imagine the movement from teacher directed to student directed as a set of controls like those found on a sounding board. At times, we amplify certain elements of the lesson along a continuum of student control to increase student voice while potentially reducing other elements to allow more teacher direction in order to meet the needs of the student and the lesson’s goals. It is also important to note while a teacher may choose to amplify an element in one lesson, the teacher may reduce student voice for that element in the next lesson. What is important is developing the skills and dispositions of all elements throughout the student’s learning experiences.

An example

To illustrate what this might look like, Allison Zmuda and I developed an example around a problem affecting a large portion of the population in the San Diego community:

What should happen to the Qualcomm Stadium space since the Chargers have moved away?

In a nutshell, since the former San Diego NFL team moved to Los Angeles, only the San Diego State University Aztec Football program uses the stadium as its home. Concerts, Monster Truck rallies, Motocross events, the Holiday Bowl, and swapmeets in the largest parking lot west of the Mississippi River are the only other ways this space is now used. However, the city is responsible for paying approximately $12 million per year for maintenance. Is this a responsible use of city funds for a space used so irregularly?

Local business leaders have proposed building “Soccer City” to bring in a Major League Soccer Franchise. San Diego State had stated the desire to have the land granted to them in order to expand the university and create a college football appropriate stadium. What is the best answer to suit the needs of the community? Since no one “correct” answer exists, it provides students a chance to explore aspects within this larger problem that are most interesting to them.

Soccer City Brainstorm (1)

What is nice about this type of complex problem is that students may connect their interests and passions from a variety of perspectives— since not all students may be interested in the “sports” aspect of the problem.

  • A student thinking of a future in business could examine this bigger problem by focusing on business aspects of this issue.
  • A student interested in ecology may approach the problem of protecting the San Diego River Bed which borders this property.
  • Students interested in how local government works could look at the politics behind the proposals.
  • Students who are more interested in developing stronger relationships within a community could research how to connect people within this space.

Teacher or student directed, or highly co-created

Depending on the goals for the lesson, this project could be more teacher or student directed or highly co-created. In the chart below, we provide some ideas on how this lesson might look or feel depending on whether the seven elements of Personalized Learning are teacher directed, teacher and student co-created, or student directed.

Seven Elements of Personalized Learning Teacher directed

The teacher(s) define the element for the students.

Teacher and Student Co-created

The teacher(s) and student work together to define aspects of the element.

Student Directed

The student identifies the specific element within the scope of the project.

