It used to be a dream — to have the ability to personalize my classroom. But over the past six months, that dream has become a reality, and now, through working at AltSchool, I am able to do just that: personalize learning for every child.

But my definition of personalization has changed, and I’ve decided there’s a point when personalization goes too far.

It’s an incredible experiment we’ve piloted here in the Silicon Valley, one that I think truly could change the landscape of the classroom, should we get the chance. But for me, it’s not necessarily the technological platform (while integral to the implementation of a personalized classroom) that has taught me the most about personalized learning; instead, it’s managing a class of learners who have a personalized education that has enriched my understanding of what it means to personalize.

What does it mean to personalize?

When I talk about personalization, I generally tell others that, in order to personalize, an educator must think of this concept in terms of three components: content, process, and product. In order to personalize anything, it’s important to take these three into account in order to appeal to student interest, accommodate for learning preferences, and of course, to help our children show what they know in a way that truly makes them shine. But where do we draw the line? When does personalization become too much?

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 7.22.47 AMWhen personalization becomes too much, and when we over personalize the classroom, we become hyper-focused on he microscopic. Think of it like viewing the world through, well, a microscope or a pair of binoculars. When we can only see what’s up close, we have no context, no big picture, no insight into how each tiny part plays into the big picture.  The same holds true for the classroom: when we hyper-focus our attention to personalization to the point where everyone is working in silos, they become isolated from one another, and we remove, what I’m beginning to realize, is the fourth way to personalize learning.

And that is personalizing the context of learning.

I think when I originally started, I ignored this piece a bit too much. I made the assumption that personalization meant giving all students activities that aligned with their personal academic and social-emotional needs, ignoring their needs in the context of and in relation to the group as a whole. But this piece is just as important — if not more so — than the others.  So what is the best way to personalize context of learning for kids? How do we find a happy medium between overpersonalized instruction and one-size-fits-all instruction?

Structure your planning, preparation, and instruction.  Without having a firm understanding of objectives, possibilities for assessment, and anticipated methods should inquiries and misconceptions arise (because they will), it’s very difficult to personalize.  Having this structure in place for you, the educator, will keep you on track, meanwhile allowing the students to veer off in a way that works for them.  They can make the experience their own, while you can reside in the comfort that comes from a well-structured and well-planned lesson that allows for student agency. 

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 7.23.11 AMLeverage whole-group experiences. While we oftentimes assume that personalization cannot be found in the context of a group setting, oftentimes our students are getting just what they need in these groups. They’re watching peers model positive behaviors like risk-taking and participating in shared inquiries, allowing students to eventually do both of these things by themselves. A word of caution, though: in order for these to be effective, these whole-group lessons need to be provocation– and inquiry-based with a open-ended answers. This context will allow you as the educator to appeal to a broad median of ability and interest levels within your classroom, meanwhile allowing children to personalize their own experience by accessing the content through their own process.

Capitalize on small-group lessons.  Small group lessons provide the same benefits that a whole-group lesson does — peer modeling, shared inquiry, and personalization of process, meanwhile allowing for even more student agency in terms of process and product.  Small-group time allows us greater opportunities to toggle between one-on-one instruction and group instruction, supporting short, directed feedback loops, meanwhile still nurturing the delicate social intricacies of learning.

It goes without saying that whole-child learning requires an understanding of each child as an individual. But this component of personalization, context, is frequently overlooked.  We cannot truly see what truly makes our children individuals unless we see them in the context of the classroom — unless we see how they fit in as small puzzle pieces, combined together to create the big picture. When we over-personalize, we neglect collaboration, communication, and how they contribute to the whole picture. Instead, what I’ve learned this year is the importance helping kids see themselves in that context — their successes, their struggles, and their relationships —

So they can find ways to truly make the bigger picture beautiful.

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