“So this is the dance!” Four Steps to Personalization

In his recent post, Driving Innovation in K-12, Chris Kennedy raises what for me is the starting point for all of the changes within the BC Education Plan:

Teachers need to know where to begin – “personalization” and “digital literacy” are broad and ambiguous terms, so we need to narrow the framework.

Just as he writes that while it may not be a popular decision to give teachers access to portable devices before students, it is often necessary in the case for change, so too must we realize that personalizing learning means personalizing instruction.  We have to enter a paradigm that stresses the need to “teach the teachers” in ways that make sense to them and concomitantly respects and has as its foundation the recognition and appreciation of the great wealth of knowledge and expertise that they bring to the proverbial table.

Within all of this change (or progress, if you will) let’s be clear about one thing: personalizing learning does not mean the death of the classroom. Education has and will always be both idea and personality driven – it’s just the way it is.  A teacher is part knowledge broker and part P.T. Barnum. Quite honestly, it is a mistake to think that the vast majority of teenage students in high school innately appreciate the intrinsic merit of knowledge. Teens construct meaning collaboratively, shoulder to shoulder through the relationships they construct.  You see, the importance of the classroom doesn’t lay solely within the dispensation of curriculum but also within the hidden or secondary curriculum: the interactions between students who in discovering “found knowledge” initiate and extend a collaborative discourse that, hopefully, aids in both their intellectual and socio-emotive development.  This is the all-encompassing purpose of the classroom.  Therefore, Kennedy again “nails it’ when he writes that we want all classes to be blended classes. There are others who are experts in Distributive Learning, so, let a few do it well for the students who need it, and we will focus on what we can do for all students.


Value of the teacher; impact of the classroom experience; personalizing all of this for the student: where do we start?  How do we begin to create that blended product – embedded online resources, flipped classrooms, shoulder to shoulder interaction – that students can consume in their personalized journey and through consumption, become inspired and “supported” by facilitative instructors to go on and create product that is meaningful to them and, hopefully, to others? Well, cue the music.

Step One: What is a “Need to Know”

As teachers, let’s determine what are the primary learning outcomes.  Let’s take the “front-end” time to strip away and determine what are the absolutes in terms of ensuring student mastery. We need to have these conversations and agree on the student outcomes we value – and then create systems that can deliver.

Step Two: Assessment

Now, let’s see how we’re going to assess it (is it a Ministry exam; is it a presentation, e-portfolio, essay etc.…). This second piece, despite the presence of Ministry Exams, must change to reflect the personalizing of education espoused by our new Education PlanDarcy Mullin, for example, in a recent post, Using the Right Brain, writes of Yale Professor Robert Steinberg’s alternative to the SAT called the Rainbow Project:

In Steinberg’s test, students are given 5 blank New Yorker cartoons – and must craft humorous captions for each one.  They must also write a narrative, using as their guide only a title supplied by the test givers (sample: The Octopus sneakers). Although still in the experimental stages, The Rainbow Project is TWICE (emphasis mine) as successful as the SAT in predicting how well students do in college.

I love the imagery of the rainbow – no two (like no two students) are alike and the beauty
of each differs with the degree of the refractive dispersion of sunlight in drops of rain (Wikipedia is a ‘humanities’ guy’s best friend!).  There is no set rainbow; each is a response to the environmental context at that moment – true creation (not stock, rote response).

What strikes me about Steinberg’s new construct is that there is a focus on creativity and expression through narrative.  Students are given something for the first time and asked to formulate product that ‘extends’ what they are given.  Isn’t this what we want to facilitate for our students: the ability to look at something new, for the first time, and know what to do with it?  We need to provide, within the realm of personalized learning, assessment tools that emphasize this: only those who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed now and in the future.

The Rainbow Project asks students to go beyond what is known, and stretch in new and unexpected directions – we need to do the same thing as educators in terms of assessment.

Step Three: “Personal” Talk (the Creation/Conceptual piece)

Create the curriculum to match the assessment; however, that curriculum is now singular/personal in focus.

