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May 17, 2018

3 Strategies for Building a Foundation of Personalized Learning

David Rodriguez, AltSchool Educator

The road to personalized learning is a difficult but rewarding one. In this three-part series, AltSchool educator and pedagogy fellow David Rodriguez shares his story of the challenges he has faced on that journey, and discovering his purpose as a teacher. This is the final installment.

Read parts one and two:
The Road to Personalized Learning: My Journey Toward Wanting More
Lessons from Experimenting with Personalization in My Classroom

Once, during state-mandated training for new teachers, the facilitator showed a video designed to help us become better teachers. The video was called The Extra Degree and it showed non-teachers—mostly athletes—pushing themselves to the limit. The idea was that at 211 degrees nothing happens, but at 212 degrees, water boils. The takeaway message: If you push yourself, that extra bit of effort can make the difference in the life of a child.

The notion that becoming a good teacher is defined by your willingness to push yourself to a boiling point is offensive; teaching is already one of the most stressful professions in America. And yet, that’s what I see happening in the personalization movement: The creation of routines and structures that essentially require the teacher to clone themselves. The logic might follow: A lot of learning happens during one-on-one conferences, so why not do 300 of them a week?

Don’t miss What Is Personalized Learning? by AltSchool Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka.

But the personalized classroom shouldn’t be an amplification of the traditional classroom. It’s something entirely new. As I’ve worked toward building the foundation for personalized learning in my classroom, three strategies have become essential to my evolving teaching practice. Each is a work in progress, and together, they’re setting the conditions for my students to drive their own learning. I encourage teachers to think systemically, whether you adopt these strategies or create your own. Focusing on systemic solutions makes personalized learning increasingly possible.

1. Create Activity Zones in Your Classroom

Instead of the centers I discussed in my first post, I started utilizing zones, transforming every area of the classroom into a unique and flexible workspace with different norms associated with them. For example, most classrooms already have a library, where students understand that quiet is valued. Applying that logic to every nook of your classroom creates an environment where students are flowing freely between activities and adjusting their behavior based on the zone they’re entering.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify every potential working space in your classroom.
  2. Make sure you have one area for quiet work. If possible, put it in the middle of the room—having a central quiet area will lower the volume of the entire classroom.
  3. Make sure you have an area for group projects and art.
  4. Introduce the zones to the students, explaining the expectations and procedures for each.
  5. Name a zone—I chose to name my quiet area “The Silent Sea” and hung a drawing of a calm ocean scene above the area—then let students name the other zones. This will help them see the classroom as one shared space.
  6. Have students design posters outlining the procedures for each zone.
  7. Have some fun and let students name non-work areas as well. My students named my desk (where papers often pile up) “The Land Where Trees Go to Die.”

Your classroom is now a mystical land ripe for imagination and progress. When outlining activities for a day, associate each activity with its appropriate zone. Rather than rotating on a clock, students can move freely from zone to zone when they’re ready, dedicating more time to certain activities as needed.

Read: How can technology help you amplify goal-setting?

For zones to be successful, it’s crucial to make sure students are doing work in the appropriate zone without exception. You may also need to set other limits and standards, such as how many people can be in a zone and a way to track work—I have students sign off when they complete a zone activity. Finally, giving students timely feedback is critical to encouraging them to stay motivated and accountable. Zones can transform your classroom into a fun, co-created, collaborative canvas that lends itself to productive personalization.

2. Develop “Learning to Learn” Skills in Your Classroom

If I told you that students were going to learn math for 12 years and it was going to get gradually more complex, this wouldn’t be a radical idea—that’s how school works. However, when it comes to what I call “learning to learn” skills like critical thinking, applying and adjusting strategies, and problem-solving, teachers dedicate little, if any, time to cultivating these abilities.

While there’s a growing movement to develop 21st-century skills, there’s little consensus on how or what they are. Decide on a framework of transferable skills that inspire you, then enlist your students in customizing and adapting the framework for your classroom’s needs. If you decide on collaboration, take time to unpack what collaboration means to your students and let them own and evolve the language over time. Continuously return to their understanding of collaboration and let it grow in sophistication with every passing day. Just as you allow math tests to become increasingly complex, create increasingly complex opportunities for collaboration and make time for reflection before, during, and after the lesson

3. Involve Students with Real Problems

For years, I was plagued by the memory of a former student who was a brilliant problem-solver, but a poor test-taker. My last memory of her: She had her head buried in her hands, weeping when confronted with her low standardized test results. The real tragedy was that I had no way to show her family what the test results didn’t reflect.

Recently, I told my middle school students this story. I told them I was tired of progress reports that didn’t reflect the whole child, but I had no viable alternative. Together we co-created a portfolio assessment system, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Since then, my class has been more engaged and thinking metacognitively about how they can improve their own school experience.

Read more about driving student agency: I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency.

The problems that you don’t know how to solve are the best opportunities to create the level of engagement necessary to to fuel personalized learning. Recently, I was preparing a lesson on Hinduism and was overwhelmed by the complexity of the religion and my own ignorance. I presented this problem to the students and they created the lessons on Hinduism that I could not. I shifted the focus of my efforts from creating the experience to creating the framework for students to create their own experience.

When implementing any of these personalized learning strategies, I encourage you to let them function at the core of your classroom experience, rather than adding them to an increasingly overflowing toolbox of teaching practices. To elevate your practice, consider what you’re willing to let go. Personalization should make learning less stressful and more joyful—for both you and your students—not bring you to a boiling point. While my path is still unfolding in front of me and I’m still learning and evolving as an educator, I’m glad that I refused to give up on this journey of purpose.

Read parts one and two:
The Road to Personalized Learning: My Journey Toward Wanting More
Lessons from Experimenting with Personalization in My Classroom
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