This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. It is necessary for teachers to nurture the development of a Community within their classrooms in order to facilitate personalized learning. Each student needs to feel empowered within the learning environment to explore individual interests and passions. Consider the type of community in which you would thrive. How would you describe that environment? Generally, people describe an effective neighborhood community as friendly, supportive, secure, vibrant, participatory, and innovative. Designing this type of learning environment within each classroom is equally important. Students need to experience similar qualities in their classroom communities in order to achieve personal academic success.
Qualities of Community
Trust – I have previously blogged about the quality of trust (Learning to TRUST with Responsible Use) as my school district made the shift from an Acceptable Use Policy to Responsible Use Guidelines. When students are using technology tools and digital resources to engage in personalized learning activities, teachers have to be able to trust that students will be responsible. This TRUST poster provides five positive “I will…” statements to support the responsible use of technology tools and digital resources. As teachers begin a new school year, they should discuss each of these statements with their students and what they look like in practice. Trust involves developing an open, supportive, and vigorous classroom culture, so these items need to be reviewed regularly with the students.This includes ensuring safety and respect so that students feel comfortable enough to participate fully in personalized learning.
Inclusive – A classroom community is constructed of diverse individuals, but they can come together in the personalized learning environment and support each other with common goals. Each student should be encouraged to share their unique qualities and differences, as they pursue their own interests and individual learning paths. To develop a more inclusive learning environment, teachers can include various perspectives on topics. This approach provides students with an opportunity to see examples from many viewpoints. Diversity should be purposefully incorporated throughout the curriculum by using multiple examples, relevant content, and meaningful illustrations that are free of stereotypes. In this way, everyone is welcome within the classroom to contribute their personal strengths and abilities to benefit the whole community.
Responsive – When teachers possess a good understanding of their students, they should know when students might have personal challenges or difficulties that keep them from performing to their maximum potential. Knowing what makes each student tick helps a teacher become more responsive to their needs and personal differences. One way to develop this understanding is to conference with students regularly (ideally weekly) to set goals, design personalized learning paths, determine progress, and celebrate success. The feedback that teachers provide during these conferences should not only be for instruction, it should encompass the needs of the whole child. Likewise, when difficulties do arise, the teacher should have access to other resources within the school community to assist them in meeting each child’s individual learning needs.
Empowering – By empowering students to make relevant choices about the direction of their learning, teachers can help students become more involved within the classroom community. Encouraging students to believe that they have control over their success is an indicator of a growth mindset and could be one of the most important qualities a student can develop. Growth mindset is the concept that through dedication and hard work you can achieve anything. Carol Dweck wrote about the differences between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset in her book, Mindset: A New Psychology of Success. Essentially, one difference is that a student with a fixed mindset may quickly give up working on a challenging problem after a few minutes, but a student with a growth mindset will persist and view the problem as an exciting challenge! Students with a growth mindset will also learn to see themselves as the architects of their own success. Developing this understanding within students arises in part from ownership of the learning experience.
Joyful – The personalized learning environment is joyful as teachers and students share in the learning process. Even when situations become challenging, there is pleasure in discovering new solutions to problems and collaborating with others in the classroom community. Not only do students feel more connected to their teacher and each other, but they begin to feel more connected to the content they are exploring along their unique learning paths. It is essential to have opportunities to celebrate this joy of learning and each student’s personal successes and achievements. Hosting visitors to the classroom so that students can share what they have learned with others is a good strategy for showcasing success. Also, identifying ways that students can contribute what they have learned to benefit their school, neighboring community, or the world provides a more authentic learning experience and produces a sense of satisfaction and purpose.
This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. When teachers facilitate the building block of Communication, not only are they nurturing a learning environment that supports personalized learning, they are also helping students to develop skills that are essential for personal and professional success. Consider the following forms of communication: reading, writing, speaking, and listening and their importance in the digital age when information is so readily accessible. The use of technology can benefit the development of these skills. However, there is some concern that the connection to technology tools and devices in the classroom will lead to students being disconnected from each other or from the teacher. In my experience, this isn’t the reality of classrooms that encourage Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) or in 1:1 classrooms where students are equipped with school-provided technology resources. These classrooms tend to have more effective communication as the teachers and students have greater opportunities to communicate with each other.
Strategies for Communication
Begin with the Purpose – The five major purposes of communication are as follows: to inform, to express feelings, to imagine, to influence, and to meet social expectations (Communication, 2016). The teacher has to strategically utilize each of these purposes when communicating with students as well as ensure that students practice and develop these skills. These strategies are integral to the teacher’s ability to address the unique needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students in the personalized learning environment. Communicating effectively for personalized learning, requires the teacher to have a good understanding of each child within the classroom learning community.
Develop Norms for Communication – Students have already been learning and practicing their own rules for how they should communicate with others, especially through social media. Teachers have to negotiate norms and procedures with the students for communicating in the personalized learning environment. Some of the communication will be happening face to face, but there will also be communication in online spaces and platforms. Discuss with the students how they need to communicate differently in different situations and give them opportunities to practice their developing skills. Realize that they will make mistakes in communication, yet it is important to know how to respond to those mistakes. It should never be acceptable for a student to demean or intimidate anyone, and those instances must have clear and specific consequences.
