Personalization Isn’t a Fancy Computer Program

Laura presented the idea of “personalization of learning,” meaning more in how does the teacher understand the student, build on their interests, and create learning opportunities for the student.  I can get behind this idea.

The personalization of learning creates the opportunity for more depth and authenticity, whereas “personalized learning” seems to be more about knowing the “stuff”.                                                      – George Couros

When George Couros mentioned me in his post, “Personalized Learning Vs Personalization,” I was honestly a bit surprised when I started to receive tweets and messages asking for more information, because I just assumed everyone saw it the same way as I did. And then, serendipitously, an article in my inbox called “A Confession and a Question on Personalized Learning” explained the problem with personalized learning, as it is constructed now.

Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, shared how computerized personalized learning programs are failing to live up to the promise. Not only have they not been able to map out a scope and sequence for learning, they don’t know how to measure truly where students are and what they need, and the library of lessons that are needed to teach students is only about 5% complete. But more important than all that, Berger writes is that:

Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Which brings me to the question that I hope might kick off your conversation: “What did your best teachers and coaches do for you—without the benefit of maps, algorithms, or data—to personalize your learning?”

In asking the question of what the best teachers and coaches do to personalize learning, we get at the heart of this topic. Personalization is, at its core, about relationships. It’s about knowing your students as unique human beings, and then finding ways to let them explore their sense of self through experiences that are not laid out, step by step, in a neat package by the teacher but rather require the students to find their own way to the finish line.

An example:

Over the past month, third graders at one of our schools have been studying the Kumeyaay Native Americans. An area of focus, placed by the teachers, was on culture and traditions. As the Kumeyaay adapted to outside influences, and disruptions to their way of life, they found ways to preserve their traditions for future generations. As the culmination to this unit, students participated in a weeklong Design Sprint.

Objective: How might we understand the Kumeyaay journey of change over time and their desire to retain cultural customs, so as to better understand how to tell our own story in an ever-evolving time?

To kick off the week, students heard stories from a Kamishibai storyteller. They discussed the elements of storytelling, and participated in an improv activity called “Pass the Gift” to explore how body gestures can be used to convey a story.

From there, we asked students to think about an important tradition in their family. Using a chalk talk thinking routine, students wrote a tradition down on butcher paper. After conducting a gallery walk to see what everyone else wrote, students came up with categories for the different tradition types – topics ranged from dinner with the family to summer vacations to SuperBowl parties.

And then the true personalization happened… students were told to decide on the best method to preserve the story of that tradition. They didn’t have to write an autobiography, with 5 paragraphs and a hook opener. They had to really think about what could not only best capture their story, but what would the user (their family) respond to best. The mediums chosen varied: movies, slideshows, stop-motion animation, painting, sculptures, comic strips, written narratives, and even a few Kamishibai story boxes!

After students finished their projects, they shared them with 6th grade buddies to receive feedback. They’ll adjust the prototypes after break to prepare them for Open House. One teacher commented, after the Design Sprint ended, “The students shared their projects today with their sixth grade buddies and it was truly one of the most powerful moments we have ever witnessed in the classroom.”

Personalization can take many forms. In this case, the artistic medium not only let students express themselves creatively, but it also provided a way for both the introvert and the extrovert, the verbal-linguistic and the logical-mathematical, the second language learner and the gifted child, to connect with the academic standards in a meaningful, relevant way.

** This is the first in a series of posts on Personalization of Learning. Sign up to receive an update when I post. Type your email address in the box and click the “Subscribe” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

One Comment on “Personalization Isn’t a Fancy Computer Program

  1. Love this blog post Laura! Personalization is SO much more than a computer program telling students what they should learn next- we need to pay more attention to what our students are passionate about, what they care about, and what motivates them and tie that into the standards- that’s truly the art of teaching! Thanks for sharing this!


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