Personalizing Learning: From Capable Students to Good Thinkers

Yesterday, the B.C. Ministry of Education released its new Education Plan.  Developed in consultation with teachers, parents, students and education partner groups, the plan is based on the principle that every learner in the province will realize his or her full potential.  The plan consists of five key elements:

  • Personalized learning for every student
  • Quality teaching and learning
  • Flexibility and choice
  • High standards
  • Learning empowered by technology

What the plan aims to do is ensure that every aspect of teaching and support is designed around a pupil’s needs; that these aspects are weaved together so as to tailor a student’s instruction, curriculum and learning supports to meet their specific interests, learning styles and aspirations.  This personalization can be accessed through what David Hargreaves labels the nine gateways:

  1. Assessment for Learning              
  2. Learning to learn
  3. Student voice
  4. Curriculum
  5. New Technologies
  6. School Design and Organization
  7. Advice and Guidance
  8. Mentoring and Coaching
  9. Workforce Development

What I like most about Hargreave’s perspective (one which transfers nicely to the Ministry document) is that he refers to “personalizing” learning rather than “personalized” learning, in order to emphasize that it is a process, not a product. It is a process that now asks educators to go beyond the question, “How can I ensure a student masters a body of information?” asking instead, “How can I help create a real learner?”

Creating real learners (what I will now term good thinker, because a capable student is also a real learner) is at the heart of what we do; however, prior to this creation, before anyone can take charge of their personalized education, we need to ensure that we have developed capable students.  The distinction between capable student and good thinker finds clarity if you frame it within Howard Gardner’s theory of the disciplined, synthesizing and creating minds.  Being a capable student involves depth while being a good thinker also entails breadth and stretch.

The struggling learner will always have trouble becoming a capable student.  The Ministry acknowledges this fact as the BC Education Plan promises “earlier focused help for struggling learners.” My worry is that without a tangible, proven action plan, yesterday’s high production sound and fury will remain just that and what I consider an exciting initiative will signify nothing because a vast majority of people will not be able to visualize the crucial “how to” element: a prerequisite to the success of any initiative.

So, let me share with you how our staff is moving theory into practice and plans into action at John Oliver Secondary in Vancouver.

Right now, based on the data from the most recent BC Atlas of Child Development, we realize that for a significant percentage of our school’s population, we are working at helping them develop disciplined minds – basic literacies  (knowing how and what to study, taking notes, accessing information, decoding texts, managing their time, having a consistent place and time to study etc.) that serve as building blocks to learning and the initial step in developing capable students. Without these literacies, a struggling student will never develop a disciplined mind and in not so doing, will be unable to scaffold into synthesis or creativity.

Currently, the practices and processes we have in place are addressing the needs of our struggling students that are not being met outside of the school day.  We know that these students do not read enough so we offer 20 minutes of silent reading everyday.  We know that 60% of our students regularly leave school without a knapsack so we offer Homework Clubs and Friday School for any student who has not mastered the prescribed learning outcomes of the week.  We offer Evening School remedial sessions in the Spring (10 weeks, two 2 hour sessions a week) for students failing provincially examinable courses and we run a Special Instruction Week where exams are used as formative assessments and an opportunity to teach our students the art (because that’s what it is) of test taking.  For example, we’ll stop the exams every 20 minutes and announce, “Okay everyone. Stop and take out your highlighter and red pen.  What did you notice about questions 5 through 10?  Let’s look at the key words . . .”

In addressing the need for rigour (we’re so serious about it that we spell it with a “u”), in placing importance on skill acquisition through content review, in establishing a tone that is not punitive but founded in the belief that every child can succeed, our current practices around developing disciplined minds help foster within students an appreciation of the intrinsic merit of education: the understanding that for capable students and good thinkers alike, knowledge is power.

The results of our efforts have been dramatic with regard to creating greater engagement, especially with students who are marginal academically.

In the past 3 years:

  • 33 night school programs
  • 530 students
  • Average failing mark 44% – average mark on exam 58% (79.7% success rate)

Yes, it’s only 58% but as we don’t weigh the impact of schools by measuring one against the other, we don’t do this for our students.  We measure growth one student at a time from point A to Point Z.  The key here is that we are personalizing education for the needs of these specific students.  In addition, their academic success the following year improves because they take the skills acquired through this intensive intervention and put them into practice on a consistent basis.

The success these students achieve has fostered a positive school culture that engenders a sense of belief, of connection, of belonging, of accomplishment.

This has impacted our attendance rates:

  • 2005 – 412 students with 100 + absences and lates
  • 2010 – 55
  • 2005 – 87 students with 200+ absences and lates
  • 2010 – 6

In the last 7 years, we’ve gone up 9.7 % in our graduation rate vs. the 1.1 for the Province.

The significance of all of this gets lost if we focus strictly on the numbers – I’ve got 530 names and each of them has a unique narrative and each of them represents a success story.  Here’s a quick one.  Last year we had two fights in the school (yes, only two).  The first was brother vs. brother so we don’t count it!  The second was between two of our biggest and toughest in grade 12.  The reason for the fight? One of them who made the honour roll was taunting the other for not achieving the same status.  The new John Oliver: kids fighting over the honour roll (maybe Chris Wejr is right, we shouldn’t have awards!).

