Personalized Learning: Exploring the What, Why and How

This post is another reaction paper I wrote for the course I am currently taking, Technology and School Leadership, through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enjoy!

In a typical teacher’s day, taking the time to learn about digital tools can be a low priority. So many things are thrown their way: assessments, evaluation tasks, submitting lesson plans, building duties, parent communications, and so on. Adding on technology, combined with the way it changes seemingly daily, can be a recipe for frustration.

Still, there is a pull to upgrade our instruction to meet the demands of the 21st century, summarized as the “Four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The demand is real. “America’s system of education was built for an economy and a society that no longer exists” (National Education Association, n.d.). Memorization, basic skill development and surface-level understanding are no longer enough for our students’ futures.

Striving for deeper, student-centered learning experiences is the promise of personalized learning, which can include “students and teachers co-constructing learning goals and pathways around student interests and learning standards; students engaged in independent and self-organized group learning; and educators engaged in conferences with students on the process of learning as well as discussing goals and improvement data” (Halverson et al, 2015). Yet…students need to know stuff. We live in the information age. The challenge is teaching students how to take these disparate pieces of information and skills, analyze data to make complex decisions, and innovate when a solution is not apparent for a problem.

One approach that may offer that reasonable next step in embedding personalized learning into practice is blended learning. It combines online and face-to-face learning “that uses a variety of tools – digital, artistic, problem-solving, etc. – for the purpose of solving new problems, creating new conversation turns, composing new knowledge artifacts, and of seeing and beginning to inhabit, at least tentatively, new possible worlds beyond those that are current actualized” (Wilhelm, 2014). I prefer this definition over the typically more technical description frequently offered by #edtech evangelists.  The focus is on what might happen when students collaborate and communicate around topics of interest. Scaffolding through station work may be necessary in the beginning stages, as both students and teacher move toward a different and possibly more effective model for instruction. Age levels, discipline and digital access also matter when deciding how to incorporate blended learning in the classroom.

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As a structure is established and the purpose is clear as to why personalized learning is necessary, educators should be evaluating the impact of the technology on the instructional goals and student learning. For example, teachers use software to provide students with opportunities to develop skills in areas for growth. There are adaptive learning systems that use assessment results from one activity and guide students to that next learning activity. Then there are intelligent tutoring systems, or ITSs, in which “students are asked to do exercises and problem sets online; the computer uses their answers during problem solving to model how they are thinking about the topic and provides continuous personalized feedback based on its model of the students’ understanding” (Enydey, 6). To the point, with the student receives feedback within an ITS, it is during the learning itself, not after an activity is complete.

For teachers to incorporate personalized learning in the classroom, there has to be a recognized need, time for professional learning, and clear criteria for evaluating its effectiveness. These elements can ensure students meet their potential.

References

Enyedy, N. (2014). Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. National Education Policy Center. Available: http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/personalized-instruction (Links to an external site.)

Halverson, R., Barnicle, A., Hackett, S., Rawat, T., Rutledge, J., Kallio, J., Mould, C., & Mertes, J. (2015). Personalization in Practice: Observations from the Field. Working Paper. Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Available: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/publications/workingPapers/papers.php

National Education Association (n.d.). An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”: Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society. Available: http://www.nea.org/tools/52217.htm (Links to an external site.)

Wilhelm, J. D. (2014). Teacher as Trickster: Navigating Boundaries into Blended Transformational Spaces. Voices from the Middle. 22(2), pgs. 42-44.

Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?

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As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.

References

Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

Data-Driven or Data-Informed? Thoughts on trust and evaluation in education

Data-informed or data-driven? This is a question I have wrestled with as a school administrator for some time. What I have found is that the usefulness of student data to inform instruction and accountability rests on the level of trust that exists within the school walls.

First there is trust in the data itself. Are the results of these assessment tools reliable (consistency of results administered over time and students) and valid (accuracy in the results of the assessments to measure student learning)? These are good initial inquiries, but should only be a starting point.

Security of student information should also be a priority when electing to house student data with third parties. One question I have started asking vendors that develop modern assessment tools include “Where do you house our student data?”, “What do you do with this data beyond allowing us to organize and analyze it?”, and “Who owns the student data?”. In a commentary for The New York Times, Julia Angwin highlights situations in which the algorithms used to make “data-driven decisions” regarding probability of recidivism in the criminal justice system were too often biased in their results (2016). Could a similar situation happen in education? Relying merely on the output that a computer program produces leads one to question the validity and reliability of this type of data-driven decision making.