Vary Modalities – Students vary in the ways that they perceive and understand what is being communicated and how it is being communicated, so teachers need to present information in multiple ways. By incorporating visuals, movement, music, and illustrations, teachers are more likely to address individual student needs, interests, and preferences. The National Center for Universal Design for Learning provides an excellent graphic organizer, which includes guidelines for providing multiple means of representation; action and expression; and engagement. Remember that attention spans also differ among learners, and it is normal that the attention of participants drifts occasionally throughout instruction. Including variety and novelty, helps the learners focus on what is being communicated and providing activities that utilize movement is essential.
Consider Your Tone – Since perception varies among learners, teachers need to think about how they are sounding when they are communicating. If they have taught the same lesson several times during a day, are they beginning to sound bored or impatient? The tone of personalized instruction should sound supportive and encouraging, rather than directive, and engaging, rather than monotone. Again, having a good understanding of the students is necessary, because teachers focused on personalized learning are more likely to know what tone to use within a specific situation or with a particular student to communicate a message.
Use Effective Presentation Skills – In the personalized learning environment, the students will be communicating and presenting as much (if not more) that the teacher. By modeling effective presentation skills, teachers can teach students how to be better communicators. The following strategies are important to consider when presenting:
- Make whole class presentations short and then work with individual students or with small groups.
- Post a written list of steps or directions that students should follow.
- Consider how much the teacher is talking compared to the students.
- Model professional and appropriate communication behaviors for students.
- Emphasize key points, ideas, and directions when speaking.
- Provide enough time for students to respond to questions.
- Record instruction and watch the video for feedback about communication.
Use a Microphone (if possible) – As an instructional technology specialist, I worked at an elementary school that had microphones and a sound system installed in every classroom. At first, many teachers were hesitant to wear their microphones as this was a change in traditional practice. We established some school-wide expectations for that system, and all of the teachers began the practice of wearing the microphones on a lanyard throughout the day. Each classroom was also equipped with a handheld student microphone. After an initial period of assimilating and normalizing the use of the microphones into regular instructional practices, the teachers eagerly reported that the new sound systems had a dramatic improvement on the teaching and learning experiences in their classrooms. Students were eager to share what they had learned while using the handheld microphone for communication, and this encouraged even shy and reticent students to express their ideas and opinions about what they had learned. Teachers noted that they were more comfortable in communicating with their classes as they realized that they rarely had to raise their voices to get the attention of the students, and the students attended better to instruction and class discussion.
Remember Nonverbal Communication – Listening is an important skill for communication for personalized learning. A teacher has to show openness to new ideas and strategies. If the students sense a feeling of agitation, disinterest, or confusion, the teacher will lose their participation. Likewise, facial expressions and posture can encourage or discourage enthusiasm for learning. It is important to practice patience when dealing with difficult situations or even with the subjects or topics that the teacher may not find personally interesting. One of the best practices for personalized learning is for teachers to imagine what it would be like to be a student in their classes and to consider how they would want to be perceived. Note that nonverbal communication is the first message that students receive as they walk into the classroom to begin a new day.
Communication. (2016). In Compton’s by Britannica. Retrieved from http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/article-198990/communication
This post was written in collaboration with Douglas Konopelko. It is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. Although it may seem unusual to connect collaboration to the practice of personalized learning, it is important to remember that students don’t learn within a vacuum. In a personalized learning environment, teachers can help students discover what individual roles they can successfully assume when collaborating with others.
Employers in the digital age are not looking at test scores; they want candidates with effective collaboration and teamwork skills. According to The National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2013, the number one skill employers are looking for in their employees is the ability to work in a team. Review the top ten qualities in this Forbes article. Collaboration is often misconstrued, and it is important to make a distinction between collaboration and group work. Think of it this way – group work is an assembly line – each worker is responsible for a portion of the final product, but they can be completed in isolation. On the other hand, an example of collaboration is the leadership team from a corporation deciding on the direction they want to take the company. Collaboration requires that there be some form of direct interaction between individuals towards an end product which includes negotiations, discussions, and valuing the perspectives of others (Kozar, 2010). Detailed below are some strategies for collaboration that teachers can facilitate in their personalized learning environments.
Strategies for Facilitating Collaboration
Scaffold Collaborative Activities – Students might not know how to begin to work collaboratively, so a teacher can facilitate collaboration by modeling strategies for sharing responsibilities while still including everyone in the overall process and success for the activity. Teachers can also suggest roles with specific responsibilities within the group. For example, if students are developing a video based around a standard, there might be students with the following responsibilities: script writers, editors, videographers, prop designers, and actors.
Teachers are gradually abandoning roles that don’t involve content, such as “time keeper” in favor of those that keep everyone truly involved in the standards-based or skills-based learning. The following list contains some suggested new roles for collaborative learning:
- Standard Bearer – This role is responsible for making sure that the team’s discussion and answer is aligned to the standard/scale/learning goal and steers the conversation back to that direction if it strays.
