As a personalized learning coach and trainer for Competency Based Education Solutions, I have seen the triumphs and trials of implementing personalized learning. I have heard the following phrases: “this too shall pass” and “I will get on board after my team figures it out.” To this I respond, it’s not about you, it’s not about the history of failed initiatives. Rather, it’s about what is right for students and how to help them to become successful lifelong learners.
As a primary school teacher, I have heard that song from Frozen more times than I can count, until I finally realized when you are truly implementing personalized learning you have to just “Let it Go.” Now when I say this, I do not mean you give the keys to your classroom completely over to your students, let’s be honest, that would be mass chaos. As a class you need to develop a classroom community that is composed of independent and collaborative learners. As you “the facilitator,” your students will need help to define what an independent and collaborative learner looks like, sounds like, and feels like in their classroom. Instead of being told what to do, students need to identify a goal and the strategies needed to make sure that they can individually, as well as collaboratively, be successful. These academic behaviors and habits need to be owned by the students, as they will need to measure and monitor themselves as learners. Once you have this established, then you are ready for the next step towards having a personalized learning classroom, this being students are able to articulate where they are in their learning.
When I first began teaching, I followed all of the programs that were provided to me through our district. The programs have pacing guides and are designed to be taught with fidelity, yet not all students start at the same point, nor do we have the allotted time to teach the program. While working through the program and units, I found students struggling to keep pace; however, according to “those who shall not be named,” it didn’t matter, because the program cycles. Hopefully, that student would “catch up” the next time around. This is where my inner struggle began, I knew the program wasn’t enough to meet the needs of my students; however, the district viewed this program as the answer to our instructional programming. Personalized learning provided me the opportunity to meet my students at their learning level while still having the core instruction that the program provided. The defeated student did not have to wait for a cycle to come back around, they had daily chances to work at their learning level. This can be accomplished by providing your students with a visual progression that is created with all of your state standards. Not all of your standards are of the same value and rigor, therefore some are deemed “essential” while others are “supportive.” As teachers build progressions, you will need to determine which of the standards are essential (ones that need to be mastered) or supporting (ones that can provide students with gradual steps in their learning.) These learning progressions are built based on how a student learns, acquires, and uses knowledge. In my experience, in the earlier grades, the foundational skills are your essential skills. These need to be introduced and taught, as they are the foundation for many of the other standards. When learners use knowledge to create meaning, they build on connections and prior knowledge. It not just the relevance of the content that provides connections, it is also the rigor required to demonstrate their learning. My first years of teaching math I started off with shapes, as I reflected on rigorous learning pathway for my students. I discovered that counting needed to be first, as it was foundational for almost all other standards. This leads me to my next point, providing students with the ability to see growth within each of their essential standard.
Now, within each of these essential standards is a learning matrix, this is a student friendly tool that will them understand where they are in relation to the essential standard. As you unpack the essential standard, you create scaffolded learning goals that guide the learner and provide targets for instruction. Students will see they are building on knowledge through application, demonstration, and feedback. This transparent process with timely feedback creates a growth mindset and provides for deeper and more meaningful learning. They are given the opportunity to not just “do” a standard, but actually “know” what they are doing and understand the importance of how learning is a journey. It is in this intentional design that I have found students to be more engaged as the students take ownership of their learning.
According to John Hattie, “The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains.” This quote speaks to me as it reinforced something that I intuitively knew and my students craved. They loved talking about and demonstrating their learning to me. As the teacher, I found these conversations to be some of the best instructional feedback I could ever ask for. I don’t want to downplay technology, but I do believe learning needs to sanctify the connections between the student, teacher, and the learning. I had weekly goals conferences with each of my students. It allowed them to take ownership of their learning and to show me where they are on their own personal progression of learning. To promote ownership of learning, the students used the visual progression and matrices to articulate their learning goal, and the steps needed to master their current essential standard. As the students become familiar with the process and take more ownership of their learning, teachers need to allow them to take leadership. This is what I mean when I said, “Let it Go.” Give the students the opportunity to work on their goal, independently or collaboratively. You provide them with the necessary tools (“just right work”) and feedback. The students are no longer saying “I can’t,” they are saying “I can” and “ I will” achieve my goals, so I can go move on to my next standard. Grit, perseverance, pride, growth mindset, and drive are all rolled up in a now intrinsically motivated student. Please, tell me you got goosebumps reading that!!!! It is an amazing sight to see.
After going through the process of implementing personalized learning, I am not going to sugarcoat it. It was hard work! However, looking back it wasn’t about doing it the “easy way” or the “right way.” It was about finding what was beneficial for my students and how to guide and support them in their learning. For me, it wasn’t about me, it was about those 25 students who needed someone to just stop, listen, and understand what they needed to succeed. I no longer saw them as a number on a test, I saw them as little humans who I loved and cared for and wanted to see grow. What better way to show you love a child, then to give them the understanding and gift of learning.
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Caley Jones is a teacher and Personalized Learning Coach at Competency Based Education Solutions. www.cbesolution.com
My belief in teaching is to make sure my students know they are loved. When they walk into a classroom or leave to go home they understand how to be independent and compassionate learners who can set goals and meet high expectations. I will be their biggest cheerleader to help guide and support them as they reach those goals.
I have been involved with personalized learning for the past six years. I served as a model classroom in my own school and currently I travel around the country to support schools as an instructional coach with Competency Based Education Solutions. It is something that I am very passionate about and I look forward to working with teachers and students on the journey of personalized learning.