The Person in Personalized Learning
Personalized learning. It makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want each and every student who comes their way to learn what they want, and continue along a path of knowledge, enlightenment and a wish to go further with the things that make them tick, that bring them joy, and give one’s life purpose? As a librarian, personalized learning for each and every student is basically the mantra of the day--the raison d’etre upon which the library was founded. As a teacher librarian my main goal is to provide a perfect recipe of resources, classroom know-how and personal interactions that make personalized learning the order of the day. Every day. For everyone. It sounds so simple. If only…
If only everyone could hit the rewind button on what it takes to set the stage for personalized learning to occur honestly, happily, actually. In a perfect high school setting in the 21st century students are psyched to come to school, where they are welcomed and honored for who they are, what they wish to learn and who this will allow them to become. Tech options are available and streamlined. Blended classroom pedagogy offers a fabulous hybrid platform that meets each kid where they are: the shared class docs are never defaced by those who refuse to become responsible digital citizens, the playlists curated by teachers have “something for everyone” and the time allowed in class for real academic and personal interaction among students and teachers is filled with meaning that inspires the growth of soft skills that support students as they focus on learning the hard ones.
The recipe is pretty simple. Imagine the high school class that hums along as some are plugged in utilizing the array of online resources prepared for them (and also finding their own), while others are engaging with the teacher who is explaining/listening/expanding per individual or small group needs. There might even be a small group of collaborators, collaborating in a sacred classroom space, making their own little hybrid situation of tech, discussion and problem-solving increase their learning, with the underlying understanding that plugging oneself in or deciding to utilize the teacher’s expertise is also an option, and it’s all good. I dream about this kind of stuff. Don’t we all? In this digital age it seems like it should be a natural thing in schools across America, this perfect blend of person-to-person teaching coupled with efficient use of all that technology has to offer, based on student need and interest. So why is it often so elusive? Why do we continue to struggle with personalized learning? Well, because people are complex. So many variables. The confluence of so many preceding details gets in the way.
In order for personalized learning to truly take place--to thrive and function in a high school setting--we need to build up the capacity for it from the early years of school. Children need to have the flames of wonder fanned in a way that allows them to internalize an appetite for life. Not a life of video games and Netflix, but for living. They need to be taught to read for sustained periods of time in which they metabolize their very own personal ability to dig in and understand. They need to learn how to be with themselves, their peers and their teachers. They need to have inculcated in them a respect for themselves and their peers and their teachers. Somehow, their experiences in the early years of school have to provide opportunities for them to become literate, joyful little problem-solvers who have internalized the wonder of being alive, and the fact that there is meaning in the everyday as well as the stuff that is “awesome.” That it matters how you act just as much as it matters whether you are becoming better at the things your teachers are trying to help you learn. That it feels good to like who you are and to also be a good friend. Kids need to be really and truly prepared to embrace the personalized learning opportunities we wish for them as young adults. That means they have to come to the high school level intrinsically motivated to learn (lots of soft skill teaching in there) while possessing a decent skill set around literacy, numeracy and communication skills, and some basic technological know-how. It is a pretty tall order, but at the same time pretty basic. Time spent investing in a road map through the elementary and middle years, with personalized learning readiness as its goal, could change the world.
Educating grade schoolers is three-fold: it is socializing them and teaching them basic academic know-how, all while embracing each and every one of them for who each and everyone is! It all starts with respect. Respect the emotional and creative person each kid is, and respect every potential he or she has. Respect the social norms that allow us to all get along. Respect the enormous power of the various literacies in which we need to become fluent so we can reach our potentials and have purposeful, interesting lives. And keep circling back to all of it so that when it is time for the high school years, personalized learning is the natural progression.
Ideally, if those elementary years go well, we have children who want to use their personal and academic sensibilities to learn about what interests them. They have been taught that learning is fun, that it can also be hard, but it’s worth it. They have learned they are capable. They have been taught how to get along. They have a natural respect for their teachers because their teachers have provided so many opportunities that have helped them become who they are becoming. They have been taught not only how to read, but how to persist in one’s reading to wonder and find out more. Their middle grades curricula were designed to teach students how to read effectively online (that is a whole other blog). Digital citizenship is a fact of life and kids can be trusted to fire up their school-issued devices and do the right thing. Trust and respect have been such a long-standing part of their education that getting along in school as a person and a student is just not much of an issue. Students see their ability to function independently as part of a group as normal. The boundaries and skill-building experienced consistently throughout childhood set them free. Sounds like good parenting. Sounds like healthy human development. Sounds like the best idea ever. Ah, school...now we remember why we became educators! School does not need to be “unschooled,” as so many critics proclaim. It can be the healthiest place for a community of kids to show up and live their lives while they learn to live their lives.
So, now what? This blog is kind of all over the map, I know. There are a dozen spots where it could digress, begging the questions that are out there about the grades and walls and bureaucracy that continue to cramp the modern dreams of so many public schools we continue to require all children to attend. So let’s not go down those rabbit holes today, but think about a bigger picture that could just be inspiring. That might inspire us to do a little better in making the small moments we are in charge of now better, and that might help us articulate and implement the newer version of school so many of us wish for.
Elementary and middle school need to be the breeding ground for successful personalized learning in the higher grades. Teenagers and teachers have so much real world teaching, talking and figuring to do, that the concepts and practice of being a good community member, a respectful and tech savvy digital citizen and capable reader need to be givens. It is a huge order, I know. It means us taking apart a lot of what is done and putting it back together more carefully. It means finding common ground and celebrating autonomy amid the behavior crises with which so many children come to school. It probably means sometimes putting academic learning on the back burner to help kids get themselves sorted out so learning can come easier when they are then ready to learn. Yup, a huge puzzle that looks like a hundred different pieces in any given school. Now, more than ever, we as educators need to be as human as possible so tech can take its rightful place to extend the personalized opportunities awaiting our young adult students, who, if “raised right” in our schools, want to go out and take on the world.
Education is a very human task. All the technology available for personalized learning is meaningless unless those accessing it are doing it from an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, independently and within a group. They need to feel a part of a community that counts among its most cherished ideals as those of wonder, respect and responsibility for doing one’s best. As one dedicated early educator at my school has as her tag line beneath her email signature, “Let them be little. Inspire them to be BIG.” So, yeah, our work in schools is continually cut out for us. We can’t afford to work in silos, we need to include parents in the mix of molding youngsters who are glad to be alive and who can’t wait to find out more about their world and themselves. Let’s build school communities that include an unwavering insistence on being responsible, respectful and literate. A civil snack time is as important as tackling an assignment with grit and reflection. Being kind in the bus line matters as much as learning basic tech skills in those early grades. A hearty, healthy recess goes hand-in-hand with perfecting the times tables. Imagine a group of teenagers who are not pushing their teachers’ buttons because they are so busy pushing their own, in a good way, because life has been so sweet in those earlier grades that they are ready to accept personalization of their learning because it is the next logical step. That they can work independently, among others and within an intrinsically respectful relationship with the adults who are, well, still in charge, in the most positive of ways. Wow. What a beautiful thing. Achievable, too, if we as educators start from the beginning and build with this goal in mind. While tech avenues and the continual information they bring to our students may outshine our expertise in certain academic subjects, our expertise can continually grow as the stewards of their growing up with the dignity and respect that are at the root of successful personalized learning at the high school level.
Kristen Eckhardt, M.Ed, LMS