- Clarification Guru – This role makes sure that what is being discussed/presented will be clearly stated to make it easy to understand while still remaining focused on the topic at hand.
- Visualizer – This role is responsible for translating the group’s full process (all the thoughts and ideas) into a visual (sketchnote or graphic organizer).
- Deepener of Knowledge – This role is responsible for synthesizing questions or an enrichment assignment based on the standard and the group’s process that will help other people dig deeper into the standard and get to a higher level of cognitive complexity.
Promote Interdependence – It is essential to have nurtured a learning community where students are encouraged to rely on each other for support. One strategy is to assign students who are experts at particular apps to be “Appsperts.” Post the Appsperts on the wall and explain that if students are confused on how to use the particular app, they can go to the Appspert for expert advice. This provides students with an opportunity to develop leadership skills within the classroom digitally. Another strategy for promoting interdependence is to create a classroom norm that students discuss issues with each other before bringing them to the teacher. The teacher should also adhere to this norm by not interjecting in every conversation by assuming it is off-track.
Utilize Student Expertise – Once students have mastered a standard, they can develop materials and resources to teach other students that concept. Encouraging students to utilize what they have created to tutor or assist students who are having difficulties is empowering. This reciprocal teaching is one of the most powerful and effective ways to simultaneously offer remediation to struggling students and acceleration to students who are ready to move on at their own pace. Students can also facilitate a small group environment to teach other students a concept. If they can do this effectively, a student-led session can be recorded for future flipped instruction. If possible, a teacher could post this as an example or evidence for parents to see the powerful learning taking place in the classroom.
Many students may know how to use the technology in the classroom better than their teachers, but they might not know how to learn with that technology. The teacher can show a willingness to learn from the students how to use those technology tools, devices, resources, and applications for new learning opportunities.
Establish Clear Guidelines – A positive strategy is to have students develop a set of classroom rules, expectations, and norms that help the class to create a sense of community within the classroom. These norms should be posted and reviewed regularly to help guide collaboration. Before students begin working collaboratively is a good time for the teacher to model examples and non-examples of appropriate behaviors. It is essential to design these norms with the students in order to empower students and to achieve their buy-in. They can also assist in the design of a checklist or a rubric for evaluating participation so that they know what is expected of them when they collaborate with others.
Model Conflict Resolution – Creating a collaborative classroom culture is essential to any transformational change. One successful method is to implement a classroom vision statement developed by all students. Each morning, students can discuss ways they will achieve the classroom vision, and if they were unable to the previous day, they can develop a goal on how they will improve. Students can develop an action plan together to reach that goal using the following suggested questions:
- What will I do today?
- What will I do tomorrow?
- What will I do next week?
- How will I know that we have been successful?
It should be expected that as students collaborate, they will eventual experience conflicts. When conflicts do arise, the teacher should walk through the steps and norms that have been developed by the students for resolving conflicts. The teacher’s role in this situation should be to coach the students by asking good questions that help to lead to a resolution.
More about Douglas – In addition to his role as the Coordinator of Digital Learning for Martin County School District in Florida, Douglas Konopelko is a connected educator and graphic design enthusiast (dkonopelko.com). His passion for collaboration and lifelong learning is woven into the fabric of each of these roles. As a classroom teacher, Douglas led the charge for BYOD in his district and continues to support the program as a district administrator.
This post, written in collaboration with Diana Ryan, is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. It is necessary to construct the building block of Citizenship within a classroom to better facilitate personalized learning. Although a personalized learning environment focuses on the needs and interests of individual students, how those students operate collectively as an entity of learners can influence and even determine what they are personally able to accomplish. Teachers can purposefully help students understand the rights and responsibilities of a digital citizen.
In order to develop life long learners, teachers must provide opportunities for students to build traits of prosperous, generous, and responsible citizens. Each child has various traits that influence the development of their social personas, whether digitally or physically. Teaching and modeling digital age skills through technology can nurture the traits of contributing citizens. Identifying each student’s intrinsic motivation is beneficial for ensuring individual participation. Detailed below are some additional qualities of citizenship that teachers can look for in their personalized learning environments.
Qualities of Citizenship
Netiquette – Building a positive digital footprint (some refer to it as a digital tattoo) is essential for today’s students. Many students have taught themselves how to utilize technology and have made unfortunate mistakes. They want to emulate their parents, teen brothers and sisters, and even popular celebrities they see using technology all the time. Many adults have inadvertently experienced the problems that can arise when they post something inappropriate on social media, or accidentally copy someone on an email. Following the “live and learn” motto with online communication can lead to difficult repercussions for our students. It is of utmost importance that we coach students in appropriate netiquette. Netiquette is the behavior that one uses while on the Internet. A good rule of thumb is to teach students that whatever they say online should be appropriate for virtually anyone to see because it’s so easy for someone to forward a text, email, and/or post. “If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t say it online.” Another relevant aspect of netiquette to teach students is the interpretation of a message as they consider what to post. It’s very difficult to understand one’s tone through digital means. Teach students to take a moment and reread and reflect before posting a message online. Regular practice and feedback are necessary for developing good netiquette.
