Powerful Trends Observed in Personalized Learning

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.

What makes personalized learning so powerful in my eyes?

Talk about a zone of discomfort … for the first time in 24 years I am not in the classroom. While still at my high school, my new role is to help the high school build a vision and structure to help all students and teachers build a personalized learning environment.

In the classroom, I could always pilot new ideas based on research but in my new position this simply isn’t reality. Therefore, members of my school have been visiting other sites currently implementing iterations of personalized learning to help us see interpretations from the student and teacher perspective.

From my observations, I found some trends that seem to truly resonate with the students, build agency, and motivate them to dive into their own learning experience:

  1. Opportunities to learn through engagement in complex issues and/or problems
  2. Belief in every student’s abilities
  3. Positive relationships
  4. Real rigor within multi-disciplinary contexts

1. Opportunities to learn through engagement in complex issues and/or problems

Teachers developed opportunities for students to examine a complex issue or problem and then provided the space for those students to find connections to the learning that most resonated within them. In one Connecticut school, students had to work within the defined issue of “social injustice.” Some students chose gun control and referenced the Newtown incident while many referenced the antiquated Education System itself.

One young lady referred to pollution in waterways as a source of social injustice, as more often than not it negatively impacted poorer populations. In addition to describing her research about poor populations from multiple countries around the globe drinking from the waterways polluted with industrial waste, she:

  • detailed the politics that led to this problem in that region.
  • explained the environmental chemistry behind the problem.
  • described how cells and various human organs could be affected by prolonged exposure to the different types of waste. (And truth be told, she was describing the science in greater detail than many AP students I have met and taught.)

From all the students in this class, it was clear that the students developed a deep understanding of the issues and problems they selected from many perspectives.

2. Belief in every student

In Pasadena, Calif., one student seemed separated from the rest of his class. He readily admitted that gangs played a past role in his life, but he was in school to learn.

Through my inquiries, I found out that in a science class he discovered an interest in ecology and taking better care of the environment. But why was he in this room alone? After doing an experiment and writing up his lab report, his science teacher convinced him to expand on these ideas and use them to write a persuasive essay assignment for his English class.

Within the various observed classes, there were students considered high achieving as well as those considered struggling. Yet, there was never any sign of marginalizing students or separating students into groups of “those who can” and “those who struggle.”

Every student was provided the same opportunities, but each student delved into the projects utilizing his or her current understandings and focused their learning efforts around their passions and strengths. I also learned that at many of these sites, teachers and students often meet to go over process and progress to ensure students were on the right track to demonstrate their expected growth.

3. Positive Relationships

A group of three boys in Greenwich, Conn., looked to be talking in the corner. At first, I thought they were off task and found myself drawn to find out more.

All had their chromebooks out and were open to the same graphing program with distinctly different designs created with a series of graphing functions. As I listened in, two of the boys were sharing different ways that the third student might try to add a component to the picture he was attempting to create for his project.

“Have you thought about…?” “What if you tried…?”

The first two were not telling him what to do, but providing potential ideas that might help him solve his problem.

As I walked around the room, this was the norm between all student groups. These students knew that they could go to each other — not to get an answer, but to stimulate new possibilities.

Additionally, there were teachers (yes, plural) walking through the multiple classes of students not to simply monitor students, but to engage in discussion about what the students were creating, the process the students were following, the connections being made. The teachers were also asking the students to teach them (yes… students were teaching teachers) about what was learned through the student research.

At another high school site in New York, the teacher was describing the debate the students were going to have with a different class but the students were helping to determine the debate format, the rules, and the parameters.

In all these cases, students and teachers saw each others as partners who could collaborate to craft meaningful learning experiences and to see each other as valuable resources of knowledge and problem solvers.

4. Real rigor within multi-disciplinary contexts

In all these examples, students were engaged in learning that was challenging at their appropriate developmental level. They found and curated information through a critical examination of various sources. The depth of their understanding increased as they found connections from multiple disciplines requiring them to actively make meaning from their research and efforts. And from these experiences, each student generated their own ideas and solutions to authentic complex issues in today’s world.

What makes personalized learning powerful for you and your students?

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