Effective Personal Learning Time in Any Classroom: A Guide

Last year I had a lot of fun, and learned so much about my students from our “20% Project”. The post I wrote in January continues to get a lot of views, which makes me think this idea won’t be just a “flash-in-the-pan” way to teach, but could open up doors to a new era of personalized learning. I am by no means the first person to do this type of learning in class, and I sure won’t be the last. I only want to share what are some best practices that worked in my class’ project last year, and how you can have effective personal learning time with any age, grade, subject, or learning abilities.

My project had five main components that helped it run successfully. While other variable may change, these are my recommendations based on my experience.

1. Structured unstructured time

Students need to have their “20% time” structured in a way that makes sense with your schedule. For elementary classrooms that may be every day before lunch/recess and for secondary students it may be on Friday’s, or a specific time during the week etc. If you give them their 20% at random times without being able to prepare it may hurt the effectiveness in the short and long-term. This can even be a discussion with students at the start of the project of what time would work best.

2. No grade

Hey, I understand the need for grades. They help us dictate to the students what they are mastering and what they need to work on; they help motivate many students; and they provide a measure for parents and other stakeholders in the educational process to view academic achievement. However, in terms of personal learning time, there should not be a grade. This should be inquiry-driven, intrinsically motivated learning. Students can be assessed on their effort, but I would not do that with grades. This is when teacher conferencing (during the 20% time) becomes important and useful to touch base and help students move forward. Grading diminishes the intellectual curiosity from the project, and allows for external motivations. In terms of external motivations, I believe there should only be one allowed (see below). If you want to see how I handled students who might not work as hard without a grade, read this post.

3. Peer accountability

Peer pressure is one of the best, and worst, types of external motivation. We tend to look at “peer pressure” as a negative external force that causes students to do things they normally wouldn’t do. Consequently, we sometimes forget that the flip side of peer pressure is “peer accountability”: students doing well and working hard because their peers are working hard and doing well. Ray Fisman wrote a great article in 2010 about “The Right Kind of Peer Pressure” in schools (particularly with girls) based on studies by Cornell researchers.

In terms of personalized learning time, you need to facilitate a collaborative learning space where students can see what other students are doing in real-time. Having students post projects up on the web is also another great idea because they’ll see what other peers are doing with their time. While the project itself allows for students to be individuals, sometimes seeing a friend moving forward will give a needed boost to others in the class.

4. Reflection

I had the meta-cognitive part of the project be student journals. While these were not graded, I did routinely check what they were writing about the project and their own personal learning. Some students wanted guiding questions and I provided them, but did not require answers to those questions. I was happy to see the reflections and they could look back on what they learned throughout the project.

5. Presentation (sharing)

Periodically I had students share their journals (or a line or two about their project) on our classes LMS (learning management system) – which was Schoology. Students could then comment on what they thought about each other’s work, and give each other “likes”. This connects back to No Grade because I was assessing them through their work here without grades, and connects to the Peer Accountability and Reflection components as well with student feedback.

They also presented to the entire class at the end of the third and fourth marking period. This was an “informal” presentation, but I had each student stand in front of the class and speak about what they did. Some students spoke longer and brought in props or slides, while others talked about what they did as if they were telling a story. It was obvious which students were proud of what they did, and which ones wish they’d spent some more time/energy on their project. I think it would have been even better if this was started in the beginning of the year with four presentations throughout.

In Monday’s post I’ll go over the four main “options” you can give during the personal learning time: Collaboration, Technology integration, Common Core connection, and Parental Involvement.

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