Internet Safety – My son’s best friend lives in another country, and he rarely gets to see him face-to-face. However, he communicates with him each week through online gaming. Like many teens, one of their favorite games is FIFA. As they wear their headsets, they discuss the soccer game they are currently playing, but I’ve also overheard them discussing many other topics and issues – even where they are planning on attending college one day. This is not uncommon. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 78% of teen online gamers say that when they play games online it makes them feel more connected to friends they already know. The physical world has blended into their online experiences for our students in a new contextual manner. Just as they would practice safety as they venture into a new city, they have to learn how to be safe on the Internet. Furthermore, in order to build a positive foundation for personalized learning, students must learn how to be safe online. They need to recognize that just because they read something online, it may not be true. It’s essential that they understand that a flashing message that promises a free trip or a cash giveaway will only lead to additional spam, a breach of privacy, or put themselves at risk. They also have to be wary of strangers online. Teachers have to communicate these potential dangers to students and explain how to report any situation that makes them feel unsafe. Understanding how to be safe online empowers students as they engage in personalized learning.
Participation – Listening to every voice can be difficult if teachers consistently rely on whole-group direct instruction as their primary teaching method. Consider what happens in typical classroom full of students when a teacher poses a question to the class. As students raise their hands to answer the question, generally, the teacher selects one student to answer and moves on to the next question. How can the teacher determine how many students are truly engaged at that moment? The answer is the one student who answered the question. Personalized learning requires the participation of every student. One strategy for increasing participation is to use a student response system. If the teacher asked questions to all students using a student response system and mobile devices, then all students could answer and ensure better participation. Now, the teacher can determine immediately who understands the concept being taught and who needs corrective feedback. The teacher could also go back and reteach the concept immediately if the majority of the class is not understanding it. There are additional strategies for improving participation in a personalized environment. Students could possibly answer questions at their own pace or even generate their own questions. As long as the students are participating at their own pace, we know that they are receiving instruction meeting their needs. Technology tools can provide us with greater opportunities to increase participation. To do this, teachers need to be comfortable with sharing the learning experience with the students in their classes.
Equity – There are many ways that equity can be realized within the personalized learning environment, and I have previously blogged about the issue of equity in learning opportunities. Equitable access for all students doesn’t necessarily mean each student having a device; rather, it entails the access to engaging, digital content and activities either within the classroom or as part of a course. Picture two different science classes in the same middle school. In one classroom, the teacher is encouraging students to bring in their own devices. Even if only 50% of students have devices, there is still an opportunity to have collaborative groups that can work together to create movies, interactive presentations, animations, and more based on a particular learning standard. They can be creative together and utilize each other’s strengths. For example, one of the students might be more organized and can write the script, while the other does the filming. Now, consider the other classroom where the teacher has assigned all students to read independently a chapter from the textbook (either online or on paper) and answer the questions from the end of the chapter for homework. In this classroom, their is no personalization of the learning experience, and the resulting two classrooms are inequitable in the learning opportunities available to students. Even in the BYOT classroom described above, there is greater opportunity to utilize the school’s technology tools and resources as students are collaboratively discovering new ways to show what they know.
Responsibility – What does it mean to be a good digital citizen? There are certain responsibilities that each student must develop in order to become a productive, engaged citizen. Time management, organization, and note taking are all important skills that lead to a responsible adult. These three traits can be developed with the assistance of technology. Many apps have led the way for building responsible behavior by removing obstacles that have traditionally impeded success for learners. In fact, Apple has essentially given every iOS user a personal assistant with Siri. Simply by holding down the home button, you can ask her to set reminders, make appointments, or even call someone. An app called My Video Schedule provides images throughout the day to remind users to do particular activities that could be useful within the classroom. Mindfulness is another skill that can help students become more responsible within the personalized learning environment. When students are consciously aware of their strengths and challenges, they are better able to utilize their strengths to overcome many of their challenges and to experience personal success.
There are many ways that teachers can help students develop the above traits in their classrooms. By conferencing regularly with students and helping them set short term goals, teachers can help students realize success. The amount of necessary conferencing may differ based on the personal needs of each student. If necessary, a teacher could conference with students at the beginning of each day; check midday to see how their progress has been; and have a final check at the end of the day. Journaling at the end of the week can also help students determine their effectiveness on accomplishing goals. This practice is a good way to build self-reflection skills and leads to better citizenship.
This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. When teachers help students develop the building block of Confidence, together they can build a foundation that supports personalized learning. It takes confidence for students to begin to own the learning experience and for teachers to transform their classrooms by sharing the learning experience with their students. This confidence in the classroom can be expressed in many different ways.
