Sunday, June 03, 2007

Personalizing Learning.

My pet chicken. Student age 10

People, who seem to know best, have been trying to reform an education system derived from another age and in the process ignore the simple fact that people get good at things they like. Learning is always personal.

The old 'one size fits all' model, based on an outdated industrial model,fits no one. It is not that as we are short of ideas to develop a more successful model, it's just that we are too busy trying to improve what is not working, to listen to the 'voices' ( from the perceptive writing of John Dewey to the work of creative teachers past and present) that might help us.

Recently our Minister of Education has been talking about the need to 'personalize learning'; to fit the curriculum to the needs of the student rather than vice versa. So far,to all intents and purposes, it is just talk. Currently our 'one size fits all' model needlessly brands too many young people as failures. It is as if our addiction to the idea that there must be 'a curriculum that we must deliver' to all our students limits our thinking - without our 'maps' what would we do?

What we seem to be neglecting is to consider the 'big picture', what is the purpose of education in the 21stC? What attributes will our future students need to thrive? Is our current model part of the problem? We need to stop measuring achievement in narrow terms of literacy and numeracy and instead measure how well we are developing students who are caring and curious with their passions developed; to give direction and purpose to their lives. The recent move towards 'Key Competencies' of the draft NZ Curriculum seem to be a step in the right direction but, so far, I have seen little change in what is being assessed. Worse still, in an attempt to assess such competencies, we might just be changing one distracting assessment system for another.

The key to the transformation of our system is to personalize all learning.

This mean students being involved in 'rich, real and relevant' studies of their own choosing. Such a 'problem based curriculum , based on students questions and concerns, is rarely seen. Even in our primary schools most of what is seen are students completing teacher planned studies modified by a half hearted approach to involving students. Such small gains are soon lost in the imposed and fragmented disciplines of the secondary schools. At least it is possible in primary schools, that is, if time could be found in a day almost totally focused on literacy and numeracy programmes!

Real personalised education demands teachers, respect the ideas, gifts, strengths and interests of the students. It is these that, when utilized, would create a 'personalised' classroom. A personalised curriculum ought to 'emerge' from the lives and concerns of the students but this does not mean that interesting challenges cannot be presented by teachers - the point is that the students depth of interest in any topic must guide the learning.

Perhaps the area where 'personalised learning' ought to be most easily seen is in students writings. Student 'voice' should not just be restricted to their study work but more importantly in their personal writing.

The stories students bring with them to school about the small felt events of their lives are there to be 'tapped'. Their responses to their experiences provide the motivation to develop the true beginnings of literacy. It is each individual students 'voice' that provides the key to enter the world of books. By first reading and writing their own stories students learn to appreciate the power of their own thoughts and the use of words to record them. Junior teachers need to take time to listen to what their students are saying and thinking about and then to 'scribe' these out to make the students first real books.

So little of this is seen, even in our most junior rooms. Most of the writing seen is shallow and reflects little the 'voice' of the students. And likewise the art on display. All too often what is seen is in response to teacher 'intentions', exemplars and criteria - what is lacking is the true reason why anyone would write, draw or dance - the need to explore and make personal meaning. Teachers, obsessed with 'intentional practices', are missing out the important ingredients ( and the only ones that finally count) the desire to make personal meaning, creativity and imagination.

Education is about learning - about literally changing our minds in the process. It is about developing a love of learning with an emphasis on the doing. True satisfaction comes from achieving something felt worthwhile by the learners; it is valuing product via process.

True 'personalisation' of learning would mean we would have to develop a new philosophy of education to underpin our schools.It is about focusing on students 'one student at a time' to ensure every learner becomes respected and appreciated for the ideas and passions they bring with them to the classroom.

Our success, as teachers, should be assessed by the enthusiasm shown and talents developed by their students and, most of all, by their desire to want to continue with what inspires them. The real 'evidence' of learning is not to be seen in the endless literacy and numeracy graphs and 'targets' schools now produce but by what students can do, demonstrate, perform or exhibit. Such things give students a chance to show what they can really do.

To develop 'personalised learning' teachers would need to place their energy on creating the conditions to allow students to become involved in their own learning - and it means we have to learn to trust our students and our own professional judgement. 'Evidence' of students' learning should illustrate depth of their involvement and thinking and also provide an opportunity for students, their teachers, and their parents to have valuable conversations about what has been achieved and what needs to come next. Such quality 'personalised learning' will only be achieved by students through their gaining the pride and satisfaction of doing fewer things really well.

When you let students follow their interests you are not only changing the curriculum you are changing the whole dynamic of education.

An excellent book: 'The Big Picture' by Dennis Littky - see the Big Picture Web Site

Also the United Kingdom Department of Education and Science site


Anonymous said...

All schools should have a copy of the book 'The Big Picture'.If nothing else such a school should exist in every major community as an alternative for the creative and alienated students - that's about 20 percent on current figures (those who leave with nothing to show for their time at school). A figure that must ring warning bells in peoples' minds.

Anonymous said...

Personalised learning is easily said by politicians and only rarely done by teachers. It is to those few insightful teachers we need to look to for inspiration.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I couldn't agree more - it is the craft wisdom and artistry of creative teachers that we should be tapping into and sharing. Not the 'best practices' and 'researched views' of the 'hollow' experts from on high who see things clearly from their ivory towers.

Anonymous said...

Me from up north again Bruce.
Of course you are totally right. It is my observation that 70% of the school week is now given over to Literacy and Numeracy and that leaves just 30% for the other 5 ESAs.
Why would you send your kids to school when the "stuff" they are doing could be done via Internet.
Let's have as you say some time spent on the real needs of kids and some creative and fulfilling outcomes.
I hope we are around long enough to see a change old friend.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Greeting 'M'

I had the opportunity to visit a number of Taranaki Schools this week ( blogs to come!) and it was great to see powerful room environments celebrating in-depth content studies - many based on the immediate environment.

Let's hope can get over this literacy numeracy thing and get back to 'learnacy'!