A second issue regarding trust in schools related to data is how student learning results are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers and principals. All educators are rightfully skeptical when accountability systems ask for student learning results to be counted toward their performance ratings and, in some cases, level of pay and future employment with an organization.

This is not to suggest that student assessment data should be off the table when conversations occur regarding the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her impact on their students’ learning. The challenge, though, is ensuring that there is a clear correlation between the teacher’s actions and student learning. One model for data-driven decision making “provides a social and technical system to helps schools link summative achievement test data with the kinds of formative data that helps teachers improve student learning across schools” (Halverson et al, 162). Using a systematic approach like this, in which educators are expected to work together using multiple assessments to make instructional decisions, can simultaneously hold educators collectively accountable while ensuring that students are receiving better teaching.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many schools. Administrators too often adhere to the “data-driven” mentality with a literal and absolute mindset. Specifically, if something cannot be quantified, such as teacher observations and noncognitive information, school leaders may dismiss these results as less valuable than what a more quantitative tool might offer. Professional trust can tank in these situations.

That is why it is critical that professional development plans provide educators with training to build assessment literacy with every teacher. A faculty should be well versed in the differences between formative and summative assessments, informal and formal measurements, deciding which data points are more reliable than others, and how to triangulate data in order to analyze results and make a more informed decision regarding student learning.

Since analytics requires data analysis, institutions will need to invest in effective training to produce skilled analytics staff. Obtaining or developing skilled staff may present the largest barrier and the greatest cost to any academic analytics initiative (Baer & Campbell, 2012).

Building this assessment literacy can result in a level of trust in oneself as a professional to make informed instructional decisions on behalf of kids. If a faculty can ensure that the data they are using is a) valid and reliable, b) used to improve student learning and instructional practice, and c) considers multiple forms of data used wisely, then I am all for data-driven decision making as a model for school improvement. Trust will rise and student achievement may follow. If not, an unfortunate outcome might be the data cart coming before the pedagogical horse.

References

Angwin, J. (2016). Make Algorithms Accountable. The New York Times. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/01/opinion/make-algorithms-accountable.html?_r=0

Baer, L.L. & Campbell, J. (2012). From Metrics to Analytics, Reporting to Action: Analytics’ Role in Changing the Learning Environment. Educause. Available: https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub72034.pdf

Halverson, R., Gregg, J., Prichett, R., & Thomas, C. (2007). The New Instructional Leadership: Creating Data-Driven Instructional Systems in Schools. Journal of School Leadership. Volume 17, pgs 159-194.

This is a reation paper I wrote for a graduate course I am currently taking (Technology and School Leadership). Feel free to respond in the comments to extend this thinking.

Life-Ready: An Alternative to College and Career Readiness

In my former administrative position, I was assigned to serve on the district’s career and technology education committee. There was a lot of talk about “college and career readiness”. Most districts and states have had the same conversations.

One part of this dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way was how school counselors were being tasked with helping students discover possible career opportunities to set goals around. This discussion did not hit home until I realized that my son, now a 4th grader, was so very close to taking part in this initiative.

At that point in the committee’s proceedings, my mind was flooded with a series of questions:

  • How can some of our students possibly know with any certainty what they want to do once they graduate high school?
  • How can any educator make even a general determination as to the life trajectory of a child? What information are they using to make this assessment?
  • Why are we so focused on the future of a child and yet often oblivous to the present, especially when equity is not being achieved for all students in every classroom?
  • Who are we as educators to propose to a student’s family the possibilities of what we believe awaits their son or daughter?

Being the new member of the committee, I bit my tongue and did my best to listen without judgment.

In reflection, I think this eduspeak about “college and career readiness” brought up some personal baggage I have with my own experiences with education trying to make decisions for me about what I would do in the future. For example, I remember taking the Myers-Briggs test, a personality profile tool that categorizes people based on whether they are extroverted or introverted, are more inclined to use their senses or intuition, and so on and so forth. Once you land in one of sixteen categorizes (I was/am an ISTP), a series of careers were suggested for you that “fit” with your personality.

Unfortunately for me, being an educator was not one of those suggestions. I gave engineering the old college try (literally) and found it to not be something I was passitionate about. Police work was out of the question. The Myers-Briggs assessment tool itself did offer some helpful insights, but only from what seemed like a cognitive standpoint.