Qualities of Confidence
Motivation – Motivation is intertwined with confidence because when students are motivated, they will persist in solving problems even though they may be difficult. That motivation may arise from a sense of confidence in oneself because of one’s abilities, interests, and knowledge about a particular skill or concept. Motivation can also be related to a sense of safety within the learning environment so that students feel comfortable in taking risks or trying new things to show what they know. Motivation is connected to relationships that are purposefully developed within the classroom to achieve a willingness to listen to and accept new ideas. Teachers can influence motivation by inspiring students to think outside the box. This inspiration can come from high expectations that every student will achieve but also an innate understanding of what makes students tick. When teachers know what inspires students personally, they can use that understanding to help them become motivated to achieve, to explore, and to extend beyond the basics required for competency of a learning standard. A focus on test scores may only motivate some of the academically skilled students in the room. However, focusing on what students are capable of accomplishing individually and using that information to personalize their learning can motivate everyone.
Perseverance – So what causes students to persevere when they encounter difficulties in the classroom? Learning to view obstacles as surmountable challenges arises from confidence in one’s abilities. As teachers provide scaffolding for learning new things, they can help students develop the confidence necessary to persevere. Those supports along the way include providing explanations, asking questions, and modeling as students are learning new concepts. The teacher gradually introduces new information and helps students set new goals for accomplishing learning tasks. Teachers can also help students develop their own strategies that foster perseverance. Some of these strategies may include the following: organizing thoughts about a new topic; making a plan for undertaking a task; providing video feedback and suggestions; and reflecting about a task when it is completed. When those strategies become a regular part of learning, they provide an effective roadmap for confidence. When students experience success, they develop the sense of confidence necessary to persevere.
Risk-taking – Students need to feel confident about taking risks in order to engage in personalized learning. They need to be able to expect that sometimes they will make mistakes and learn from their failures as part of the learning process. Teachers can help students develop this capacity by embracing their own mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. When teachers make a mistake they need to own that mistake; show why they made a mistake; and model how they can learn from it. This helps students attempt new things; embrace new ways of learning; and understand that they are always a work in progress. Teachers should model that they’re willing to learn alongside and even from their students because students often have their own areas of expertise. Many students may know how to use the technology in the classroom better than their teachers, but they might not know how to learn with that technology. Collaboration in this way builds confidence. The teacher can show a willingness to learn from the students how to use those technology tools and devices for new learning opportunities. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is one way of demonstrating confidence.
High Expectations – When teachers maintain high expectations, they show that they believe in their students. The challenge of meeting and exceeding learning standards with a teacher with high expectations can be rewarding to students. In the personalized learning environment, one goal is to help students cultivate high expectations for themselves. Of course, because of students’ individual differences, teachers have to help them learn how to define success while still maintaining high expectations. Having high expectations involves more than solely maintaining a narrow range of success for every student. Teachers have to understand the challenges of each student and nurture a supportive environment built on collaboration. They have to scaffold supports for each child to experience success and then celebrate those successes as well as the mistakes made along the way. One of those supports may include providing sufficient time for students to process new information and answer questions. It is necessary for teachers to discover authentic ways that each student can experience success and make a positive contribution to the learning community. That raises students’ feelings of competence and affects the ways that the other students perceive them. In this way, not only do high expectations develop a sense of confidence, they also show students that their teachers really care about them. It develops mutual respect in the classroom. Students feel good about themselves, and classmates can be proud of and relate to the successes and failures of their peers
Continuous Practice – As with many extracurricular activities, continuous practice in the classroom develops and refines necessary skills and expertise. In the short term, that practice may sometimes feel tedious, but in the long term, it is essential for success. As noted above, success can lead to confidence in one’s abilities. Teachers can help students learn how to practice effectively by focusing on areas that need extra attention and development. In the personalized learning environment, how students should practice can vary depending on the individual. Typically in education, students are forced to practice by doing more of a challenging task, such as by completing rows of math problems. However, repetition and practice are not exactly equal. It may be more beneficial for a student to utilize other strengths as a different form of practice, and practice may be more beneficial if it comes from demonstrating success instead of simply repeating a task. For example, a student having difficulty with a particular math concept may practice that concept by creating a tutorial video that shows how to solve a few problems that utilize that same concept. That practice is more targeted to a student’s individual needs and encourages them to utilize strengths in creating a video or speaking in order to achieve eventual success.
Many students have become unaccustomed to showing their strengths and it takes a certain amount of confidence to express one’s own voice, ideas, abilities, and perceptions with others, especially as they are still figuring out the ways that they are unique. Developing a positive and supportive digital age learning ecosystem can encourage the confidence necessary for personalized learning.
This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. When teachers nurture the building block of Creativity for every student, they provide greater opportunities for personalized learning. Just as we expect every student to make academic progress in our schools and classrooms, the digital age requires that every individual utilize creativity to develop innovative solutions to problems and to generate unique products that demonstrate what they have learned.
