Teaching for the Future 30 Year-Old


Pretty much every educational vision statement I’ve ever read aspires to create lifelong learners. However, in a nation that consistently measures students against the average, the focus remains on content and skills and not actually learning. I absolutely agree that students need to learn skills and need to know content, but teaching at the expense of understanding learning is misguided practice. As the interest of personalization of learning grows, we need to recognize this is actually a very historical perspective about learning. In the one room schoolhouse of the 19th century, every student was treated individually by necessity. You clearly can’t teach a fourteen year-old in the same manner as a six year-old. But as our schools became larger, and industrialization set in, our curriculum became standardized for an average learner. The problem is, there is no such thing as an average student. In the 21st century, we need to educate our students for an ever-changing world and fortunately we are beginning to understand the role and importance of personalization in creating lifelong learners.

But personalization goes much deeper. It allows students to learn and develop skills through their interests. We know that emotion impacts our ability to learn, why not harness that? “When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience “aha” moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery (Kohn, 2004)”. Imagine how much more interesting it would be to learn how to calculate percentages by having a student in a rural area think about a 33% off sale on a Cabella’s website instead of a math sheet! What would be even more interesting (and truly beneficial) would be to have them figure out on their own how to do it (with guidance of course), and then have to present to their peers about their process. The proficiency at the skill level would be met, but more importantly the seeds of success, relevance and life long learning would be planted.

I love that schools are moving toward implementing programs such as “genius hour” “Fed-ex Fridays” and individualized capstone projects, but if we only offer them an hour a month for exploration, we are missing the point of personalization of learning. Mandating that all students do math for the same amount of time so that they can take the same test in two weeks assumes that all students need the exact same thing and will flourish if we standardize the curriculum and the class schedule. Todd Rose charges that by accepting the myth of the average student, we deny our most important assets, which are our variability and diversity. Obedient students can accept learning as an average, but truly innovative students often rail against it. We need to shift to a paradigm of learning.

By personalizing learning, we can recognize and encourage the strengths (multiple intelligences) and interests of our students and tailor the way students learn so that they don’t perceive learning as a snoozefest…a perception that could stay with them for a lifetime. By asking students to always be reflective about their learning, we are teaching them how to learn well; a disposition they will always have. My father used to say, “The benefit of a liberal arts education is that you learn how to think and how to learn”. This is what has led me to be a lifelong learner. As educators in the 21st century, we need to educate for the thirty year-old in our students. We want them to love learning and use that passion to be productive citizens throughout their lives. It’s not enough that we feel okay about them going on to the next level of standardized tests.


It’s not Just About Multiple Pathways

In a discussion about personalized learning recently, a colleague (who is a high school principal) said, “personalized learning is not just about multiple pathways”. And she’s right!

However, offering multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency is one critical feature of a personalized learning environment. As student populations shrink in many areas, the prospect of losing students to college courses or internships has some administrators concerned about how multiple pathways might lead to the need to cut valued faculty positions. Here are some thoughts on this:

  • Offering multiple pathways is a student centered decision and (at least in Vermont) the law since the enactment of Act 77 in June of 2013. We know allowing students different learning environments can help prepare them for both college and the workplace. We also know that when offering choice, students are more invested. It is much easier for Bobby to say, “Senior math sucks!” when he feels he’s forced to take it. When he makes a choice to take a course, he is less likely to berate the experience as something forced on him. In fact, if he’s using trigonometry for construction or science for a lab internship at a hospital, he is going to be much more interested because it will be more relevant.
  • Disenchanted students are more likely to stay in school if they know they can look forward to learning in a different way in their junior and senior years. If a student dislikes school within the four walls, attending for four years can seem like an eternity to adolescent. But with the promise of taking courses at the tech center, at a college, online, or as an internship, the four-year drudgery becomes two years with a big incentive when you arrive at junior year. Personally, I have had advisees that were convinced they were only going to stay in school until they were sixteen, but they stayed in school and graduated because they were able to try learning in a different way.
  • Participating in multiple pathways may or may not mean you are taking fewer courses at your host high school. I’ve had students that wanted to stay in Advanced Spanish, Bio-Chem, Calculus II, Honors English and electives. But they also chose to take physiology online or a world geography course through virtual high school so they could maintain their “senior experience” while also preparing for their goal of pre-med or attending a competitive college.
  • Offering multiple pathways alone isn’t personalized learning. If you are just offering random “other opportunities to learn”, you are missing the point of a personalized learning environment. This is not just about choice, but also about a student looking at what their future goals are, and thinking about how they do their best learning, and developing a path for them that will maximize their potential. This kind of reflection, goal setting, guidance and proficiency-based learning does not just happen because you allow students to take college courses or participate in internships.

So true, if your school’s vision for personalized learning stops with multiple pathways, there is little fidelity in delivering a truly personalized learning experience. However, if you combine multiple pathways with a clear articulation of graduate expectations, a personalized learning plan that focuses on goal setting, reflection and long-term planning (that is created with fidelity between the student, parent and advisor) and you allow students to learn and demonstrate their learning in ways that best meet their needs, then yes, you will have a personalized learning environment.