Lab Schools
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March 29, 2018

I Develop a Strong Sense of Self: Making Learning Personalized, Relevant, and Contextualized

Colleen Broderick, VP of Pedagogy

AltSchool’s VP of Pedagogy, Colleen Broderick, takes us through five elements of learner-centric education and shares how each element guides AltSchool’s pedagogical vision and development of practices and software. In this third installment of five, she talks about personalization.

Read the first two installments:
I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency

We have written a lot about personalization. Recently, our Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka unpacked the difference between pace-based, technology-driven personalization and empowering learners to tackle the real-world challenges that matter to them. Educator David Rodriguez shared the story of his challenges in the classroom over the years as he discovered what “personalized learning” means to him and how to best serve his students. Today, we approach this buzzword from yet another angle: How do we create learning environments that allow students to know who they are and what is important to them? With a strong sense of self, learners can make connections between what they are learning and their own experiences, interests, and aspirations, motivating their learning in formal education and beyond.

Beyond Personalized

We use the word “personalized” to refer to learning experiences that are responsive to an individual learner’s needs and strengths. A personalized experience takes into account the gifts of the learner, their background, and life circumstances. It includes responding to the whole child: their unique needs for unstructured time, physical activity, creative and artistic expression, play time, and support for their health and well-being. As students develop their identities as learners, they take increased ownership over their personalization, shifting the power from teacher to student. A student with a deep understanding of his or her own needs as a learner will be able to answer the question, “How will I learn this best?”

Learn how we encourage students to take ownership of their learning with goal-setting.

But personalized alone is not enough. Education Reimagined lists “personalized, relevant, and contextualized” as one of the five elements of a learner-centric education. A relevant education is applicable to a learner’s real-world challenges, interests, and aspirations. For this attribute, we turn to neuroscience. Research shows that personal relevance, through emotional engagement and connections to a learner’s life, enable new neural pathways where information can be stored. A learner must make the connection for themselves that what they are learning is relevant to their life; they must see the material as useful. The job of the teacher is to help create those connections in a learner’s mind. A student empowered with a relevant education can answer, “Why do I need to learn this?”

Additionally, learning must be contextualized. A contextualized education is responsive to the context the learner brings to the experience. This includes their past experiences inside the classroom as well as as cultural, social, economic, and family contexts. Studies have found that when information fits into a learner’s existing frame of reference, comprehension and recall increase. A contextualized education enables learners to answer the question, “How does this relate to what I already know?”

Read more from Colleen Broderick: Amplifying Goal-Setting with Technology

In a personalized, relevant, and contextualized environment, educators base learning experiences on a deep understanding of each student: How will this student learn best? Why does he or she need to learn this? How does this relate to what he or she already knows? At first, educators will answer these questions and design learning experiences accordingly. Then as students develop a strong sense of self, they will be able to answer these questions for themselves as learners. This gives learners a superpower as they move beyond their formal education and become lifelong learners who can identify and create their own personalized, relevant, and contextualized learning experiences.

Developing a Strong Sense of Self at AltSchool

Our Lower and Upper Elementary students are rapidly developing their sense of self. At the start of their current English Language Arts (ELA) unit, students used a rubric to assess themselves on various informational reading skills. This helped them and their teachers identify goals for this unit, which teachers and students entered together in the AltSchool platform. This enabled them to track progress and reflect on goals—through notes about one-on-one conversations, looking back at work a student submitted on his or her Playlist, or during structured reflection time at the end of the week.

In addition to the intentional work on goals, students had ample opportunity to develop their sense of self. Midway through the Unit, students completed a survey containing questions like:

  • I know what my ELA Goals are (Scale of 1-10)
  • I am working toward my ELA Goals (Scale of 1-10)
  • I learn best when I am working...
    ...with the whole class
    ...with a small group to a teacher
    ...on my own

Students completed this survey on paper, took pictures of their answers, and uploaded them to their Playlist Card. They then met with their teacher in a one-on-one conference to discuss their answers, developing a more nuanced picture of the student as a learner. The teacher took notes on the conference and used that information to work with the student to adjust his or her goals and upcoming assignments. Finally, all information was shared with families in the parent app, enabling a dialogue that strengthened the learner’s sense of self at home and beyond the classroom.

Read the first two installments in this series:
I Learn According to My Needs: Enabling Competency-Based Education
I Drive What I Learn: Enabling Learner Agency
And learn more about our lab schools and our partner school program.

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