Strategies for Nurturing Creativity
Celebrate Diversity – Because of different backgrounds and experiences, students, come to school with varying strengths and challenges. Teachers should welcome the variety of innovations and ideas that are fostered when creativity is purposefully encouraged within the personalized learning environment. This diversity strengthens the learning community as students learn more about the content, each other, their teacher, and themselves. The search for correct answers, in a misguided effort to prepare for standardized tests, can be detrimental to creative expression. Similarly, when teachers provide students with a specific set of directions, essentially a recipe, for completing an assigned project, they can also limit creativity, and this practice can result in a roomful of identical products – but may not result in any real learning. The only documented learning happening in those environments is a student’s ability to follow the instructions, which causes the design of the same product. Determining how to evaluate diverse activities and products can be challenging; therefore, teachers should collaborate with their students to design open-ended rubrics that focus more on the creative process and their developing skills.
Design a Makerspace – Many schools are designing makerspaces to facilitate the development of the skills and processes involved in creativity. At Ramsey Jr High School in Fort Smith, AR, the media center has been reimagined as a makerspace; they refer to it as their “Tinker Space.” The school has provided the students with a variety of craft supplies; 3D printers; engaging open-ended games; and resources that foster imagination. There are spaces for individual exploration and group collaboration. It has become a popular destination throughout the school day. In addition to providing a central makerspace in a school building, consider that every classroom could be a makerspace. Brainstorm what types of products could be generated in different subject areas. This influx of creativity and the freedom to create helps children demonstrate understanding of what they have learned about a concept by empowering them to utilize their personal strengths and abilities.
Integrate Technology – The use of technology can encourage new ways for students to be creative. Either with their own devices in a BYOT environment or with school-provided technology tools, students can create new ways to show what they know. For example, they can utilize the camera on a smartphone to demonstrate their learning in original ways. They could record a new way to solve a math problem; produce a modern adaptation of a work of literature; reenact a historical event; or capture a live science experiment. There are endless possibilities for learning with videos and photos. The important thing to remember is to have the students construct and own the different ways that they show their learning. Many schools are also using 3D printers in order for students to design and create new products. This process can help them develop their capabilities in math and science while also creating a new art form. Here are some suggestions for accessing a 3D printer in case you don’t have access to one at your school – How to Make 3D Printed Stuff without Owning a 3D Printer.
Ensure Access to Resources – It’s more difficult for students to be creative in classrooms where the access to the necessary materials is totally controlled by the teacher. The resources have to be available when students need to use them. This access applies to technology devices as well as to the supplies needed to create original products, such as paper, manipulatives, art supplies, and scientific equipment. Of course, this access should be negotiated by the teacher and students as part of the process of developing a learning community. It can be helpful to have specific times when students are encouraged to explore their own creative pursuits. This movement is often referred to as Genius Hour. One goal for this time is to provide students with an opportunity to explore topics they find interesting and to be self-directed in that exploration. Ideally, this active exploration can eventually to extend into all aspects of the curriculum and the learning environment.
Provide Adequate Time – Time is a necessary aspect of the creative process in personalized learning. Beginning with the initial stages of a project, students need time to brainstorm in order to generate new ideas and to develop a process for creating their products. Then students need the time to work collaboratively on those innovations. Students may need feedback at this point about next steps including alternative strategies and solutions. Teachers can offer this feedback without determining the exact steps students should follow by asking guiding questions that expose students to new possibilities. After students create their products, they also need time to reflect and to make any necessary changes to the process or product. Finally, students need a way to share their work with others by publishing or displaying what they have created. All of the above stages, help to personalize learning as students determine their own effective strategies. This process assists them as they approach new learning tasks involving creativity.
It can be challenging for teachers to provide the necessary time, access, and resources for creativity to flourish in their classrooms. They will need to determine how to integrate academic content and learning standards in order facilitate creative learning opportunities. Another way that teachers can nurture creativity is by being a good role model for their students. When teachers are enthusiastic innovators and inventors, they are showing their students that they value creativity. This modeling reveals the personal side of the teacher and helps in turn to personalize learning for students.
This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Choice helps students to feel more personally connected to their learning. Making meaningful choices engages students in determining the processes and products involved in their learning. Facilitating student choice involves more than providing options for learning that are predetermined by the teacher that marginally differentiate the learning experience. In personalized learning, the choices are intrinsically significant for each student and assist learners in understanding unfamiliar content by making the material more attainable and relatable. There are particular interconnected qualities of effective choices that teachers should consider when designing learning opportunities.
Qualities of Choice
Relevant – Relevant choices can engage students in learning by empowering them to show what they know by using their own innate or acquired strengths and abilities. A choice is also relevant when it holds particular meaning for the student. This relevancy may be encompassed by the process, the product, and/or the content involved in the learning task. When choices are relevant to students, they may create products that showcase talents, such as particular skills with art or mathematics, or they may choose to focus on an aspect of the topic that they find especially interesting.
Authentic – When learning activities possess real world significance or meaning, they can provide authentic choices for students. These experiences enable students to select from various possible scenarios that will cause them to use specific skills, strategies, or content knowledge in order to solve real problems. Choices that encourage students to utilize what they have learned to delve into meaningful issues or problems and construct original solutions, can motivate students to persevere when tasks are difficult. Students will care more about a topic when they understand and appreciate its broader importance.