The challenge we face as a school, one that can get easily lost in the glow of good data, resides within our transition rate from grade 10 to 11. Whereas the District rate is 94% ours is 88%.  Think of the difference between a grade 8 textbook with 200 pages of information and a grade 10 one which has 400 pages.  Compound this with the fact that 1/3 of our kids read at least 2 to 3 years below grade level and you begin to see why we run our evening school and remedial sessions. And why, based on the numbers from the Atlas of Child Development, we will continue to access them and continue to help develop disciplined minds. Personalizing for these students will continue to involve an educational plan that involves a lot of hand holding . . . and that’s ok.

At the same time, in trying to make the shift from capable student to good thinker, we are working around developing our students’ powers of synthesis.  A good thinker will be able to survey a wide range of sources; decide what is important and worth paying attention to; and then put this information together in ways that make sense to oneself and, ultimately, to other persons as well. Ultimately, our students will acquire enough discipline and sufficient synthesis in order to take the confident leap – to go beyond what is known, and stretch in new and unexpected directions: to create new artifacts of learning.  This desire to get our kids through school while at the same time developing their ability to synthesize and create is what presently drives our technology initiatives.

In his recent post, Accessibility Failure, David Truss poses three questions that absolutely resonate in light of what we are doing here at John Oliver:

How accessible are our schools for every student?

What do we do to make learning opportunities more accessible?

Are tools, resources and expertise to support struggling students easily accessible?

What we are striving for, in terms of accessibility, is to meet the needs of all students within our comprehensive secondary school:  discipline, synthesis and creativity.  Some may never get beyond the first part of this scaffold but we support them and in doing so establish processes and structures that ensure the continued development of a learning community devoid of any accessibility failures.

Perhaps my colleague, Thomas Harapnuick, explains it best through his river/waterfall analogy.  All of our kids are paddling along a river but 20% of them don’t have the right nautical equipment.  They don’t know how to decode texts, how to organize themselves, how to take notes – they want to do well but don’t now how.  In the end, those who can’t paddle efficiently, those who don’t have the skills to draw personal satisfaction and pleasure from this experience, will come crashing down the waterfall.  Our job is to catch them with programs and initiatives that will help them develop the skills they lack – the skills that will help them become capable students and good thinkers.  We help them wind their way down the ‘graduation’ river but, more importantly, we help them develop a sense of self-worth through academic achievement.

In the end, I agree with Brian Kuhn when he tweets, it starts with a good plan, action comes later, we need to give Gov’t / K12 a chance to act. We do indeed have to give government a chance and hope that they will act; however, to borrow from Stephanie
Hirsh, “Hope is not a strategy.”  My belief, based on the conversations I have and the tweets I share on a daily basis with my personalized learning network, is that the action is already taking place.  So here it is: How are you personalizing learning in your school?



  1. Well written. I’m looking for ideas in how to improve the education system and live within the tight budget restrictions faced by the BC government.

  2. It’s an exciting time to be in Education!
    I like the BC plan, but digging into it, ‘quality teaching’ and ‘high standards’ seem to be based on greater accountablility of teachers and I’m concerned about how these changes will be delivered given our current job action/strike. Another Hargreaves, Andy Hargreaves, talks about ‘Responsibility before Accountability’ and I do hope some of his ideas will be implemented as they embody an approach that I believe will be easier to implement. Still the plan is good and I’m excited to see how the BC government will embody and support their plan. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thank you for sharing the concrete strategies that you and your team at JO are using. It demonstrates true leadership to share these and other new ideas, and to be open to feedback.

    There are so many skills that we teach students in addition to the content – I really like the idea of taking time from regular teaching to investigate test-writing, and to support students to be comfortable taking tests.

    I hope as a teacher to be able to provide my students access to the content but have time and space to determine and provide the ‘equipment’ that they need to synthesize the content. That’s the piece that I (and it seems several others) are puzzled out in the BC ed plan – how will we be supported so that we can move these best practices forward into action.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful post! It’s so valuable to hear real data and reflections from the trenches! Yes, we can give government a chance to act and we can hope…and in the meantime, teachers ARE personalizing learning at a grassroots level–at John Oliver!–and beyond. More and more we can look to one another for practical ideas. Like you, I feel one incredibly valuable thing we can do today is dialogue about what we are doing, what is working…to share personalizing learning strategies. Government may innovate, but it needs to synthesize our wealth of ideas…it must take the cue from educators in putting together any kind of practical strategy plan.

    What I do as one person feels like drop in the bucket sometimes, but I’m putting in my own two cents on the ministry’s site and I also started a blog to work through share my own journey with what personalizing learning will mean for me and my students…something perhaps others are doing(?)–I’m trying to find out. We need more voices! On my blog I post ideas concerning personalizing learning in the philosophical, political, and practical domain. It is so exciting when other teachers join in and I want to read and here more from individual teachers like you, like me, like the teacher across the hall. I would really appreciate it if you could post this link to my blog:

    Thank you for the great read! -Tiffany Poirier

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