Saturday, February 13, 2010

Personalising the school experience to gain success for all learners

Personalising the High School Experience for Each Student by Joseph DiMartino and John Clarke, published by ASCD 2008, is a highly recommended book for schools with year 7 to 13 students who want to ensure all students succeed.

Well worth a study by any Intermediate or Secondary school concerned with disengaged or unmotivated students.

It is not be possible to give a full picture of all the ways various schools mentioned in this book have personalised learning for their students.

Everyone , it seems, is concerned with students ( some 20%) who leave our schools failing to gain much for their time. Conservatives seem to think the answer is to focus on basic skills ( literacy and numeracy) by establishing standards and measuring progress against them.

The current emphasis of the standards approach is to lay the blame for failure on students early primary schooling ( ignoring the factor of difficult home circumstances and the three or four years of secondary teaching).

This is all too simplistic and as approach has little evidence to show it works
- quite the opposite. It is a reactionary, populist and political answer to the wrong problem - unmotivated students.

When it comes to attitudes toward learning it seems that disengagement occurs with greater intensity from years 7 to 10 - those who 'survive' are those would've succeeded no matter the schooling.

DiMartino and Clarke's book takes a different stance.

Rather than standardizing learning they see the answer as personalizing learning experiences for all learners.
Although the book focuses on high schools personalising learning starts from birth and is only interrupted by formal schooling creating, from an early age, the seeds of failure.

The authors believe that high schools, as structured, are obsolete; that the basic design is over a century old and is no longer apprpriate to educate all students. They however are not critical of high school teachers and say it is only the dedication and superhuman effort of teachers that schools, originally designed to meet the needs of 5%, work reasonably well for about one third of current students.

The philosophy of the authors is that schooling needs to put students at the centre of their learning. This is the premise of the 'new' New Zealand Curriculum which is currently at risk of being sidelined by the standards agenda.

To meet the needs of all students teachers need to work towards designing new high schools. How schools have gone about this is covered in the book. To try to fix a broken system, the authors state, is just not possible if all students are to gain success. Too many students, the writers, say are bored, feel invisible, are isolated, or see little relevance in what they are asked to do.

The vision they write about seems simple but for anyone involved in secondary school change knows it is profoundly difficult.This book provides evidence of success and inspiration for schools really concerned about disengaged learners -at any level.

Chapters in the book are full of examples based on six promising practices which contribute to a new vision for schooling. Together they allow students to plan and develop their own pathways through school based on their talents, interests and aspirations.

Guided Personalised learning; teacher as advisers.

Teachers act as advisers to small groups of students over two to six years to review personal learning plans,assist in course selection and discover learning opportunities to suit individuals. Students, through 'advisories', feel that they aways have someone in their corner. Learning to be an adviser is a challenge for some teacher but is a vital aspect of personalising learning. Such 'advisory' teachers help students with their choices and keep them informed about how they are going and what they need to do next. Advice is given to assist teachers develop skill in this new role.

Personal Learning Plans.

Students meet regularly with parents advisers, mentors to plan and review progress. Few students have compelling vision of the own learning needs.Many students have learnt ways to avoid involvement. Students have to be helped to appreciate that it their responsibility to learn; to develop their own Personal Learning Plans (PLPS). PLPs need to value, recognise and celebrate their own voice and content learning.

Personalised Teaching.

Teachers work with students tailoring learning to allow students to explore different aspects of subjects and to produce unique authentic work that shows their understanding. This is an antidote for student disengagement.Personalising learning changing the power structure between teacher and students and is not easy for both teachers and students. To succeed it requires authentic learning projects that require teachers and students to work together - how to give and take advice or feedback. Personalising learning is an inquiry approach to learning, it is about valuing students voice,choice and freedom to succeed or fail as in real life. There are a range of competencies that need to be in place for personalised learning to succeed. As experience is gained , by both teacher and students, greater responsibility can be passed over to the students. Personalisation is dynamic process. Respectful relationships are vital.Several examples are provided for schools to consider as well as ideas about how to cope with inevitable problems.

Community Based Learning.

Helping students become actively involved in the community to assist them gain appreciation of possible successful adult roles.

Personalised Assessment.

Rather than tests and exams students are assessed by their performances, portfolios and student led conferences about what they have learnt. Assessments are based on quality of questions , research, understanding and presentation of ideas. A range of rubrics are provided to assist teachers with authentic assessment.

Personalising School Systems.

Moving away from set subject teaching to various forms of 'block' timetabling and team teaching. Changing to personalised school is a gradual and evolutionary process one one that requires 'buy in' and leadership at all levels. The authors believe you can't reform schools you have to rebuild them. Once again examples are provided.

Personalised learning is essentially active learning where students research and present answers to their own questions. Students will need skills to 'seek , use and create their won knowledge' ( NZC) and teachers interactive skills to help students achieve their personal best.

With a shared vision and all wiling to try it can be done. All students can be engaged and succeed. As progress is made, and problem solved, a shared language is developed. Smaller schools,it seems, have the best chance to succeed - or for bigger schools to develop schools within schools.

Personalising learning is a creative 21stC way to solve the problem of school failure. It is a better answer than reaching back to the standardisation of a past industrial age that politicians favour.

Creativity or compliance that is the issue. Students future success depends on teachers' intellectual courage combined with a new vision of what education could be.

It is an exciting educational answer to the problem of 'school' failure.


Darren Sudlow said...

I absolutely agree with this philosophy, but I fear that there are barriers that currently prevent this from becoming reality (although Unlimited seem to be doing it).

For me the first barrier is high stakes assessment - while secondary teachers have exams hanging over their heads we will make slow progress towards personalisation.

A further barrier is parents, who just don't understand the changes that are needed. They only know what they experienced and even if they didn't enjoy school at all, they still seem to expect the same for their children.

And maybe politicians as a final barrier...

Bruce said...

Thanks Darren

The book does not under-estimate the problems you mention. If it were to be limited (at first) to years 7 to 10, or one team of 7 to 10s, then this area would not involve high stakes assessment. And there are those who believe it is possible to integrate requirements into the studies.

The best scenario for such a school would be schools like 'Unlimited' or schools with great numbers of unsuccessful students. Nothing to lose.

It of course would need real leadership able to sell the ideas.If parents were involved, and could see success for themselves, things would become easier. It, however, needs a total 'buy in' by the staff.

Angel E. George said...

I am hooked to "...Students future success depends on teachers' intellectual courage combined with a new vision of what education could be"
With all the barriers that may be conquered, educators should embrace this change and continually strive to make the best possible person out of their students. The will should be there to do this.

Bruce said...

Thanks Angel

The will may be there but, all to often. not the skill , leadership or opportunity.

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