Yes, but … what if my students don’t buy in?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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what if students don't buy in

By Allison Zmuda

When I present the idea of personalized learning to educators — a “space” to think, imagine, focus, practice, create, and share — they nod their heads because it is incredibly powerful as an idea. But oftentimes they are fighting a “Yes, but …” battle in their heads. They are worrying and wondering about how it will be received, how to design this way, how to create a classroom culture that supports this.

Here is my first “Yes, but …” in a new monthly series. Connect with me if you would like your “Yes, but …” to be addressed!

Yes, but … what do I do if students don’t buy in?

Personalized learning changes the “rules” of school. Students are accustomed being told what to do, how to do it, and when to submit it. So, playing around with personalized learning projects where you are expecting all students to be immediately thrilled at the opportunity to pursue a question or take action on an idea won’t happen overnight.

Oftentimes students look to see if this is a new idea that they can outwit, outlast because it is uncomfortable (even if it is in their own best interests long term). Other times they just freeze out of fear.

My advice when you are just starting on the road to personalized learning:

1. Be clear on what you are aiming for.

Your goal is not to cover the curriculum one topic or skill at a time but to have them use their growing knowledge and skill to DO something. What are the bigger goals you want them to pay attention to? How does focusing on the task at hand get them ready for that larger challenge?

EXAMPLE: A group of world language teachers agreed that one of their big picture goals for every student (regardless of level) was to communicate effectively in the target language, in varied situations, while displaying a sensitivity to culture and context. So they took the topic of food and the environment of a restaurant as the territory for personalization.

The small goals directly connect to the bigger one:

  • I can explain my food preferences (i.e. level of spiciness, desired cost, type of environment) based on my knowledge of the local area and culture.
  • I can listen to the directions and summarize back to clarify accuracy.
  • I can demonstrate “good manners” throughout the conversation.

Absent the bigger purpose, students are seeing this as a short-term experience that has little impact on their ability to become more fluent in the target language or more capable of getting their ideas across.

2. Make a space for them at the design table.

What are they interested in, fascinated by, wonder about within the content territory you are responsible for teaching? You are not just “picking their brains” to come up with a new idea but are encouraging a different way of doing business. This means that different students will be doing different assignments because of what inspires them as well as what they need based on evidence.

EXAMPLE: An elementary student may be fascinated by the question, “Why is the sky blue?” but when he starts researching will come across a website like this where it starts talking about prisms and scattering and sunlight. So this student may be lost in terminology, may need to learn more about certain topics before better appreciating what appeared to be a simple question.

The teacher and student work together to figure out goals and an action plan which may include direct instruction, further research, looking at models. And yes, most of the time there will be multiple tasks, texts, problems, and ideas that are happening as a result.

3. Pay attention to the classroom rules of engagement.

Is this a space where students are expected to think, problem-solve, take risks, and create on a daily basis? What would the rules look like in those spaces? What would grading and reporting look like in those spaces? What would the physical environment look like in those spaces?

EXAMPLES: The students should be part of the articulation of the rules based on goal clarity (#1) AND examining models or examples of real problems, performances, or ideas people outside of school are immersed in (#2).

students don't buy in
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students don't buy in
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