Instead of creating adult initiated curriculum to match a specific assessment, we now engage in one to ones (virtual and face to face) with students to determine what “passion” they wish to pursue in their “inquiry” to demonstrate mastery.

Where do we find the time for this?  Get rid of school bells; get rid of four classes a day. Create a system that looks like Grad School for high school students. A system where students can sign up for lessons (required if they have not met learning outcomes by certain dates) and move freely in a learning commons where they can engage with each other both virtually and face to face.  As you free up teachers from the 80 minutes x 4 albatross around their necks, they now have a schedule that looks like this: 4 x 30 minute instruction sessions during the day (how much do any of us retain after 30 minutes – take a look at what Jordan Tinney thinks) and the rest of the day is spent meeting with students, discussing the educational “travel plans” of their personalized journeys and providing road maps to ensure safe and timely “travel”.

Step Four: The Teachers of Tomorrow are in our Classrooms Today

The biggest and most important of the steps: bringing together the expertise in what is one of the best educational systems in the world.  We need teachers who:

  1. Know their “stuff” and are passionate about inviting others along as equal partners on a path of inquiry based learning;
  2. Know assessment (or at least are interested in hearing about Rick Stiggins);
  3. Are excited about the opportunity to collaborate and create new product;
  4. Desire to engage in digital implementation (i.e. every teacher – like every student – should have an active blog where learning is displayed);
  5. Display a calmness around entering into the unknown and making the necessary happen;
  6. Accept that front-end heavy means long term gain and enlightenment through professional development and, eventually, learning and growing through individual students’ personalized journeys that they helped facilitate.

Personalizing education? It’s a four step dance set to a culture of learning beat and anyone can groove to it if they are willing to learn it now.

4 Comments
  1. Gino,

    Nicely put. Such “poetic” expressions of complex ideas are useful because they are actionable. Yours reminds me of backward design (http://goo.gl/IJXf9). There is a place for nuanced analysis but we all need a pocket card as a quick reference and this is a good one.

    • Thanks for the comment, Bruce. You’re right about the backward design and McTighe’s work. It’s funny, when I served as a VP in Richmond, the question I was asked at my interview was to explain the connection between assessment and curriculum and my response was framed within the Understanding By Design model. Although the “game” is now changing (i.e blended and tech as a means not an end), the rules which serve as its basis (engaging instruction and relevant assessment) remain the same

  2. This post is very applicable to our school. We are moving towards a blended learning environment in September. No longer will we be tied to a timetable. Teacher collaboration is already a large part of our practice, along with inquiry based learning, so we will have the flexibility to meet with one another, and students, to collaborate.
    We have worked together to determine the “need to know” learning outcomes, as well as examining where learning outcomes cross subject areas. Our courses will be designed around learning outcomes, as those are the constant, but everything else will be variable. Students will be provided with a number of opportunities to create their own learning paths to demonstrate their understandings, as well as personalizing the learning to include their passions and interests. Many of us are currently doing this, but by creating a flexible, student-centered, blended environment we are all moving our practice forward. We will hold seminar sessions, small group sessions, face to face and online discussion forums, as well as opportunities to learn in our community. This is no doubt a very exciting time but there is much work to be done. The hard work will moves us forward in our professional learning.
    Technology will help us implement a blended environment, providing a means for students to access facts and knowledge, while the teachers themselves will provide mentorship and facilitate an educational experience that allows students to work at their own pace, create personal learning experiences, set goals, manage their time and learn how to learn. A blended learning model will provide our graduates with the life skills they need, along with an understanding of what it means to gain deeper understandings.
    Thanks for the leadership you provide to your school, as well as the rest of the educational community.

    • Wow! Exciting stuff, Nicola (and a belated congratulations for being awarded Librarian of the Year in 2011)

      It sounds to me like you are well ahead of the curve up in Rossland.
      It would be hugely beneficial for the rest of us if you could share your “journey” with us via a blog or twitter – you should consider it.

      Thanks for sharing

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