Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
How to Make Learning Personal In Your Classroom
I recently came across a comment on LinkedIn, a tirade really, about personalized learning. I thought to myself, "personalized learning? Of all things!" What could possibly be wrong with that? Personalized learning is what I have done, or thought I was doing, with my students for a decade, learning about their interests, their personal challenges in and outside of school, learning about their strengths and building off of those, planning deep and meaningful projects that reflect every inch of their individuality.
I spent some time trying to discern this mystifying LinkedIn comment, but was unsuccessful. I found what I expected to find; a variety of definitions, all with the same basic idea, that personalized learning is instruction designed around the unique needs of every individual learner. I also discovered that several terms appear to be used interchangeably including individualized learning and differentiated learning. Differentiated learning is not the same as my perceived definition of personalized learning at the time, by the way. I'll get to that in another post.
I moved on. I chalked it up as a comment from an individual that was either completely misled somewhere along the line or that we just fundamentally disagreed about the value of personalized learning. Then I came across an article written by Alfie Kohn. Not a recent one! It was written in 2015. This article finally uncovered the logic behind the comment. Personal learning is what I do. Personalized learning has taken on new meaning while I've been sitting here in the dark.
Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning by Alfie Kohn
Personalized learning, according to Alfie Kohn, is the customization of learning FOR students by rather than BY the students themselves. Personal Learning, Inc. is software (for-profit) that analyzes student test scores to then produce a "personalized" set of basic-skills drills with the intention of improving test scores. This my friend, is NOT what I do. I now fully understand the sentiment behind the LinkedIn diatribe, and with this new frame of reference, completely agreed with it.
What I do is PERSONAL learning. What then is personal learning and how can you do it with your own students?
What is Personal Learning?
Personal learning is the facilitation of deep, meaningful, and authentic learning experiences designed around the unique interests, backgrounds, skill levels, goals, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and so on of EACH student. The teacher/facilitator builds a relationship with every learner and enhances learning by creating an environment that reflects and celebrates the unique attributes of each child.
"Everyone is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Albert Einstein is commonly given credit for saying this, but I've read he didn't actually say it. Regardless of who said it, there is truth in it. Obviously a fish climbing or being able to grasp the concept of its own intelligence is hyperbole. But there are parallels to children, and the point remains - not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such, especially when it comes to their education. To cast an umbrella over all of your students, to expect all 5 year olds to be able to read at the same time, for example, is nonsense.
Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, levels of energy, reading or writing abilities, amount of sleep they had the night before, personal traumas, learning styles, etc., than their peer sitting next to them.
Those differences matter. They matter when it comes to learning. You may get irritated when one of your 15-year-old students falls asleep during your lecture on transcription and translation, but they are kids, and what inspires one may not inspire another. It's not a personal attack on you, but it is personal for them. They may not have an interest in the topic. They may be hands-on learners. They may simply be exhausted from football practice the night before, then to work from there to help support their family, and home to finish up school assignments.
There is a lot to take into consideration here when you're talking about deep learning experiences. This student might do what she's told, get the grades, get into a good college, but did she learn anything? Was it meaningful? Is she leaving school with a passion for learning? Not likely. Making learning personal leads to real, deep, authentic learning that will carry with them through college and their careers. This is what I want for my own children and my students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 students? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student, such as a homeschool scenario. By building relationships with your students and moving to a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model.
How Do I Make Learning Personal?
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
The photo below is me working with a student on her student-directed, interest-driven project. Every element of her project was designed with her interests, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. in mind. She is dissecting several marine organisms. Her interests and career goals at the time revolved around marine biology.
In the past our students have completed personal learning plans in Powerpoint format. The photos below illustrate a few of the slides. The students then hang onto this personal learning plan and revisit it with their teachers often. Below is a snapshot of an old personal learning plan created by Jennings Community School. I have my own version of a PLP that is included in my PBL bundle mentioned above.
You are likely wondering when in the world you're going to have time for all of this in addition to teaching content. A personal learning plan meeting with each kid, multiple times per session? Yikes. This is a valid concern. You will do this with student-directed learning. Hear me out!
2) Organize Learning Experiences That Are Personal In Nature:
Make learning personal by organizing and facilitating learning activities that give students voice and choice; student-directed learning in other words. Student-directed project-based-learning is a wonderful tool for making learning personal. There are many points in the PBL process where students have choice. Students can design their own projects based on their interests. If you don't have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, students can still design the rest of their projects.
For example, if you need to cover the topic of photosynthesis, students can still choose how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and what authentic audience they will share it with. One student may want to work on tech literacy, so may choose to demonstrate learning by creating an animation. Another student might prefer to work with their hands, so chooses to demonstrate learning by creating a moving model.
All of my project-based learning resources in my TpT store are designed to give students choice while still providing structure. My project-based learning bundle and instruction manual is a great way to start student-directed project-based learning. This bundle also includes my personal learning plan. You could also try out my PBL Tool Kit if you have specific topics you would like to create projects around.
You are the facilitator of student-directed learning activities, not the director. You are guiding, offering feedback, providing community connections, etc. This gives you the freedom to work the room, talk with students independently, have PLP meetings, and even have that organic, casual dialogue with individuals or small groups of students. By cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students and create learning plans that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Alfie Kohn said "If the child is off-task...maybe the child isn't the problem...,maybe it's the task." Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But with the right tools, support, and determination, you can do it, and it will be worth the time and energy. You will start to see some of those "behavioral issues" disappear that likely stem from boredom and confusion. You will have students that have lost their love of learning somewhere along the way find that passion again.
Thanks for stopping by. If you ever decide to make learning personal in your classroom through student-directed learning, I'd love to hear from you. How did it go? What have been some challenges? What has gone well?
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.