What’s in a name? That which we call personalized learning…

doesn’t smell so sweet.  I battled a serious case of heartburn reading this recent NPR article by Anya Kamenetz parsing out the different definitions of “personalized learning.”   Take a look:

“In fact, in speaking about [personalized learning] with more than a dozen educators, technologists, innovation experts and researchers, I’ve developed a theory: “Personalized learning” has become a Janus-faced word, with at least two meanings in tension:

The use of software to allow each student to proceed through a pre-determined body of knowledge, most often math, at his or her own pace.

A whole new way of doing school, not necessarily focused on technology, where students set their own goals. They work both independently and together on projects that match their interests, while adults facilitate and invest in getting to know each student one-on-one, both their strengths and their challenges.

Which vision of personalization will prevail? Pace alone, or “Personalize it all”? And what proportion of the hype will be realized?”

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

OH MY GAWD, LET IT BE NUMBER 2!!!

I spent last year engaged in a deep dive through an experience aptly named Learning Lab looking at this very question: what exactly is personalized learning?  With a group of incredibly talented educators, I grappled with an inquiry question around the importance of reflection in this new type of learning, attempting to refine my own definition. 

Lessons learned in stepping back: personalization in two student-centered classes (Business Start-ups & Exploring Education)

Still working on it.

Learning Lab 2.0 has launched with a new cohort looking at the same overarching theme, and diving into their own inquiries.  The range of questions is broad, but personalization in every context has a few things in common:

  • student voice and choice are paramount
  • students are partners
  • teachers act as guides, encouraging and inspiring, providing feedback and probing questions 

Part of my issue with Kamenetz’s article comes in this quote:

“At the beginning of a fad there’s a naming problem,”Rich Halverson says. He’s an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has spent the last few years traveling around the country to see personalized learning in action at public schools.

Kamenetz, Anya, et al. “The Future Of Learning? Well, It’s Personal.” NPR, NPR, 16 Nov. 2018, http://www.npr.org/2018/11/16/657895964/the-future-of-learning-well-it-s-personal.

FAD??  

Come on!  Shifting practice so students drive the learning??  That’s a fad?  You understand the heartburn.  I hope.  If not, here’s my point about the danger: we have to get on the same page about what works for students.  The first definition offered (tech-driven pace-focused learning in front of a screen) can’t be seen as a solution.  Maybe it’s a part of a much larger whole, but when people make sweeping assumptions about a model like this as a solution to what ails public education, you get this.  Instead, let’s come to terms with the fact that students deserve a nuanced definition of personalized learning that always puts them at the center.  Zmuda, Curtis, and Ullman’s definition is one I prefer: 

Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.

Zmuda, A., Curtis, G., & Ullman, D. (2015). Learning personalized: The evolution of the contemporary classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

I love the idea of “progressively” student-driven, as it acknowledges that students do need some guidance; however, it suggests that students will eventually become capable of driving the ship themselves.  

If you haven’t seen Kallick and Zmuda’s Personalized Learning Sound Board yet, it’s a great metaphor for the mixing we must do as educators to find just the right balance for our students: 

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. “Orchestrating the Move to Student-Driven Learning.” Educational Leadership, vol. 74, no. 6, Mar. 2017, pp. 53–57., doi:10.18411/a-2017-023.

Let’s acknowledge that we are professionals who understand that traditional teaching methods are not serving the needs of our students today.  However, the shift to update isn’t a simple answer but demands we consider the humans at the center of our profession.  The definition of personalized learning is as nuanced, multi-faceted and intricate as the students themselves, and that is as it should be.

Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

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Me in all my sweaty glory under a tree that smells heavenly.  Can anyone tell me what it is?

So I am training for another half marathon, and beating myself up about not running enough, but when I do run, it’s in some incredibly sweet places: up the side of Mt. San Jacinto, through Golden Gate Park, and alongside the unparalleled pacific coast most recently.  Aside from getting in shape, these miles are for processing.  For some things in my life, there just aren’t enough of those miles, but I do accomplish some decent planning for school.  On a recent run, I recalled my visit to Epic–a middle school in its second year of awesomeness.

Epic is aptly named.  Francis Abbatantuono, their director of personalized learning, took a significant chunk out of his day to meet with me and two of my colleagues on a recent visit to NorCal.  His passion for game-based learning and education in general was apparent, and I sat in awe listening to him recall his journey over the last few years as a founder of Epic.  It kicked into high gear when they won a Startup Edu competition, and has grown into a successful middle school model with future plans for growth into high school.

What brought me to Epic was their focus on learning through and with games, and they do so with a focus on the hero’s journey.  Students receive their handbooks in the late sIMG_5620ummer, but in contrast to the standard thick brown envelope full of multi-colored random pieces of paper to be signed, their handbook is beautifully crafted, and sets the tone for the school year with a story: “…you are one of the chosen ones,” the story tells students in its opening pages.  Framing the challenges ahead as a call to action, the story acknowledges the work ahead, but ends with questions about identity.  “How did you become who you are?  How did you achieve all that you have?” and the story’s answer is this: “In time, you will reply, ‘I became Epic, because our world needs heroes.'”  How awesome is that?!  That’s adventure, right?  In the pages that follow, you meet Epic’s sages, like Francis here, who are all tricked out in game gear and looking epic themselves.  Now that is an introduction to the school year from which we can all take some cues.

In fact, it has me wondering about how we can apply this to our personalized learning plan (PLP) process in Vermont.  I hear plenty of whining these days from students about PLP’s, and it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of PLP’s and their implementation.  At Lamoille Union, we are fortunate to have some rock star teachers planning the rollout, and they have offered many resources and inspiration in an admirable attempt to support faculty in this venture.  Still, students are complaining.  So I’m wondering how might we adopt some of Epic’s awesomeness and take the power of narrative and games for a spin when we launch the second year of PLP’s?  How might we reinvigorate the PLP’s by deeply thinking about next year’s launch?  What if we framed the school year as an adventure quest?  (I’m picturing our school entrance and lobby designed with student engagement and inspiration in mind.  There is art.  A lot of art.)  How might we integrate badges into PLP’s?  Using a platform like Schoology, it would be relatively seamless.  How might we integrate the power of games into our classrooms and programs in order to increase student engagement?IMG_5586

Epic grants badges for various accomplishments tied to their three foundational principles: safety, responsibility, and respect.  Each badge has its own rewards, and some badges can be combined to create a new badge that holds higher level rewards.  For example, the Hacktivist badge is earned when a student has a Maker and a Catalyst badge, both of which are earned separately for their own demonstration of skills.  What if students were combining their PLP badges to demonstrate proficiency in transferable skills?  “Look, Ma!  I earned a physical health badge for the marathon I ran, and a community service badge for my erosion project.  I can demonstrate grit with these!”  Badges give students something concrete to connect their learning to their goals, and thereby help them understand how to tangibly demonstrate skills acquisition like creative problem solving, grit, and communication.

Some people run for the same reasons they play games: competition, strategy, skill, coordination…I run to think.  And I think I might be on to something with layering game principles onto our PLP’s.  We know games are engaging.  As a state, Vermont has set out to personalize learning in an effort to reach all students.  The two ideas seem like a natural fit.  Many thanks to Epic (and my Brooks) for the inspiration.

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Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

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