Personalized Learning is the phrase of the day in education. And for a good reason. ISTE defines personalized learning as pedagogy that “tailors instruction, expression of learning and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences.”
That’s amazing–and exactly what we as teachers want to offer for our students. But it’s also daunting. We live in a society entangled in the paradox of innovation and cultural lag. We have the technology for electric vehicles, but we still cruise the interstates in gas guzzlers. We have the technology to implement green energy, but we still burn coal. Robotics can make surgery more efficient and lessen recovery time, but we still go in for traditional surgery.
And that leads us to this–we have the understanding that students learn at different rates and in different ways, but we still teach in systems that implement high-stakes testing, which lends itself to a one-size-fits-all instruction model.
The research tells us to personalize and the policy tells us to industrialize–to make our students cogs in a mechanism that works from August to May, from bell to bell. Everyone is supposed to learn everything at the same pace.
That worked in the 20th century, but our economy has evolved. Innovation, creativity, collaboration, flexibility, and problem-solving have replaced memorization, formatting, repetitiveness, maintenance, and maintaining as desired marketplace skills.
But as public school teachers, we are suffering from cultural lag. We are current on the research. We understand that personalized learning that’s NOT completely automated will better prepare our students to succeed in the current and emerging economy. But there are a few obstacles preventing us from implementing it:
1. Time. Secondary teachers can have upwards of 150 students at a time. Personalizing learning for each of them is not realistic for a single teacher.
2. High-stakes testing. While the research says we should personalize, our states mandate that we standardize. Everyone needs to be ready to take a test that WE will be evaluated on at the same time.
3. Our communities. When we step outside of what the parents of our students experienced in school, we become more vulnerable to their criticism. The reason that parents, politicians, and community members believe they know better than educators is that they all went to school. From that, they developed ideas of how school should work. (This is an understandable phenomenon–all of us have spent a large portion of our lives in the classroom. Effective teachers make everything look effortless, and ineffective teachers make what is lacking superficially apparent.)
In spite of this, I am optimistic that we can bring personalized learning to our classrooms in two ways:
By Keeping it Simple
As far as personalized learning goes, for my own sanity (I admit), I look at my classroom as a restaurant. A family can go there, and there’s something for everyone, but the choices are not infinite. That’s where what I like to call “mini-modules” come in.
I had a student who told me that he knew more about World War II than I ever could when we were starting a WWII unit in my world history class. I told him, “great.” And invited him to take the test in the morning. He made a 98. During class that day (while the students were doing an assignment) he and I sat down and mapped out an extension research project for him. He’s listed in my standardized grade book, so we decided on checking points along the way that would replace the assignments I intended to count. I now open this option up to everybody. I will write about how I do that in a later post during this series.
But what of the less precocious? Or (gasp!) those who just aren’t that interested?
Maybe personalization is still the answer. But still within the confines of a menu. Unlimited choices are a burden to us and disservice to our students. We would spend all of our time searching for things for them to do and they would spend all of their time trying to decide what to do.
So I’m using a three part menu that allows for choice in how they learn and practice and then offers formative assessment followed by remediation or enrichment. The first part is not a menu and is the same for everyone. Since students are working from a menu, assignments are clear, already available ahead of time, and so chances for chaos and misbehavior are no more likely than if everyone were listening to a lecture or doing book work.
Here’s How It Works:
1. They Read The Learning Target.
So that students are clear about what they are to be learning, begin with the learning target clearly stated. They then use the target to fill out the first two columns of a KWL chart.
2. They Select How They Will Learn The Topic.
The three choices I give them are read, research, or watch. It’s finite, but it gives them an option for the content delivery. On a Google Slides template, I link to a reading, a curated research document, and a film. Students choose one of these methods for learning the topic.
For each of these, I think it’s best to think smarter. Don’t try to create everything yourself–there’s so much available out there.
-The Reading–Link to:
* A free online textbook.
* Your own textbook (if you have it digitally).
* Scan (or take pictures of) a PDF you already have to post digitally (for your students only, of course).
-The Research–Link to:
* A search over the topic in a database your school already subscribes to.
* A list of links you’ve curated. I either use a doc or Symbaloo.
* A webquest you’ve already created or purchased.
-The Film–Link to:
* A Youtube film, such as Khan Academy, Crash Course, or any number of films available for your content.
* A screencast of you presenting the topic (I love screencastify for this).
* A film clip inside Edpuzzle.
3. They Select a Practice Activity from a Choice Menu.
I have a bunch of templates for various, short activities. I use the same choice menu and links every time. It take some time on the front end to create these, but then you have them. Also, think in terms of what you already have. If you have worksheets that would work, scan them to PDFs and have students use DocHub or Kami to complete them.
I sent the examples I’ve shown you to my email list (I call my email list “My Notes”) this week so that they can use them if they’d like.
4. They Take a Formative Assessment.
I link to a Google Form for this. They are quick and easy to create, but if your school uses USA Test Prep, you can link to an assessment there. They offer automated remediation.
Here are the ways I use Forms to automate this:
-Create a self-grading quiz and use the free automastery add-on to automate remediation/extension. Note that remediation can be as simple as sending the menu back out and requiring them to learn it a different way (If they used the film, try the reading….), doing a different practice activity, and retaking the assessment). Extension can be a short project from a choice board you already have. I created this one that I use all the time–I change one project from each row to one project total. If you’re pushed for time, skip the extension and just have them move on to the next topic. But never skip the remediation.
-Create an adaptive Google Form. Students go to a specific section on the form based on their answer. If they get the answer wrong, they go to a section for immediate remediation. If they get it right, they go to a section that has the next question. Here’s how to make an adaptive form.
By Doing What We Can within the Current Standardized Guidelines
The reality for most of us is that all of our students are assessed at the same time in the same way. We are powerless to change this–fair or not, teachers’ voices are the most quickly to be dismissed concerning educational policy. Under standing this, we have two options: we can throw our hands in the air and keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, or we can work on the fringes of the box we’ve been put into.
Here’s How We Can Work from the Fringes:
1. Unpack the standards and develop learning targets. See if your state department of education or colleagues have already done this. If you have a good department or team, try to divide and conquer.
2. Accumulate as many resources as we can without marrying ourselves to any one of them.
-See something useful online? Save it in Google Keep or Evernote and organize into topics.
-Have old worksheets? Scan and digitize them.
-Create YouTube channels for your topics.
-See something on TeachersPayTeachers you can put in your toolbox? Grab it if you can.
-Curate your test questions into learning targets and always be on the look out for new questions (from released milestones, from other teachers…).
-Follow teachers who teach your content on social media. Take advantage of what they offer, even if you don’t need it right now, put it in your toolbox.
There’s a lot of junk out there, but there’s also a lot of really useful information–have it on hand.
3. Have organized and flexible ways to present the content.
-Find or create templates you can use and reuse.
-Use Symbaloo Boards and Paths.
-If your school has an LMS (Learning Management System), such as Schoology, Canvas, or Blackboard, create learning modules within them that you can use again and again.
This is the first post in my series Baby Steps to Personalized Learning. I’m not talking about the completely automated methods that research has shown are not effective, but a blend of teacher, learner, and auto-driven personalization. My goal is for us to feel empowered as classroom teachers to engage in best practices despite a system that treats us like cogs in a machine. By doing this, I believe we can empower our students to reach their full potential.
With each post, I’m sending my email list a resource for their toolbox to help in the journey. Here’s what they received this week:
You can sign up for my Notes HERE.
How do you personalize learning in your classroom? Leave a comment and let me know.
And be sure to check out the entire series, Baby Steps to Personalized Learning.