Goals The teacher set all goals for the students within the project. An example might be for students to identify, curate, and utilize the evidence required to support their proposal to this problem. Teachers and students collaborate to determine the goal(s) of the project. An example might be an agreement that a student identifies different cities that lost their sports team and compares efforts tried to rebuild the space. From the lessons learned, the student builds a proposal for San Diego using their learning as evidence to support their proposal. Students identify their own goals within the project. An example might be a student developing an evidence based proposal for the Qualcomm space based on an analysis of a variety of state, federal, and environmental group recommendations to ensure that the construction protects the bordering San Diego River.
Inquiry / Idea Generation The teacher develops the inquiry or idea for students to focus their efforts on. In this example, a teacher may ask how community members can get involved in local government initiative as a component of their government/ civics class. A second example might be for students working on a multidisciplinary project for their ecology and business classes to understand the cost/benefit analysis of environmental regulations and construction costs. A co-created experience might see a teacher setting a larger inquiry (e.g. What is the best financial option for the city of San Diego? OR what regulations would be best for business and the environment?) while students research a particular aspect of the question that interests them (e.g. What businesses would attract the most people to this central area of San Diego in order to raise revenue? OR what environmentally friendly businesses should be encouraged to locate here to protect the environment while also raising revenue for the city?) Within a student driven experience, a student would define both the larger problem within the scenario and the specific question that the learning would answer. An example might be the student asking how the space could solve other problems in the community such as homelessness. If the student was working on the multidisciplinary project for the ecology and business classes, they might focus on an inquiry focusing about how to raise necessary and sustainable funding sources for the restoration and future care of the San Diego River ecosystem as part of the new development plan.
Task and Audience The teacher determines the task that all students will create and the target audience. One example might be writing a formal letter using persuasive writing techniques to the San Diego City Council encouraging the adoption of their proposal. A second example might be the creation of a television commercial incorporating persuasive techniques to convince potential voters to vote for their proposal in a local election. Teachers and students may brainstorm various audiences who could be persuaded to agree with the student’s proposal and what products or actions would best sway those individuals to adopt the student’s message as their own. Students would then select the audience and task that most fits with their strengths, interests, and passions. In a student-generated scenario, the teacher outlines the general task parameter but allows the student to determine the task best fit for a specific audience. An example might be setting the expectation that students must apply what they have learned about argumentation and persuasion but the student selects what position to advocate for, who they are trying to impact, and what product they will create or action they will take.
Evaluation Criteria The teacher decides how to measure learning, what high-quality exemplars look like, and the qualifiers used to define a rubric’s different levels of understanding. Teachers and students collaborate to develop the performance criteria. This might be accomplished by providing students with multiple exemplars and allowing the students to help develop the criteria for each level of understanding of the rubric. Students should then use this to self-assess their work throughout the project using the agreed upon criteria. If the student has defined the goals and/or the task and audience, then the student should propose to the teacher the criteria to define success. The teacher would provide feedback and ensure that students are working to demonstrate the appropriate level of understanding with regard to standards and class outcomes. In this way, the teacher and student would reach consensus on the final evaluative criteria.
Feedback The teacher is responsible for providing description and actionable feedback for students based on the evaluative criteria. The purpose of this feedback is always for revision of student work to help them achieve the expectations defined in the evaluative criteria. The teacher provides opportunities for students to connect with others to receive feedback. In the case of the Qualcomm scenario, students might be connected to current or past city council members, businessmen or women who have interest in the student’s proposal, a member of SDSU’s planning commission looking to expand their site, etc. Because of the student’s ability to build on the knowledge of these audiences, revision of student’s initial work should now demonstrate deeper understanding of various perspectives, challenges, and/or potential solutions. Students independently seek out individuals who can help them create, test, and refine their product or performance to meet defined project goals. In this example, students may seek out feedback from local business leaders, environmental scientists, planning commissioners, and/or other relevant audiences to review their proposal’s ideas. By providing these reviewers with questions or asking for their input concerning specific proposal aspects, students continue to enhance their proposal, build communication skills, and deepen their understanding of the various perspectives of the problem and their own proposal.
Instructional Plan When teachers are in charge of the instructional plan, they lay out all aspects of the project. They determine the available resources, when students will discuss various challenges or solutions to the problem as a class or in small groups, when to assign work, and when rough and final drafts are due. Teachers may or may not require that students use a project planner. When teachers and students co-create the instructional plan, there may be choice in resources, times for discussions, the make-up of discussion groups and how their discussion points will be shared with the whole class, and how to solicit teacher help in order to receive assignments or suggestions for next steps as needed. Students will keep track of progress toward their goals, outcomes, plan, and final product or performance in a project planner. Teachers may also assign work or collaborate with smaller groups based on collected formative assessment evidence. Students utilize project planners (either their own or one provided by their teacher) to develop their action steps to achieve their goal (including progress toward goals, outcomes, plan, and final product or performance). The instructional plan includes resources identified and curated by the student, methods of how to make sense of the resources (e.g. book studies, interviews, etc.), and conferences to check in with the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher acts as an activator and coach to ensure student learning and actions are on the ‘right track’ to achieve the goals and they offer feedback to help students improve their process.
Cumulative Demonstration of Learning The teacher determines the artifacts students need to use to demonstrate learning over time. These artifacts could include various assignments, rough drafts, reflections, etc. In this scenario, the student may need to collect quick writes, assignments of persuasive writing, rough drafts of formal letters, reflections, and their final letter to a city council member. The teacher may provide students with a range of learning opportunities and have the students identify the artifacts they can use to demonstrate their learning over time. In this scenario, the student may select from the range of teacher generated assignments or activities, student actions based on their instructional plan (such as interviews and their reflection indicating what was learned), and written drafts of their formal letter. Students are regularly archiving their learning in a portfolio or exhibitions and reflecting on their efforts. They additionally identify strengths and weaknesses and create plans of improvement. Students will also connect their reflections on learning to the standards aligned with the learning. When students drive this element, they clearly recognize that the reflective learning process is just as important to demonstrate their full understanding as the final product or performance is.


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