How Did You Learn Best?


Think about when you learned the best. Was it in a class? Was it measured by a test? Or was it when you learned something on your own, or you created something for your classmates, school or family? I know I learned to read because I loved horses and read a myriad of books about horses. I learned about anatomy, (what’s a fetlock?), and I learned a different number base system by measuring things in hands, not feet. I learned about history (Justin Morgan Had a Horse) and about geography. I have never forgotten where Chincoteague is…

The point is I learned this well and deeply as a fourth and fifth grader because I was passionate about learning. Personalized learning doesn’t mean not learning things, but rather, it’s about learning things in a context that is important to you. One of the greatest fears about personalized learning is that kids will “opt out” of math or learning a second language. It is important for us as educators to frame our standards so that they are applicable across a wide range of uses making them truly applicable to our students’ future lives. It is our nature as humans to want to learn, let’s not stifle learning by trying to dictate our students’ passions. How did you learn best? Leave a comment!


Person is at the core of Personalization

untitledAt the heart of personalization is the “person”. John Clarke will be the first to tell you that the reason Pathways works well down at Mount Abe is because they start with the student advisor relationship. In that relationship there is trust, encouragement and a deep understanding of what the student’s goals are. In a high school model such as with the Big Picture Schools, Pathways or the Coalition model, at the heart of the model is the relationship between the teacher, student, parent and community. “Knowing a student well” is often cited as a cornerstone for developing student voice, choice and ultimate success.

So the question our institutions need to consider is how do we “know our students well”? Ted Sizer repeatedly notes that knowing students well, a core tenet of the Coalition Schools, revolves around teachers having no more than a student load of 80. Elementary schools are often the most successful at  this model because it is somewhat built into  the contained classroom model. With a contained classroom, elementary teachers often are responsible for a group of 20-25 students. In some cases they loop two consecutive years so they may know those students quite well at the end of 2 years.  Middle school has teaming, but depending on the configuration of the teams that can mean a load of anywhere between 25 and 95 students for either anywhere from one to four years. High school content teachers and unified arts teachers (AKA specials, exploratories etc.) can have a student load of anywhere from 80 to 150 students or more. So how do we personalize given these numbers?

Some high schools are beginning to return to a personalized model where graduate expectations and content area standards are part of a personalized learning plan that may or may not involve a traditional classroom settings. These plans are developed (almost exclusively) between the student, their teacher advisor and their parent(s) or guardian(s). Teacher advisors generally advise between 10 and 14 students. This allows them to know those students well. Clearly the number of students a teacher has can highly impact their ability to know students well. When considering personalizing education on a macro level of experience, structures must first be designed so that someone in the building really does know the student well. It is unlikely that a faculty member will know 140 students well by December, but as long as every student is known by one teacher and they are able to support the student in developing goals, voice and scholarship, the school will be on its way to providing a more personalized experience. How does your school handle knowing students well? Leave a comment!


What does Personalize Mean to You, Your School and Your Community?

It is tempting to race off and create a personalized learning plan (PLP) document because it will be mandated by the state of Vermont for all 7th and 9th graders by November of 2015. But before implementing a PLP and stamping your learning environment “personalized”, it is critical to develop a vision as to what personalized means for you, your school and your community. Be sure to include input from all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, counselors, community members and administrators.

Whether it is through a series of  learning conversations in the schools, neighborhoods and community centers, a multi-stakeholder committee, or a survey that seeks to reach all constituents gathering data is a critical first step. By understanding what the needs and concerns of all stake holders are, the vision you create for your school will truly be personalized for your community.

Here are two methods you can use to gather data: Design Thinking and Visualization Data


Using Design Thinking Principles to Mold the Vision

In the design thinking process, quite simply, participants are asked to 1) consider a problem, 2) brainstorm solutions to the problem, 3) refine the brainstorm list, and 4) prioritize the list choosing a solution or set of solutions. This is a simplification of the process, to be sure, but these are the basic steps that many organizations have been using for years to solve problems. In this scenario, I will walk you through the design thinking process based on developing a vision statement for personalization.