Today’s focus on college and career readiness has good intentions. Some kids may benefit from learning what’s out there and then set goals to achieve their dreams. But how do we find this to be true when economists are telling us that half of us will be freelancers by 2020 and we will soon be switching jobs every three to five years? This information would seem to conflict with what we are espousing in schools today.

Why should all students have to meet the same goals?

-Susan Brookhart, assessment expert and ASCD author

Instead, I offer an alternative to the college and career readiness talk: Preparing students to be “life-ready”. What do these competencies look like? Given the unpredictability of future work and frequent changes in occupations, it would seem to come down to some of the noncognitive skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Work well with others
  • Imagination and innovation
  • Problem finding and creative solutions
  • Empathy and ability to take others’ perspectives

So how do schools teach these skills? In my opinion, through the curriculum that is already established and being developed at the school level. This integration increases the relevancy of student learning and makes the connections for students across and within disciplines. David Perkins offers a sound proposal for developing this type of “lifeworthy” curriculum in his excellent resource Future Wise.


At the ASCD Author Retreat I attended last week, we were asked as educational experts what success might mean for our students. Here were our responses:

For all of our expertise, how we defined student success varied considerably as you can see. If our collective thinking can be so diverse regarding one question, what that says to me is student success can and should also look very different depending on the needs and interests of our kids. Defining student success as merely “college and career readiness” seems to narrow the possibilities. Being life-ready might better honor every student’s potential.

Personalization: Necessary or Nice in Education?

I advocate for providing for all students the opportunity to explore different resources in the context of a relevant learning task. Teachers should consider the whole child when they prepare for instruction, considering their social and emotional needs as well as the academic. The best education is one in which learners have choice in what to explore.

Yet I worry that we are tailoring our instruction for students to the point where they no longer have to struggle to attain essential understandings and skills in their lives. Let me explain.

My son had never seen Wall-e, a Disney Pixar movie, until last night. We watched it together, often discussing parts of the story when he had questions. The one issue he could not seem to come to grips with was why the humans in the spaceship Axiom were “so fat”. I responded that every task was now being done for them. For example, they didn’t have to walk anywhere because their hover chairs transported them to wherever they wanted to go. Their drinks were hand-delivered. Yet even after multiple explanations, he couldn’t grasp the concept.

I am not surprised. It’s a complex movie, rife with references to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other notable media and events related to space travel. More so, I wonder if my son struggled with the concept of people who cannot fend for themselves. He is an independent and active guy. The idea that someone else will provide for all of his needs and wants seemed foreign. Not that my wife and I don’t spoil him terribly…

In schools, we as educators are expected to ensure that every child succeeds (it’s an act, you know). This is an expectation regardless of a student’s home life, genetics, peer relationships, mental health, or past experiences. Our collective response seems to be one of bending over backward to accommodate our students in the hope that they avoid failure and move on to that next grade. Never mind that some skills have been ignored while other expectations have been met some time ago. Move along, move along…


This is a hard issue to address. I haven’t been in the classroom in almost a decade. To say that I can speak with authority on the topic of personalization might be a stretch.

What can I speak to is my own experiences as a life long learner. For example, I am currently pursuing my first degree black belt in tae kwon do. Right now I am in a unique situation: We are moving to a new location, in an area that does not have a tae kwon do center in which I could practice. “No problem – just get a punch card and come up on Saturdays to stay fresh and learn a new form,” states our master instructor. There is little accommodation for my situation. Either do it or don’t. It’s a centuries-old form of martial art and self-defense; no one is going to personalize this craft for me.

Do we do students a disservice when we adjust our instruction so much that we never give them a chance of reaching the original goals set? What would happen if we said, “This is the expectation; I expect you to meet it.”? The reaction would depend a lot on the context. In communities that expect the very best in their child’s lives, any deviance from a situation that does not result in success might lead to parental and even political consternation. No administrator or teacher wants that in their lives.

Maybe a better approach is to create the conditions for personalization. Meaning, how can we be attuned to our students’ needs and interests, understand this information, and apply it to our instruction in ways that both differentiate for students’ needs and honor serious expectations for learning? Learners naturally seek more complexity in their learning progressions. Why would we inhibit this? It is a misnomer that teachers should be differentiating for students. When instruction is prepared for possibilities, students can differentiate for themselves.

