top of page

1 Thing Personalized Learning Might be Missing

The picture above will make more sense in a minute. First, I want to share how my Saturday morning started.

I woke up this weekend and started thinking about personalized learning. Technically speaking, I didn’t actually wake up with the words “personalized learning” on my mind. Instead, my thoughts were filled with some of the most student-centered learning experiences I’ve observed over the past week, and in recent years.

As I continued reflecting on these experiences, I noticed a missing ingredient from each of the scenes I was replaying in my mind. I’m going to share several super-short stories and then ask you a couple questions about what you notice.

Two kindergarteners are huddled over a device as they collaborate on a project that requires them to curate and share their work with their families. In the background, their friends are engaged in the same type of collaborative work. The class had just completed a writing assignment that involved them building the basic story elements out of LEGOs. In this particular moment, our district’s writing curriculum has truly come alive in students’ hearts and minds.

4th graders choose the books they want to read, and after reading, they create digital booktalks that can be activated by others using a QR code. Their work is on display in the hallway of their school and accessible to a larger audience. The communication skills and standards that underpin this particular lesson are evident throughout. Yet, somehow the word “lesson” hardly encapsulates the depth of learning on display. Some of the students eventually go on to help kick-off a staff meeting after school by sharing their digital booktalks.

A group of students pauses for a picture after a series of failures. They are coming to realize that the Rube Goldberg contraption they’re inventing involves more problem-solving than they anticipated. However, with each successive failure they develop a better understanding of what success will look like. Cheers erupt when they eventually create a working Rube Goldberg that spans approximately 25 feet and multiple complex steps. Their project is part of a global cadre of learners who will combine short video clips of their Rube Goldbergs in a collaborative effort.

A casual walk through our school’s hallways reveals all sorts of evidence of learning. In one particular hallway nook, a “build-a-book” station showcases students’ interpretation of a classroom read aloud. Just days before, the build-a-book station was surrounded by four boys discussing the plot for the book, Scar Island, by Dan Gemeingart. In between their boisterous laughs and deeper conversation, their classmates can’t resist the urge to guess which book the boys are building and why.

A cafeteria echos with student voice in the most literal of ways. Students smile arm-in-arm as they sing along to one of their favorite songs. Most of the music that’s playing in the cafeteria was requested by students as part of our Cafeteria DJ program. As students joyfully eat their lunches, the adults supervising their lunch (myself included) try to embrace the opportunity to give up some of the control we’ve typically appreciated in the lunchroom. Admittedly, this can be difficult to do, but it seems so right in this moment.

What might appear like a superficial “selfie station” with silly Instagram filters is actually something deeply personal to the students who created it. Now, students are articulating goals for the school year and reflecting on their reading and writing lives on their own personal websites. The QR codes underneath their silly “selfies” link their classmates to personal insights about their learning and the projects they’re currently working on. Collectively, this work embodies a spirit of classroom community that is sacred. The skills students are developing to create and maintain their websites will transcend time.

Students instinctively huddle in the middle of a packed school board meeting. The Bluetooth technology they were relying on to present to the public is not cooperating. Without missing a beat, the students collaborate and problem-solve until the robotic droids they’re using start to respond flawlessly. Their demonstration of the human digestive system (with the robotic droids representing food particles) provided the audience an authentic glimpse of what our students are capable of. At the end of the presentation, the school board publicly recognizes the high level of collaboration that was observed.

Students lean into their grammar lesson with fervor. They are so immersed in the collaboration that they hardly notice when their heads clunk together to get a closer look alongside their partners. When they’re not using a black light to analyze invisible ink containing language arts related clues, they’re using other tools like paper, pencils, devices, dictionaries, and BreakoutEDU padlocks to crack the case. The learning targets are clear, but somehow the lesson feels more like solving a real-life mystery that the grammar studies I experienced as a child.

And finally, do you remember that picture I shared at the beginning of this blog post? I was visiting a 5th grade classroom and noticed students engaged in personal research projects pertaining to topics of interest to them. They explored driving questions and personal curiosities while developing prototypes to show their learning. At one point I glanced down and noticed a rudimentary road made of magnets that seemed to be haphazardly attached to a steel track.

When I asked about the project, a student shared how she was designing a transportation system that would enable vehicles to travel without consuming fossil fuels. As she explained the concept to me, a vehicle constructed of popsicle sticks hovered above the track using only magnets.

Questions to Consider:

  • What makes learning personal? How do we know?

  • How can we make relationships the runway and a springboard to deeper learning?

  • What are the transcendent skills that kids will carry with them long after the test is taken?

  • How is the learning “real” and who gets to decide if something is relevant to students?

  • What seems to be missing from each of the short stories above?

The stories above are all distinctly different; they take place in hallways, classrooms, lunchrooms, and even the boardroom. As I reflected on each of them, I couldn’t help but notice one important thing that seemed to be missing.

The missing ingredient I kept thinking about in each of the short stories above was the teacher. To clarify, the teachers were always present, but they tended to serve as a powerful force in facilitating learning that was personal to each student.

Sometimes this occurred in the background and other times the teacher was vigorously working in the forefront. Somehow, the inspiring teachers who made the stories above possible each found a way to make their students (and their students’ learning) the star of the show.

I apologize for the half-baked analogy I’m going to conclude with. I started thinking about this at 4:00am today, so this is still very formative. So here goes...

This all reminds me of how a master-chef might operate.

When we eat a meal that’s been masterfully prepared it’s the ingredients that shine. The chef creates the conditions for greatness while helping each of the ingredients fulfill their potential. In many ways, the chef helps the ingredients become more than they could ever be alone. And each ingredient matters.

It’s never about the chef, but the chef knows that the result would not be the same without his or her training, expertise, passion, and care.

And so it seems, the very thing that appeared to be missing was the most important thing of all. Teachers can be the catalyst to the type of learning experiences all students deserve. This is how I'm currently thinking about Personalized Learning, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.



bottom of page