Step 1 – Define the problem. Implementing a more personalized program must be in response to a need. To understand that need ask 2-3 open-ended questions. Here are some examples:

  • What does a personalized education look like?
  • How will a personalized learning environment improve education?
  • What are your concerns about offering personalized educational opportunities for all students?

Your school may have previous research, public actions or identified needs that have already defined the problem, but step one in design thinking is being clear about the problem that you are trying to solve.

Step 2 – Brainstorm solutions to the problem. It is critical to make sure that the brainstorming process is allowed to occur without evaluation. Nothing shuts down a brainstorming process faster than someone saying, “We could never afford that”. There are several ways to approach brainstorming, but most include having some time to personally reflect and write down ideas first. For years, I participated in the format where everyone was able to add one idea to the group brainstorm list before anyone had an opportunity to add a second idea. In that format the facilitator scribed the ideas until the group had exhausted all their ideas. A more modern take on that format involves using post-it notes and individually writing the ideas and saying them aloud as you post them on a wall. With either format it is important that all participants have an opportunity to express all their ideas and that everyone feels equally supported and encouraged to think outside the box during this part of the process.


Step 3 – Refine the brainstorm list. This part of the process contains several steps in most protocols.

1) The first task in step three is that ensure participants have an opportunity to see everyone’s ideas and ask for clarifications for any specific ideas. This part of the process must be genuinely encouraged. Imagine a post-it note that said “PLPs must include provisions for IEP, 504, EST & DC for all students.” We know that educators’ use of acronyms often makes their world inaccessible to the average parent or community member. A sincere request at the beginning of the process that the educators be as clear as possible will go a long way to promote accessibility for the parents, students and community members.

            2) Once clarification questions have been answered there is a second step, which allows for deep probing questions such as, “Can you explain what it means that all students will have the opportunity to learn outside the classroom?” This is when stakeholders can extrapolate meaning from the abbreviated notes on the post-its. Still, during this part of the process there is no evaluation. The purpose here is to understand the meaning of the notes.

3) The third step in the refining process is often to order or organize the ideas. If you are using post-it notes it often means the group members physically move post-it notes to similar ideas. In the following figure you will notice that in the example from the Partnership for Change’s Community Learning Conversation event in November of 2013, when asked how to create a personalized learning program for students, several participants had ideas related to allowing students to earn credit beyond the classroom were grouped. Step three may be an iterative process that then goes back and further defines the organized categories depending on your data and your time constraints. A good rule of thumb is to ask the group if they feel they are ready to move to the fourth step or if they need more refinement.


Step 4 – Prioritize your list. Using sticky dots or hash marks from markers participants then prioritize their ideas. In many focus forum groups where we have used sticky dots, participants are able to take their five dots and apply them wherever they would like. That means they may either put one or all five on a particular idea. In some cases people are asked to use hash marks in the same manner or to put a “1”, “2” or “3” next to the list of ideas. As you can see in the figure above in some instances the dots are placed directly on the post-it note and in some cases they are placed in the realm of that idea. In the end, whether by numbers, sticky dots or hash marks, your list will indicate clearly what the salient ideas from the group are to solve the problem from step one. Using these ideas, the group will then create a vision statement that was truly developed through a horizontal leadership process that values the voices of all stakeholders.

Visualization Data – Unfortunately not all school systems are able to provide the time to have a series of face to face design thinking workshops. A less time intensive more convenient method is to survey students, teachers, parents and community members about the three questions:

  • What does a personalized education look like?
  • How will a personalized learning environment improve education?
  • What are your concerns about offering personalized educational opportunities for all students?

and place the data into a word cloud program (wordle, tagxedo, etc) to elicit central themes.

personalized 2

There are some inherent dangers in this methodology in that important stakeholders, such as families without internet access or busy single parent families, might not be represented in your data. It is also critical in this type of data analysis that you keep your questions separate.

Overall, gathering data either through face to face meetings or surveys with a wide range of stakeholders will help your school understand how to create a more personalized learning that will meet the needs of your community. How has your school defined personalization? What steps have you taken? Leave a comment!