Competency-Based – Choices need to ensure that students will be able to show mastery of learning standards regardless of what task they choose to undertake. By completing a learning task, students should be able to demonstrate that they understand a particular concept or skill. Teachers and students need to design a variety of tasks that encompass the targeted learning standards, so that options are equivalent. After identifying the essential skills embedded within the standard, the teacher and student can collaboratively determine what processes or products could show understanding. Considering the complexity of learning tasks will also help teachers evaluate whether or not choices are comparable.
Student-Driven – Students have to learn how to make their own choices rather than solely relying on their teachers to decide for them. They may not be accustomed to making choices because most of their schooling has forced them to be passive learners. I have heard students ask, “Can you just choose for me?” By asking guiding questions, the teacher can help students learn how to choose learning tasks that they find motivating and yet involve the targeted learning standards. Students need to develop an awareness of their personal areas of strength and how to capitalize on those strengths in order to overcome their weaknesses.
Student-Generated – There needs to be an opportunity for each student to develop a personalized learning path, and it would be impossible for a teacher to be able to be aware of every possible route when designing instruction. Therefore, it is necessary to involve students in the design process for personalized learning. By including an option to Choose Your Own among the list of available choices, students are able to tweak an existing task or to develop an original proposal that encourages innovation and individuality. Ultimately, a goal of personalized learning is for students to learn how to make their own choices for every activity as they are presented with learning standards so that they can design their own tasks to demonstrate their understanding.
It would be difficult for a teacher to design dynamic choices for students in isolation; therefore it may be helpful for teachers to collaborate with their colleagues to develop a variety of learning tasks. If teachers are to address the above qualities of effective choices for personalized learning, they have to have a good understanding of their students. This understanding arises from purposefully nurturing a learning community within the classroom. By regularly conferencing with students, teachers can help them set goals and make choices that are necessary for personalized learning. The teacher also needs to model how to make good choices for students and to share their own personal interests and strengths. Being the lead learner and an engaged participant are roles the teacher must practice in the personalized learning ecosystem.
This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Critical Thinking helps to construct a firm foundation for personalized learning. In many classrooms, teachers don’t provide the time necessary for critical thinking in order to develop original solutions to problems. Many of the problems that are provided to students also have only one possible right or wrong answer and don’t encourage true critical thinking. When students are given the opportunity to utilize all of the resources available within a classroom (including their own ingenuity) to solve problems, they can be challenged to personally connect to their learning and construct new understanding.
Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking
Provide Time for Reflection – After being presented with unfamiliar content and ideas, students need time so that they can accommodate that new information within their previously developed schema of that topic. This process involves making sense of new concepts by constructing or reconstructing personal frameworks of thought. Solely telling students to accept the information and moving on to new content doesn’t enable them to work through this process. Students can reflect in a variety of ways, and an effective practice for reflection is for students to learn what ways best help them to make sense of new information. Some strategies could include drawing an illustration; creating a mind map or graphic to understand how concepts are interrelated; or restating information in your own words and making a recording for playback.
Ask Open-Ended Questions – Essential questions proposed at the beginning of a lesson can set the stage for new learning and helps students focus on the core components of a concept or process. This practice helps students answer why they should be learning this information and explains why they should give it their attention. Personalizing the questions will again help students become more connected to that content, so they should also learn how to ask their own questions about topics. Effective questioning for both teachers and students requires practice. Closed questions have one right or wrong answer, and it is virtually impossible to connect to those questions personally. Open questions provide students with opportunities to answer them in a variety of ways based on personal experiences and understandings. Encourage students to provide evidence to support their thinking as they answer open questions to reinforce the connection between personal experience and new content.
Design Rigorous Assignments – So much time in school is spent doing rote types of assignments and activities that involve answering closed questions – completing worksheets, taking notes, etc. Rigorous assignments are those that stretch student thinking with complexity, intricacy, and divergency. Even when teachers have students complete projects or hands-on activities, many of the steps for completing those assignments are pre-determined by the teacher and often stifle true critical thinking. Having students design their own strategies for showing their thinking adds rigor to an assignment. Exploring and discovering new processes for using tools (such as technology) can also add complexity to learning tasks – and promotes effective digital learning, rather than just digitized learning. This practice is often a struggle for many students, especially because many of them are unused to being asked to really think in school. Initially, teachers may have to model the process of critical thinking for students in order to scaffold steps for completing a rigorous assignment.
Expect Every Child to Contribute – When posing questions to students, teachers sometimes rely on the first few responses from a couple of students and proceed to additional concepts. Struggling or introverted students begin relying on others to answer all of the questions in class while they remain silent. This practice keeps them from thinking critically about the content. Every student needs to grapple with the information and contribute to the collective understanding of each concept. Using a student response system can provide each student with a voice and assist in sharing ideas. Likewise, synchronous and asynchronous participation in discussion forums can also serve to help students process their thinking about what they are learning. Even having students turn to each other and discuss new information or to answer an open question and then share their thinking with the class provides a greater opportunity for participation.