Personalization is not a promise for every student succeeding in school, nor permission that allows all kids to get by because the outcomes are more important than the processes. Instead, personalization should be about finding what approach best fits each child in their learning endeavors, and giving them the tools and knowledge to make sense of the world as we know it. This is education as it was intended.

Why I Write

photo-1455390582262-044cdead277aRight now I am reading A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. It was given to me by Brenda Power, editor of Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy, of which I am a contributor. On page 14, Rosenfeld encourages the reader to journal about their top five reasons to write. Here is what I came up with:

1. To get my ideas down and out of my head.

I am almost always thinking about education. Unless I put these thoughts down on paper or on my computer, they tend to fester in my mind, never leaving me alone. Writing is a release for me. I can better go about my day once I have placed these ideas elsewhere. I can come back to them another time, especially if I decide to take that writing to the publishing stage.

2. To find out what lies beneath the surface.

I cannot remember where I read it, in a book about writing I am sure, but often when we start a piece we are merely “clearing our throat”. In other words, our initial attempts at prose are often stumbles and steps toward what we are really trying to say. Writing allows me to mine my thoughts and experiences and discover what is under all of the layers of our consciousness. Tom Romano, in his book Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, calls it writing “ourselves into insight” (34).

3. To share my questions and findings with others.

I think all educators have an obligation to share what we know and what are wondering. This can be done in a variety of ways. I prefer writing about it. What I share has a permanent place in the world, where others can come back to it, ask questions of their own, and share their experiences that might confirm or contradict what I believe. Everyone becomes smarter in the process.

4. To add value to my profession and my life

When I say “value”, I don’t necessarily mean money (although getting paid to write is a pretty sweet deal). By value, I mean the worth it provides to what I do as an educator. By writing, especially online, I become more of an expert in others’ eyes. I make connections with others pursing similar inquiries, which also adds value for both them and me. In addition, taking a piece of writing from start to finish is a pleasure that has few equals.

5. To bring different parts together to make a meaningful whole

It is impossible to make sense of every piece of information out there, especially in today’s connected world. The best we can do is to take a few different bits of knowledge, connect them together through the craft of writing, and then share our work with others. Writing is the best way I know to synthesize what I read, watch, and hear.

Why do you write? What are the reasons behind your work? Please share in the comments.

The Sometimes Unnecessariness of Technology

I enjoy watching baseball. In particular, I try to catch the Milwaukee Brewers when televised and I am free. There is so much strategy involved: When to hit away, when to steal a base, when to pitch inside. Every action has a potential impact on the final outcome.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Baseball is an imperfect game in which, like other sports, the participants are always striving for perfection. That includes the umpires. They are tasked with calling balls and strikes on pitches teetering toward 100 miles per hour. A split second is all they get to decide if a runner is safe or out. They don’t always get it right, but most of the time they do.

A recent wrinkle added to the game is instant replay. Managers can ask for one on a close play in the field. Calls can be reversed upon video review. I don’t mind this addition, as a baseball game is a series of stops and starts as it is. One more pause in the action isn’t going to hurt.

Where will technology’s influence creep next into baseball? From what I am reading: Automated strike zones. Computers already augment televised games with pitch-by-pitch graphics that show the exact location of each delivery from the pitcher. Commentators refer to this frequently when discussing the batter’s judgment or the pitcher’s ability to locate pitches. More accurate calls and less player-umpire arguments would be some of the benefits of this technology upgrade.

I am not convinced that this would be better for baseball. There is a type of balance achieved with an umpire behind the catcher as the pitcher and batter duel it out. Maybe it’s the simple presence of a triad surrounding home plate. Nature loves odd numbers. Also worth noting is the relationship between the catcher and the home plate umpire. They look out for each other, like when an errant foul ball strikes one of them in a vulnerable area of their body. Watch a game to see what I mean.

Education is feeling a similar push to digitize many aspects of the profession and process. Assessments such as reading screeners can be administered more quickly using computers. Students can submit work to their teacher with a click of a button. Some of the improvements, such as blogging and parent communication, are welcomed upgrades. They provide a broader audience and heighten home-school communications.

But adding technology for the sake of improving results and accuracy does not mean that the final outcomes are necessarily better. If going digital decreases the relationships between participants, what happens to engagement? If technology reduces the need for certain roles that add value beyond their basic job descriptions, how does the lost part affect that larger whole? I don’t have the answers. What I do know is when a technological innovation replaces human participation, the subsequent results cannot simply be measured in balls and strikes or multiple choice. We work in the people business.