How to survive in the era of personalized education

Michael Port shares a story (in his book) about a donkey, an old man, and a boy:

An old man, a boy and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the donkey and the old man walked beside him. As they went along they passed some people who remarked it was a shame the old man was walking and the boy was riding. The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed positions.

Later, they passed some people who remarked, “What a shame! He makes that little boy walk.” They then decided they would both walk.

Soon they passed some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So they both rode the donkey.

Now they passed some people who shamed them by saying how awful to put such a load on a poor donkey. The boy and man said they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal, and he fell into the river and drowned.

The moral of the story? If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss your ass goodbye.

Does this story remind you of your life right now as a teacher, administrator, parent, or educator? And yet, we know how important it is to personalize learning for our students. The research is loud and clear about choice and inquiry-based learning opportunities. So how do we balance this?

What Is Personalized Learning

First, I believe we need to understand the difference between personalized and individualized education. George Couros summed up the differences quickly in this post:

“individualized” learning is having students go through different paths to get to the same end point.  How you get there is different, but the destination is the same.

“Personalized” learning is having students go through their own paths to whatever endpoint they desire.  How you take the path and where you end up is totally dependent upon the strengths and interests of the learner.

While both are important to learning, let’s focus on the latter for right now. In order to create and open up opportunities for personalized learning, a teacher must have a great deal of trust in what the learners will get out of this experience.

For many teachers that is extremely difficult (it was for me as well). Having a specific curriculum and mapped out guide of what students are going to learn, when they are going to learn it, how they will be measured and assessed, and then what intervention/remediation will be done after the assessment is easier to understand.

It’s logical. It’s a simple recipe to follow. And in many cases it works.

But, what happens when students don’t want to follow that curriculum? What happens when they don’t care about the subject? What happens when they are bored with the content and go through the motions? What happens when they are tired of struggling to find success on the same type of assessments?

Students, just like adults, need to feel some sense of ownership, autonomy, and purpose in order to have true engagement (read Daniel Pink’s book Drive if you’d like to see more on this).

Three Simple Ways to Personalize

This where the concept of personalized learning becomes so important. It can unleash the feelings of autonomy and purpose in our students, but for teachers it can often feel like unmanageable chaos and no guide for how students are actually going to learn.

Here are three ways teachers can get started with personalized learning, in ways that make it manageable and successful for everyone involved.

1. Give Choice Where It Makes Sense

In my book, Learning By ChoiceI cover ten separate ways you can give students choice in their learning. Sometimes this is through what they are learning, other times it is how they learn, and you can also provide choice in how they are assessed, where they learn, who they learn with, and what the purpose is for their learning.

As a teacher and/or parent, it’s easy to see how this can get complicated.  That’s why you need to give choice where it makes sense to start. Choose one area. Don’t try and go cold turkey on everything you’ve been doing as a teacher, instead add choice one area at a time to see what really takes off in your classroom.

2. Don’t Re-invent the Wheel/Lesson/Activity

There are so many great ideas for personalized learning online. You don’t need to create a new lesson/activity/project in order to get started. Start with Genius Hour or 20% Time Project. Or maybe do an I-Search paper. How about a human rights project? Search for your content area (or grade level) and start small.

3. Collaborate Like an Astronaut

My good friend John Spencer talks about the Power of Creative Limitations in his TEDx talk. One example he shares is from the Apollo 13 space flight where a group of engineers had limited resources, almost no time, and had to solve an oxygen emergency inside the lunar module. They didn’t need complete freedom to be creative, instead the limitations helped propel them towards a creative solution faster than if they had all the resources and all the time.

Collaborate like an astronaut and give your students an end goal, allow them to work with each other to find a solution.

Are you giving students a chance with personalized learning in your classroom? If so, please share some more examples in the comments so we can all go from surviving to thriving!

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  • Barry Dyck says:

    Framing this as surviving (negative) is unfortunate. Does it stem from the idea that the teacher is the manager of learning and student choice? Is it the fear of giving up power and control, the fear of uncertainty when controls are reduced, the fear of feeling incompetent or being completely ignorant of the topic of the student’s personal topic?
    All will thrive when all learn openly together. Thanks for these three positive ideas to grow learning. What may seem chaotic is a precursor to emergent growth. It could be that teacher-surviving is blocking the light and preventing student-thriving.

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