What Elementary Students Need to Learn

My educational philosophy is straightforward. I believe that all students are able to learn, but they will not arrive at the same place, on the same day and in the same way. The diverse nature of children is what is wonderful about each and every one of them and we need to nurture that diversity. If our students leave our school knowing how to think at high level thought, collaborate, communicate well, understand the concepts of literacy and numeracy, and are they are kind, thoughtful and empathetic people, we have done our jobs well. Here’s what they need to know how to do:

To think – The ability to connect and evaluate ideas, and understand strategies for discovering the answers we seek, needs to be at the forefront of everything we teach.

To Collaborate: Teaching children about collaboration and empathy might be our two greatest lessons we can bestow on our children.

To communicate well – It is critical that students know how to speak and write well. They must be able to ask the right questions, defend a belief, communicate who they are and why, and connect with the world around them.

To understand the concepts of literacy – Without the ability to decode, whether it be letters, languages or culture, students can not make sense of the world around them. Reading is the key to decoding and finding the answers they need to all the questions they have.

To understand numeracy – Being able to equate quantities, qualities and spaces allows students to think in dimensions that go beyond description.

To be a good person – Any vast amount of knowledge and success on standardized testing is moot without the qualities of a just and caring society.

Between the Common Core Standards for Math and Language Arts, the C3 standards for social studies and the NGSS standards for science, K-6 students literally have  thousands standards to master in a 7 year period. But if we want to give them the tools to be masters of their own learning and their own destiny, let’s just keep these 6 things in mind.


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.

5 Reasons We Are Afraid of PLPs (but Shouldn’t Be)

personalized 2The 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Beth Brodie


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!