The cornerstone of personalized learning is developing (and following) a Personal Learning Plan (PLP). These are not the Individual Educational Plans (IEP) that are federally mandated in special education law. These are documents that students create during their middle and high school years to develop and follow their educational and personal progress. The Personal Learning Plan is crafted between students, their advisors and their parents or guardians, and it is aligned with the school’s graduate expectations. But a personalized plan also allows students to have a voice in their education by articulating their learning styles and preferences, setting academic and personal goals that reflect their needs, and reflecting on their learning. The plan also archives student work and progress, which allows them to discuss their learning in authentic student-led conferences.
So why are we so afraid of them?
- Perception of extra workload. Many teachers and advisors feel that adding a PLP is one more thing to add to an educational plate that is already brimming for both students and teachers. Approaching the PLP as one more thing to do as opposed to being at the heart of everything we do is what creates the perception of added work. When you view the PLP at the heart of a student’s education, you begin to peel off the unnecessary elements of education. When you have already established a relationship between the student and their families around personalized learning goals, conversations about progress grow naturally from an organic process. Having 10-14 student-led conferences with advisees is actually less work than having 40 formulaic traditional parent conferences. Most students are already setting goals for their education, but since goal setting happens in individual disciplines they are often disassociated from overall learning goals.
- Perception that students will opt out of courses. Having a personalized learning plan does not mean that a student can “opt out” of math. It means they need to demonstrate all the content standards, but may not do it in the same way as every other student. This does not mean that each teacher must teach math in a different way, but if a student can meet the standard by taking a long distance learning course, or by interning at a local business, then they should have the opportunity to create a plan that allows them to do so. Think about learning to knit. Some people take formalized classes, some read an illustrated book, some watch internet videos and some use the old trial and error method. As longs as a hat is well made and fits, does it matter how the knitter figured it out? Students need to meet the content standards that your school has articulated for graduation, but how they meet those standards may look differently for all students.
- Perception that PLPs are superfluous. This is not another fad that will wash away. Having a personal plan is at the heart of success for adults making progress in their lives. We should have been doing this all along. In Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens (1998), he advocates that teens “begin with an end in mind” by developing goals and a mission. I reiterate what I said in bullet #1: Developing a plan should be at the heart of what we do. It is not superfluous and is not going to go away.
- Perception that taking time for reflection takes away from learning content. Yes, that is true, however taking time to reflect and become a cognitive learner allows students to become independent and life long learners. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire reminds us that “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed — even in part — the other immediately suffers . . .” Without reflection, learning is merely a series of unconnected actions. However when students reflect on their learning, it propels them toward future learning.
- Perception that documenting success is too time consuming. Documenting success in the form of a portfolio does take time, but it is time well spent. I have been using portfolios in my classes since the early nineties. Students do often lament the time they spend organizing and editing work so that it is presentation ready. However, when their work is ready for presentation almost all students are proud of their work and feel the skills they learned in organizing and reflecting on their work was time well spent…and overwhelmingly their parents do to.
As we move toward implementing comprehensive personalized learning plans supported by student-led conferences, there will be angst and there will no doubt be push back. PLPs represent doing things differently and change can be anxiety producing. But if we are truly preparing our students for an effective and productive life, as opposed to producing students that are “caught up in the busy-ness of life” (Covey, 1989) we need to embrace personal learning plans as the heart of what we do as educators.