At one point in my life, I decided I wanted to be a painter.  I went to Blick, the art materials store, spent a large amount of money on a canvas, an easel, special paint brushes, and oil paints, all to fulfill my temporary dream.  All through my shopping, I was excited to make my vision come to life.  In fact, the vision I had for my painting was pretty clear.  I imagined a curved geometrical plane, criss-crossed with colors, representing an infinite horizon, out of which a natural landscape protruded: a multi-colored tree, small birds flying majestically above the land.

After I had collected all of my materials, I went home, sat down, and I was ready to paint.  I began to trace the lines of my geometric horizon, along with the outlines of the other objects.  I began painting, and as I did, I saw my vision crumble before me.  What I had envisioned in my mind–the beauty, the majesty, the grandeur–was not the reality that laid before me.

I’m reminded of this today, as I find myself in Washington D.C. at yet another Teaching and Learning Conference, this year to present on AltSchool’s approach to personalization with my esteemed colleague, Courtney (@mindfulheartEdu).  And we can’t help but compare the art of personalization to art of painting.

First, in order to anchor one’s mind in this metaphor, imagine a child sitting down herself to paint a masterpiece.  Likely, she will have a set of paints in front of her, representing a rather limited color palette, 8-10 colors at most.  Likewise, she’ll have a brush, a piece of paper, and maybe even an easel on which to paint her masterpiece.  It is what happens next, however, that determines what she’ll do with the media.  The child could, perhaps do a paint-by-number, where she fills in numbers that correspond to colors.  She could also take part in a teacher-directed activity, where the educator is guiding students through a step-by-step process of drawing a tree.  Finally, she could chart her own path and use the predetermined media to do so, painting swirls, mixing colors serendipitously, coming up with an entirely unique piece of artwork, created all atop a blank page.

It is that latter that we view as the most humanist and authentic approach to teaching and learning.  It is this metaphor of the painter, sitting down with some constraints on his art, the materials, the four borders of the paper, his knowledge of how colors mix together, that we envision as the healthiest approach to personalization.

This is not necessarily because the child, or in this case, the painter, is doing whatever he or she wants.  Instead, this is because the child has some clear constraints, but is also able to chart his or her own path, and in essence, personalize the learning experience for herself.  Too often, our model of personalization implies that the educator must personalize for the child; that he or she must set up a plan and then deliver this plan to the child, more often than not, without the child being a partner in this process.  Rather, the painting metaphor speaks to the idea of an educator-coach, one who personalizes with and alongside the child, rather than from above.

It is within this idea that we can compare the former to a paint-by-number, where the lines are clear, the path is predetermined, and the steps are practically foolproof.  With the latter, the child is open to feedback, whether from the educator, a peer, or an internal dialogue precipitated by risk-taking and mistake-making.  In essence, the personalization resides in the process, not only the product.  The product, the masterpiece the child has created, becomes an artifact of the journey and a snapshot of one point in time, neither absolute nor entirely ephemeral.  It represents a presence of mind, a joy, and commitment to a relationship, whether with the medium itself or the individuals who have influenced it.

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I didn’t ever end up ever bringing my vision for my artwork to fruition.  It wasn’t long before I scrapped the entire thing and began to have fun with the colors.  I mixed red with blue, with some white and purple, and it wasn’t long before I had created a whimsical blend of colors, one which I thought represented a summer sky, on the verge of slumber.  I was struck with inspiration, having just been near a bridge the day before, and so I painted a white silhouette over the warm background.  My masterpiece was complete.  Underneath it lay my old, the thick outlines of paint and some of the darker colors showing through the translucent outer layer.

It represented my process, and it represented my growth.

To those of you that joined Courtney and me at our presentation today, thank you very much for exploring this idea of personalization with us.  Below are some of the mentioned resources that have informed our philosophy.  We invite you to comment and share your step inside visualization with us through the comments.

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