Engaged

Recently, I read an interesting post by @4moms1dream which involved a virtual Q and A session with three outstanding BC Educators in Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy), Chris Wejr (@MrWejr) and David Wees (@davidwees) on the topic of Personalized Learning.  The post gave me pause for thought.  There seems to be much hesitation about the whole personalization concept.  I began to think about this more.  How can we move from a model which is more ‘traditional’ in its curricula and methods of instructing and assessing to one that gives our students increasing choice about what it is that they wish to learn about and responsibility for the means by which they will demonstrate what they know?  In many ways, this question can be thought of in more simplistic terms: how do we become comfortable with the idea of relinquishing the control over learning from the educator to the student?

Yikes.  At first blush, this concept seems scary.  Currently in education, while we may not choose to, it can sometimes be more ‘comfortable’ (and I use that term loosely here) knowing that there are prescribed learning outcomes to follow, numerous suggested learning resources to use, scads of lesson plans and assessments that have been created by colleagues who are truly great educators, standardized test that we can point fingers at, and recognized reporting procedures and timelines to inform students and parents of progress and achievement.   Of course we frequently shout out that we need more flexible curriculum, more time and fewer standardized tests–and we mean it.  However, we can always take solace in the fact that, should we stumble or get lost, we can always rely (and sometimes blame) the educational road map that has been laid out for us by our local ministry or state jurisdiction.  In many ways, letting go of this bit of ‘security’ is a daunting proposition.

So how do we lead this movement from a school system that we grew up in, that ‘worked for us’, and that is predictable and maybe even ‘comfortable’ to one that is promising, somewhat unknown, sounds like a pile of work, and one that educators may not totally be convinced that it is going to be successful?

Without doubt, moving to a Personalized Learning environment represents a significant shift in how we do business in schools.  Before we even begin to discuss a framework for Personalized Learning in our schools, I believe that we must recognize this as a significant shift for educators that will require a compelling answer to the question “Why are we doing this?”.  I think the answer, in large part, will come through a tremendous spike in student engagement.

In the next couple of weeks, a number of educators from British Columbia and from around North America will be starting a Twitter-based book study of “Beyond Discipline” by Alfie Kohn (be sure to follow the chat at #kohnbc on Thursday nights at 8PM PST beginning on June 16th).  In his book, Mr. Kohn makes an interesting point:

One of my own major (albeit belated) revelations as a teacher was that student behavior problems in my classroom were not due to students’ unnatural need for attention or power.  The students were acting up mostly to make the time pass faster.  And given the skills-based, decontextualized tasks I was assigning, who could blame them?…What I really needed was a new curriculum.

When I first became a teacher, I remember students in my class that were not ‘engaged’.  They were off task.  They were doodling.  They submitted labs with incomplete sentences, diagrams that were sparsely labeled, and vocabulary lists that were incomplete. I needed to create worksheets to go along with videos, otherwise the kids would not be paying attention.  I would bemoan the fact that I ‘could not get through’ to these students ‘no matter what I tried’.

When I think back to those early days of teaching, I shake my head at some of my lessons:  I should be thankful that the kids came at all.  I was not really interested in what the kids wanted to learn, I was more interested in the material that ‘I had to cover’.  I used to say things to the kids like “This lesson might not be too exciting today guys.  We have to get through a few pages of notes, but tomorrow should be better.”.  I would commiserate with my fellow staff members, when we would sit in the staff room and talk about how “kids can’t expect every lesson to be exciting” because we all had “content to cover”.  In retrospect, I think I might have been hiding behind the curriculum and provincial exams as an excuse not to plan my lessons in such a way that engaged students.  Like Mr. Kohn, what I needed was a new curriculum.  One that is personalized for students.

The concept of a Personalized Learning environment for each student is tremendously exciting.  And while the mechanisms and logistics that will underpin the concept of students working with teachers to determine what they are going to learn, the means by which they will learn, and how they will demonstrate their learning is still in its early stages of acceptance and implementation, like the students it will impact, I am completely engaged in learning about Personalized Learning.

2 Comments

  1. You are speaking my language. Engaged learning is the “Holy Grail” and just as elusive. Creating engaging content for the classroom is incredibly difficult and time consuming. As educators, we not only have to assess our students, engage them and help them achieve their potential, but we also have to create the cutting edge content that connects them to the concepts, because we all know that CD ROM that came with the textbook has killer powerpoint presentations. 🙂

    June 9, 2011
  2. Thank you for the book recommendation and chat #. I am looking for good reading materials focusing on increasing student engagement through personalized or passion based learning. I have had some very positive experiences this past school year in following the interests of my first grade students. I used their interests to teach the skills and strategies I needed to, and had very positive results. I will follow your book discussion! (Any other book recommendations?) Thanks!

    June 9, 2011

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