How NOT To Do Personalized Learning

By Craig Gastauer and Laura Stott

On the second day of the #Empower18 ASCD Pre-Conference session, “Students at the Center: Discovering Who They are by Learning the Habits of Mind” with Art Costa, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda, five incredible students shared their experiences of developing their own long term personalized learning project. The entire session was awed by the passionate young people eager to share their journey and their learning experiences.

At the close of the day, the two of us were tasked by our presenters to talk about our own experiences as teacher practitioners trying to bring personalized learning experiences to their students and answer questions from the rest of the session participants. Within these moments, the question of where to begin was clearly on the forefront of teachers’ minds. We thought back to our first steps into personalized learning, and particularly about our many, MANY errors! We tell our students so often that failure is the best teacher, so, thus, we submit to you our failures, in hope of helping others to learn from them. In part 2 of our blog, we hope to share some ideas about taking beginning steps into personalized learning more successfully than we did!

Trying to do too much too fast.

Laura: At first, I thought of personalized learning as based on BIG projects. My first attempt was to have my AP US students choose a question from their summer reading assignment (their choice), and design a method (their choice) for conveying their answer to that question. What a flop. I ended up with students who didn’t pick a question they could truly engage with, but rather that they found easy. They didn’t have any guidance about skills or standards on which to focus, or any goals they were working toward. And I ended up with what Allison aptly called “dumpster projects.” After they are submitted and returned, that’s where they go to die, never to be looked at again……

Personalized learning is ONLY about choosing content.

Craig: My students were starting the year by reviewing the chemistry needed to understand a deeper dive into the biochemistry standards; therefore, I created a menu of powerpoints to view, potential assignments to complete, videos to watch, and online quizzes to take. This opened up time for me to work more closely with students but they were still doing the work that meant something to me, viewing my powerpoint slides, trying to demonstrate their understanding of my questions. The experience allowed them to go at their pace but students did not feel or take ownership nor find any relevance to the learning. All I did was set up the perfect recipe for chaos and my own frustration. 38 students “doing” different things at different times, all trying to figure out this new game of doing school that I had set up.

You disappear as the teacher. The kids are on their own.

Craig: While I was aware my role as a teacher needed to change, I could not be just a “guide on the side.” I needed to actively help students develop skills and dispositions needed to co-create and drive their learning opportunities. Students need to know how to question and pose problems so that the learning can become relevant and meaningful to them. They need to know how to gather data or information while also analyzing and evaluating source reliability. Students must be taught how to organize their ideas, create an action plan, and curate those resources that help them along their journey. Students need to learn what it means to listen with understanding and empathy as they think interdependently with students and people outside the school walls in order to understand multiple perspectives that exist around any type of challenge in which they engage. And, I believe, that students need to learn how to meaningfully set goals and learn what type of feedback they need to enhance their learning and their process. This can most impactful when they also learn what audience to work with in order to socially construct learning, discover more about themselves as a learner, and use their received feedback to deepen their understanding.

Going it alone.

Laura: I was one of only three or four teachers at my high school who was engaged with personalized learning when I began this process. The other teachers were all from different content areas than my own. When I hit a roadblock, I felt isolated, and didn’t ask the others to come into my classroom to observe, or help with my assignment or unit design. Allison provided me support, and feedback, but the essential element of being part of a social learning community was missing. I was also concerned about judgement from other teachers, especially those not engaged in personalized learning. I was being provided support from my district, in the form of time, meetings with Allison, and access to technology. I worried that I would be seen as “rocking the boat” or as being engaged in some secret initiative that was coming to threaten other teachers. I did not share my work, or encourage others to explore personalized learning.

So there it is…. We’ve both failed. A LOT. And we keep trying! We invite you to share your own missteps or perceived flops and the potential next steps you would consider to improve upon the scenarios we’ve listed above. We look forward to sharing a few of our successes in Part 2!

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