Beyond the Classroom: Personalized Learning in Practice

by Zak Cohen, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher at the American International School of Joahnnesburg

Change in education is ultimately contingent on the extent to which there is cohesion between the learning taking place in school and the learning taking place out of school. As an educational researcher and author, John Hattie, writes, “Over a lifetime, students spend roughly 15,000 hours in school” compared to the “29,000 hours they spend at home during their schooling years” and “26,000 hours in the care of parents before they start formal schooling”.

In short, if we want to develop students who are the products of a personalized learning (PL) environment, our work cannot stop at the school gates.

For change to be sustainable and effective, the overlapping spheres of influence – school, family, and community – must work in a symbiotic partnership. Especially in a PL setting, families and communities play a possibly transformative role. Parent contributions, for example, can help to develop more robust learner profiles, and community partnerships can provide students with opportunities and resources that extend learning beyond the school day. In this way, to truly personalize learning, community involvement cannot be perceived of as a garnish, but as an equal partner in the change process.

Of course, it is not the responsibility of intrepid parents and community leaders to simply reinforce and echo the dimensions of pedagogy as complex as personalized learning. As educators, we need to lead the way. And, to do so, we need to lead by example.

For many of us, we are not just teachers, but also active members of our communities. We manage community gardens, organize food drives, and run recreation leagues. My contention is that in these roles, it is also our responsibility to demonstrate how to personalize learning. By doing so, we help to take something that is esoteric and make it both accessible and generalizable. This is something that I found myself trying in one of the most unlikely of places: the baseball diamond.

Here in South Africa, I coach the Alexandra Badgers, a baseball team from Johannesburg’s largest township. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, but South Africa has some word-class baseball. In fact, in the summer of 2017, South African Gift Ngoepe became the first African-born player to play in an MLB game. Even here in South Africa, though, baseball is a sport synonymous with tradition. Baseball is so steeped in tradition, in fact, that one of the major controversies facing the game today internationally revolves around regulating celebrations.

Having played baseball through college and having coached baseball since I was a teenager, I’m well-versed in the unwritten rules of the game; however, of recent, I have sought to infuse my coaching strategy with a bit more personalization. Specifically, I decided to coach without signs.

Since my team was accustomed to the coach giving signs, we started our season by unpacking this change in strategy. I explained to the team that they would make decisions on the base paths, in the box, and on the field, and that they had the autonomy to do so. I assured them that they would never be scolded for their initial decision-making. All I asked in return was that we would have a team meeting every half-inning before they took the field and after they got to the dugout. During these meetings, we would debrief and hold generative discussions about the decisions players made in the past half-inning and how we could prepare for the next half-inning.

These sessions afforded us a space to collaboratively confer, provide feedback, and identify goals. Notably, these sessions also helped to cultivate a tolerance for mistake-making, as players began to see that mistakes were nothing more than learning opportunities -- an important realization in a game that is largely defined by failure.

Without my having to be explicit, players began to understand the purpose behind this unconventional approach to coaching. And, soon enough, players were taking ownership for their decisions, embracing their agency over the play-by-play of the game. Perhaps as a result of this novel approach, for the first time in Alexandra’s baseball history, we were crowned league champions.

Ultimately, if we want students to reap the benefits of personalized learning, we must appreciate that their experience with things like agency and choice cannot be limited to the classroom. Instead, we have to find ways for students to experience such things outside the classroom, as well.

There are many ways for us, as educators, to make this happen, but here are a few general ideas to get you started:

  • Get involved: The first step in creating change is to get involved. No matter your passion or area of expertise, find a way to get involved in your local community. When I was living in Jersey City, I did this by working in a community garden. While I may still not have a green thumb, sometimes the important thing is just getting your foot in the door.

  • Find a leverage point: We can’t change everything, but we can change some things. It is unrealistic to think that I have changed baseball in South Africa. I haven’t. But, by rethinking the power dynamic that is inherent to giving signs, I was able to create a shift in the ways my players saw that game and saw themselves. No matter what you’re involved in, there are always inflection points for change.

  • Take the lead: We might not be experts in every field, but we are experts in designing learning experiences that promotes personalization. Even if the field itself seems a bit out of your depth, consider taking on a leadership role. For me, I did this when taking on the directorship of the community garden in Jersey City. I knew that I was not an expert gardener, but I also knew that I had the ability to organize and put other people in positions to succeed. In doing so, I was able to tap into other people’s expertise, bolster their confidence, and slowly but surely put them in leadership positions.

How do you or can you model making learning personal? Please share