Updated: Jan 14, 2020
by Zachary Cohen, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher and Department Head at the American International School of Johannesburg
“I guess students don’t like detention,” the High School Assistant Principal shared with her staff. “And, since we’re trying to personalize learning, shouldn’t we just forget about it?”
On the first day of the high school’s new detention policy, a whopping 14 students earned detention slips. That afternoon, only one student reported to the room where detention was being held. While expectations had been clearly communicated, 13 of these students simply chose to ignore them. That next day, when questioned as to how the administration would proceed with the implementation of a policy that had clearly stumbled out of the gate, personalized learning served as the scapegoat. What’s especially troubling is that this worked! After the meeting, the detention policy ceased to exist. And all in the name of personalized learning.
I don’t know about you, but this gives me pause. Mainly, this story sounds the alarm because it doesn’t take place in a silo. This sort of story is one that has been shared with me by educators around the world – personalized learning as a pedagogical justification for putting the proverbial “patients” in charge of the asylum.
According to Basham, Hall, Carter Jr, & Stahl (2016), the trouble with educators conflating personalized learning with being a “free-for-all” is that “…without guidance or research-based understanding, personalized learning will be haphazardly referenced, partially implemented, [and] eventually demonized.”
In other words, the persistence of this interpretation of personalized learning may result in it going from revolutionary pedagogy to obsolete fad in a span of just a few years.
I’m not sharing this to advocate for a one-size-fits-all model of personalized learning. In fact, I believe that personalized learning can and should look different across discipline and division. No matter our interpretation of personalized learning though, we should all strive to leverage it as a tool to enrich student learning, amplify student voice, and increase student ownership. But these outcomes don’t grow organically or by happenstance. These outcomes are benefited and bolstered by the intentional development of personal management skills.
Imagine that you’re walking into an art class. The teacher has laid out a palette and provided a canvas for you to paint on. The teacher sparks your creativity by instructing you to take the next 30 minutes to paint anything you’d like. Naturally, you pick up your palette, dip your brush, and begin to paint on the canvas. What you decidedly do not do is paint on the walls, the windows, or your fellow classmates. I want us to begin to think of the role of personal management in a personalized learning environment as the canvas upon which learning occurs.
Now when we think of personal management, we may be thinking of compliance outcomes, such as behavioral momentum, and I think that’s natural; but I also believe that this thinking is what has resulted in personalized learning slowly becoming a four-letter word.
The reality is that personal management isn’t that at all. Personal management is a catch-all term for learning that is self-guided, self-disciplined, and meta-cognitive. For learning to move from a teacher-centric to student-centric model, learning itself must be rooted in student self-management, ranging from organization to prioritization to cognition. This transfer of power in the classroom is then contingent upon students developing the skills and ability to act on their individual learning pathways without direct supervision. In this way, it is the students who are responsible for their learning, affording them the freedom and independence to dictate and determine the next steps in their education.
As the foundation upon which meaningful, student-led learning may occur, personal management is critical to student success when presented with an intellectually rigorous, conceptual, and personalized curriculum.
So, let’s talk about some ways we can make personal management a reality in a personalized learning environment.
1. Self-Management Charts
In my classroom, students move freely and fluidly in, out, and around the room. Students use this chart to track a wide-range of dispositional skills, including preparation, time management, and engagement. In doing so, students are able to take ownership for their learning. The beauty of this system is that students get immediate feedback and are able to act on it without adult intervention.
For example, if a student has forgotten their headphones for class, they simply mark themselves on the chart and excuse themselves to get their headphones. Most importantly, this chart provides data on dispositional competencies to inform student self-reflections and goal-setting plans. Thanks to a simple sheet of A3 paper, students can own their learning, identify points of growth, and operate with autonomy without adult intervention.
2. Ask 3 B4 Me
Student self-efficacy is a key feature of a personalized classroom. Students don’t need to have all the answers, but they should have the competence and confidence to tap into available resources to answer their questions without coming to the teacher. Last year, I tracked and categorized student questions. What I found is that ~60% of all student questions could be answered by simply utilizing our reference library – a tab in the OneNote that I populate with mini-lessons and other useful information relating to class. ~30% of questions could be answered by peers.
This year, I’ve introduced Google Groups into my class. Students use it to post and answer questions relating to Social Studies. Finally, ~10% of questions could only be answered by the teacher. These questions are answered and added to our resource library, thus providing documentation of all questions being asked by students. In this way, over the course of the year, between Google Groups and the resource library, we co-construct a bank of questions and answers that students can reference. It’s only September and thanks to this self-management system, I already feel as though there are times that I’m obsolete in the classroom.
3. Command terms
Halfway through writing this post, I went out to dinner with my wife. While out, a parent of one of my students came up to me to share how much his daughter is enjoying my class. When I asked why it was that she was enjoying the class, he shared, “Unlike last year, what you want is clear and she can decide how to get there.”
This structured independence is not a coincidence, but an intentional feature of my classroom. All assignments and activities in my class are anchored to four command terms. These command terms each come with a specific set of success criteria. With these clear and consistent expectations in hand, students can operate in my class without intervention.
Personal management is about more than compliance and control; it is about students developing the ability to critically examine their work, monitor their progress, and hone metacognition skills. Ultimately, it’s about helping students to develop the competencies necessary so that they can truly personalize their learning. In this way, personal management becomes a carrot, as opposed to a stick, driving positive learning outcomes.
How might personal management systems help increase student voice, choice, and autonomy in your classroom?
Follow my journey with personalized learning on Twitter @cohen_zak.
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