Provide Multiple Ways to Show Understanding – Having every student utilize the same application or complete the same process to show their understanding can limit opportunities for critical thinking. Providing multiple ways to show understanding can enable students to think through the process or the application that better meets their individual needs or capitalizes on their personal strengths or interests. Again, it can be daunting for students to learn all of the possible ways that they could show what they know, but teachers can help facilitate this process by providing choices, modeling thinking, and being open to a variety of learning strategies. Engaging students in the process of developing a rubric for evaluating their thinking and assignments can also support personalized learning.
There are many more strategies for encouraging critical thinking in classrooms, but teachers can begin utilizing the five strategies described above for personalizing the learning experience for students. As with any strategy implemented with fidelity, on-going practice and support will also help both teachers and students develop more expertise in critical thinking.
Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for eSchool News entitled, “The Advantages of the BYOT Classroom.” At the time, I was the Coordinator of Instructional Technology for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, and the advantages that I listed were the qualities that I had observed in classrooms that effectively utilized Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) to transform teaching and learning opportunities with students’ personal technology tools.
Now, I’m collaborating with several schools and districts around the country that are beginning to implement Personalized Learning to better connect students with engaging academic content; to facilitate the development of digital age skills; and to utilize technology to provide access to anytime, anywhere learning. These benefits occur as districts, schools, and teachers recognize that students have unique strengths, needs, and interests that must be considered within the design of instruction. The methods for addressing student individuality may differ, but they include the same hallmarks of the BYOT classroom. In the illustration above, I refer to these as building blocks, as they collectively construct a firm foundation for personalized learning.
Within each of the blog posts linked below, I focused on the concepts included within the illustration of the building blocks to highlight why they are essential, foundational components for personalizing learning. I also included strategies or described necessary qualities for encouraging the development of each building block within your own personalized learning implementation plan.
Building Blocks for Personalized Learning Blog Posts
- Critical Thinking
As teachers begin to shift toward greater personalized learning experiences for students, their initial steps build upon what they already know from face-to-face instruction. Districts usually provide teachers with easy to use Learning Management Systems (LMS) that can facilitate new learning opportunities with technology. However, the greatest potential of learning with technology tools is that teachers and students can transform the traditional learning environment, processes, and products. Just providing teachers with an organizational tool, such as an LMS, will not lead to transformative practices. Teachers need on-going support if they are to truly transform their classrooms into ecosystems for digital age learning.
A Model for Redefining Learning
The SAMR Model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura provides a guideline for explaining the digital transformation. The four levels within this model are Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. At the Substitution level, teachers merely replace the traditional methods of instruction with digital tools, so instead of reading a printed textbook, the students are printing out their own pages from an online textbook. Instruction is at the Augmentation level when the use of technology benefits a commonly performed task, such as, having students submit their work within an online dropbox instead of having to turn papers in to their teacher in the classroom. At the Modification level, there is a significant change between what happen’s in the traditional face-to-face classroom and the digital age learning ecosystem. An example of this type of instruction is to design an authentic project and to share it in order to receive immediate feedback from others. Finally, instruction reaches the level of Redefinition when something is created that could not exist without the use of technology tools, resources, and access. Furthermore, the ideas and products are also student-generated.
Digitized learning encompasses the first two levels of the SAMR Model – Substitution and Augmentation. Compare the Assignments in the above illustration. The Digitized Learning Assignment has the students reading from an online textbook instead of a printed textbook. Rather than writing answers to the chapter questions on paper, the students are writing answers in a document file on a computer. They are told exactly what to create for their end product – a slide show that lists facts of information. Then they are submitting these products within an online dropbox. There are some benefits to this instruction. Namely, all of the student work can be organized online, and they can access the required information and complete the Assignment asynchronously. However, the level of instruction involved requires no creativity or critical thinking.
To prepare students for an ever-increasing digital world, they need to engage in robust digital learning experiences. In the Digital Learning Assignment in the above illustration, the students are reviewing a variety of multimedia content so that they can learn from multiple resources and points of view. They are asked to reflect on that information to develop an opinion and to create a product that defends their opinions based on evidence. This requires a high level of critical thinking. They have to share their product for feedback and to incorporate that feedback into a finished, published version of their project – providing them with a more authentic audience for their endeavors. By focusing on this type of assignment, the digital learning is more likely to reach the Modification or the Redefinition levels of instruction.
Review some of the learning experiences that your are providing for your students that involve technology. Consider what level of the SAMR Model are you addressing with your instructional tasks. One simple way of moving to more truly digital learning experiences, instead of solely digitizing learning, is to provide open-ended assignments that encourage students to make choices. Until they have more practice and experience, students often prefer digitized learning activities because they require less effort, and we have taught them how to succeed by following basic directions. Districts and schools can assist teachers by providing the necessary digital resources, a sustainable digital curriculum, consistent professional learning, and achievable expectations. Likewise, multiple opportunities for on-going feedback, support, and collaboration with a variety of digital tools and content can help your students become effective and creative digital learners.