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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Naturally, Adults Are Trying to Stop Them

This news article published yesterday:

Teenagers are running for governor in Kansas. Adults are trying to stop them

In a state where the youth voting rate is even worse than the dismal national average, more than half a dozen Kansas teens are running for statewide office in 2018 — a sort of viral movement against apathy that could, in theory, make a high school student governor.

Naturally, adults are trying to stop it.

Naturally. Because that’s what adults do. Squash the ideas of our youth that do not fall in line with the status quo.

George Couros,  in a presentation to parents, asked if any of their children want to be YouTubers when they grow up. As was expected, a few people made an audible scoff at the idea. And yet, people are doing it. In 2017, the average salary of the top 10 YouTubers was over $10 million a year. Entrepreneurial people who saw an avenue to create content that expresses their creativity have turned an outlet in to a source of income.

And now, teenagers in Kansas, after finding a loophole in the Kansas state laws, are running for Governor. Not because they want to make a mockery of the state, but because they know they have a voice worth hearing. Jack Bergeson, a 17 year old Junior,  explained his reasons for running in written testimony to the state legislature: “Allow me to clear up a misconception: I am not running for governor as a stunt, or a gag. I am running for governor because of the minimum wage worker that has to work three jobs just to get by. I am running because our education system has been lagging behind other states. I am running to get money out of politics. But most importantly, I am running to get as many people involved in politics as possible.”

Jack, and others like him, are looking for ways to make their voice heard. To fight against apathy. To make a difference. They are tired of living within the confines we have placed upon them by our systems, structures, and beliefs. They are ready to start building their own. And as educators, it is our moral duty to equip them with the skills they need to do so. What is the point of teaching facts, history, math, science, etc if they are not also taught how to create new knowledge, new experiences, new ideas and amplify those to the world?

desire-path-usability-600x600I agree with George when he says that we should be helping students find their path. There should be nothing “natural” about blocking their way. Especially not in education.

One day, I hope articles like this one will read: Naturally, adults are trying to help them pave the way.

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