Personalizing Learning I: Theory and Reality

In my mind, the theory of personalizing learning for students is simple: Connect with children on an individual level to learn about them in as many ways as possible; create opportunities for them to learn in ways which meet their varied needs and styles; allow for ample learning experiences with divergent paths in terms of process and product; assess for learning and of learning; push children to realize their unique potential as learners. The reality of doing that in a classroom with real-live students is, in a word, difficult. But that’s the idea, right? Connect…create…allow…assess…push. With learning as the focus…not teaching.

Sir Ken Robinson seems to agree (and apparently so does HH the Dalai Lama). As SKR urges schools to adopt personalized learning in both the article and throughout his most recent book, The Element, I’m wondering about the reality of it. Just as Will Richardson was weighed down by the question Seth Godin posed yesterday in a post entitled “Back to the Wrong School” (“Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?”), I’m similarly weighed down. This transformation that SKR urges is great in theory. But quite a challenge in the classroom (no matter how large or small), in a school, and of course in a district, city, state, or national system of education which Godin explains, “churn(s) out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor.”

So, what do we do about that? Because I agree with Will on this one…

To answer his question…and SKR’s call to transform (not reform) education, I am motivated by “what we — at Trinity — are doing this year.” Since the approval of Trinity’s Strategic Vision in May 2008, we have been working to make personalizing learning a reality. The reality of doing that, of course, has taken years and will continue for many years to come. At Trinity, we say that personalized learning is tailoring education in ways that fulfill the unique potential of each student. The goal of personalizing learning is to enhance every child’s ability to become a responsible, productive, and compassionate member of the expanding global community.  A key assumption is that the more a child knows about his or her learning, the more he or she will thrive as a learner in and out of school.

Our first step in this process of personalizing…this disrupting and transforming…was a switch in our foreign language curriculum and instructional methods. The second, and much larger step, is the development of a learning profile and portfolio (a PLP) for all of our students from the three-year-olds to the sixth graders. You can read more about Trinity’s approach to personalizing learning in a blog post written last year by our Head of School, Stephen Kennedy.

The cool thing that struck me as I participated in today’s faculty meetings “launching” Phase II of this process (Phase III being that we’re “all in” with each child having a PLP), is that we are disrupting in a way that, initially, seems so passive.  Today we talked about the power of observation. I wished we had coined it “active observation” because that’s just what it is. How should we observe to make us more aware of each child in our class? What methods might we employ to notice in a way that leads to greater understanding of how to personalize learning for the students in the classroom? This kind of observing is certainly not a passive process…and without a deep level understanding of this piece, the larger goal of actually personalizing learning would not, in my opinion, be realized.

It was a powerful beginning to this second phase. And a powerful reminder to me. It’s one thing to say that we should be personalizing learning. It’s another thing to actually commit to doing so. So often we want to rush to action. To move from theory to reality swiftly. To fix. To do. To hire. To fire. As I sat amongst my colleagues and listened to them push one another to think differently about observation, I felt as though disruption was happening. That mindsets were being shifted. That the reality of personalizing learning, at least within the walls of Trinity School, is closer than it was last year. And that’s a good thing.


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One thought on “Personalizing Learning I: Theory and Reality

  1. This post is active, proactive, visionary, and takes wings and flies. Ironically, in the age of technology and media – it is exciting to reclaim the word ‘library’ and make it breathe, vibrate, and dance with learning, kids, things, ideas.

    I like this post a lot — learning in leaps!

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