I have been sharing the below thought for years, and it is a crucial part of having empathy as an educator, as discussed in “The Innovator’s Mindset“:
The key to this question is not thinking like you but thinking about your students and their point of view. For example, I have been in adult sessions where you are sometimes forced to do certain icebreaker activities that the facilitator would love to be a part of, but I feel extremely uncomfortable. I guarantee I have done things like this before, which is why I focus on turning my workshops into conversations more than a traditional “stand and deliver” session. It helps me to modify to the learners in front of me immediately.
Translate this thought into the classroom.
Katie Novak, an internationally recognized expert in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and all-around awesome person, discusses this personalization of learning for students and why it is so significant:
Imagine this scene in a 3rd-grade classroom: Students are sitting quietly on the floor as a teacher reads Charlotte’s Web aloud. When the teacher completes Chapter 2, each student quietly writes a paragraph about Fern’s point of view and how she feels about Wilbur the pig.
In a high school U.S. history class, students are given a document-based question on John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). They respond to the prompt on Chromebooks as the teacher conferences with individual students.
In both scenarios, students are immersed in rigorous text, the lesson is aligned to standards, and the class is well managed. The problem? The learning experience is not personalized and thus will not meet the needs of all students.
Katie goes on to describe how each scenario can be shifted to meet the needs of individual learners:
In the 3rd-grade class, some sprawl on beanbag chairs, silently reading from well-worn copies of Charlotte’s Web. Three students nestle on a couch, listening to the novel on an audiobook using a multi-headphone splitter. In another corner, two students take turns softly reading the book aloud to a group of peers. A graphic is projected on the whiteboard, pairing vocabulary words from the chapter with corresponding photos: apple blossom, woodshed, brook.
After students finish reading or hearing the chapter, the teacher shares options for expressing their understanding of Fern’s feelings for Wilbur. Students set a goal for their work, gathering appropriate graphic organizers and rubrics if they decide they need the support. Some students select stationery to write a letter from Fern to Wilbur. Others use purple gel pens to craft a poem or song about Fern’s feelings. Still others choose to collaborate, so they retreat to the back of the room to create a skit.
The teacher, meanwhile, provides mastery-oriented feedback and Tier II support to all students as appropriate. (Tier II support is the first layer of additional support when assessments indicate students need remediation of skills to become proficient, independent learners.) At the end of the lesson, students reflect on their learning and write, type or dictate a holistic self-assessment before sharing their unique products with their classmates.
In the U.S. history class, a cluster of teenagers participate in a Socratic seminar in a corner of the room, using a provided template as they explore whether citizens have a right to dissolve their government.
Others design John Locke’s Facebook page and interpret the Two Treatises of Civil Government through a series of status updates in today’s vernacular. Others choose to join the teacher in reviewing the strategies for closely reading primary source documents and responding to a document-based question on the AP exam.
A few things I think:
- When we think about “innovation inside the box” it is important to note that although a curriculum often binds teachers, the pathway for students can look different although they need to arrive at the same endpoint. It is important to create opportunities for students to take different pathways to different end-destinations (personalized learning) but we also have to understand that are times when having students find different pathways to the same destination is needed to be done within the context of our work (individualized learning). You can read more about “Individualized and Personalized” learning here.
- What worked and interested you as a learner, might not work for some (or all) students.
- What works for some students does not work for others and what doesn’t work for some students works for others.
- There are times when students will have to take the same path to the same destination in school. Because students don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful for their future. We need to find more opportunities where learning is personalized and individualized for our students.
What works for me doesn’t always work for our students and vice-versa. Getting to know our students and passions may help shape the opportunities within the classroom, as well within professional learning (the questions below may help).
What is essential to understand that although we often have to get students to the same place, designing and creating a personalized journey for our students is part of the art of teaching.