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.

What is design thinking?

Design Thinking: One Bite at a Time

Today, my Design Engineering team, along with two 6th grade teachers, had the pleasure of engaging in a Google Hangout with Ellen Deutscher, co-founder of #DTK12Chat, inventor of Design Dot cards, and just an overall awesome Design Thinker, teacher, and human being. The original intent of the call was to discuss Design Dots. If you haven’t yet seen Ellen’s Design Dots, it’s a deck of 50 cards with quick ideas to integrate design thinking into ELA instruction.

What is design thinking?

Quickly, the conversation became a rich conversation around how design thinking creates a mindset shift for students. When teachers build in students the core abilities needed to navigate the design thinking process, students not only develop a greater understanding of how to use design thinking processes to solve problems, but they also become more empathetic to the world around them. They begin to see needs in the world, and act as changemakers. But in order to make that thinking shift, teachers need to be intentional in using the language of design thinking in all they do, and not just during design thinking challenges. Key to this is realizing that design thinking does not have to be a start to finish project. It can happen in “little bites,” Ellen reminded us. Each element – empathy, define, ideate prototype, test – can stand on its own or be combined with the others, depending on the task at hand.

Consider, during the course of a school day, the myriad of tasks students are completed. Now tweak them to reflect the design thinking approach. Can you ideate when writing an essay? What about when working to solve a math problem? When discussing story characters, can students build empathy for those characters? Can they define the problem the character is facing, and then develop a needs statement? How can students prototype during science labs? And test those prototypes? When the language becomes part of what teachers and students use throughout the day, students realize that Design Thinking is not just a project done once a year like a science fair. It’s a catalyst for change.

When asked how to show parents the value in integrating design thinking with standards in the classroom, Ellen pointed us to Mary Cantwell, creator of DEEP Design Thinking. Mary, Ellen told us, had generated a list of the skills she observed students demonstrating through a design thinking experience.

Not surprisingly, these skills match up with our district’s “Skills That Matter Most,” one of three key levers in our five year plan to ignite student genius by transforming the learning experience. And also not surprisingly, these skills are often listed by employers as being in high demand for the employees they hire.

So how might we develop the design thinking mindset in today’s students so as to help them develop the skills that matter most for their future success? Well, for starters, we can do it one bite at a time.

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Empathy: Are We Walking the Walk?

This morning on Twitter, Sam Patterson posted:

I responded, in the moment, with a quick tweet about the need for active listening and not just a passive head nod.

But then it got me thinking…

Why do we need to teach kids empathy? Research has shown that children develop empathy when about two years old. A two year old will see someone upset, and offer a teddy bear, or favorite blanket, to help console the person. Although the solution provided may not meet the needs of the upset person, for the two year old, it is a way to reach out and provide comfort.

Dr. Martin Hoffman, who researched empathy in children, said that it isn’t until around age 7 that children begin to really be able to “walk in someone’s shoes” and provide a response that is more appropriate to the situation. because they are learning how to see a situation from someone else’s point of view.

It’s in adolescence, Hoffman explains, that children can start thinking abstractly enough to understand the plight of others, such as homeless or or oppressed. Hoffman labels this stage comprehensive empathy and explains that it is at this point that children are first able to understand how the interplay of life’s experiences may color attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.

Ask (most) any parent or educator and they will tell you that empathy is an important trait for children to possess. “Of course we want our kids to care for others. How silly of you to ask!” wouldn’t be an unheard of response. And yet, research conducted at Harvard University showed that, while 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Sadly, the percentages were no different when students were asked what topped teacher concerns. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Why is there such a huge disconnect between the traits we think we value, and the values our children are actually being provided?

Could it be because the messages we send are stronger than the words we say?

When students see signs like the ones above that scream “I don’t care what your issues are, just do your work,” we are stripping the empathy away.

When we force compliance  on meaningless assignments in our quest for higher test scores, we are stripping the empathy away.

When we send students to the principal’s office without hearing “their side” of what happened, we are stripping the empathy away.

And when we hear a student speak, but don’t listen to what they’re saying, we are stripping the empathy away.

justice-scalia-quotes-on-religion-best-ideas-social-issues-international-day-for-compassion-and-empathy-only-go-so-farSo why do we need to teach students empathy? Because adults are the reason they are losing it in the first place.

Need tips on how to build empathy? via Teaching empathy: Evidence-based tips . Have others? Please share them below.


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