“Paul, I finished all of my steps for today!” my student exclaimed emphatically.
“Great!” I replied, mirroring his excitement. “What do you want to do with your time now? Choice time, or more steps?”
“I think I’ll do choice time,” he said, and off he went to play with blocks.
He had just started working on his own “passion project,” which was a bug house he decided to build. He placed a cup filled with dirt and some grass seeds in the middle of an old 6-pack beer can box. His steps for the day? Cutting off the top flaps of the box, filling the cup, planting the seed, and taping some of the base to make is stronger. He came to these steps and organized them with a bit of guidance from me and his Kanban board, a tool we use to help the kids plan their projects in small chunks.
I began by questioning him about the things he needed to do. To him, it was just one big task that he wanted to accomplished, but with some coaching, he learned just the opposite. It was a hard task for this five-year old, breaking his project down into parts, but when I questioned him about what he was going to do, he was able to list off a lot of things he could do to build this bug house.
I modeled how to draw pictures to symbolize steps and then left him to his own devices. Meanwhile, I met with other children for math assessments or passion projects, helping collect research notes, gather proper materials, and determine next steps.
All the while, this child was working studiously on his project, completing step by step, just as we had planned. He was the driver of his process and pace, the sole contributor to the ideas for his project and steps he needed to take to complete it. And in this case, my role became a facilitator of thinking, an expert on project management, and a coach for executive functioning, persistence, goal-setting, and reflection.
Stories like this have built the narrative of my school year, and in many ways, have gotten me a step closer in answering the ever-so important question: How do we scale personalized learning?
In some ways, this idea of “scaling personalization” seems like somewhat of a paradox, for how could something that values the individual be scaled to such a great degree? Wouldn’t the individual get lost through the scaling?
In many schools across the country, educators and administrators alike are trying to achieve a scaled version of personalization through tech products like Khan Academy, Ten Marks, RazKids, or other adaptive web apps. And to a certain extent, these tools can be helpful in delivering personalized content, but there are several fatal flaws with the implicit assumptions related to these methods. These methods assume that (1) content delivery is the main source of personalization, and (2) that personalizing learning is the educator’s responsibility.
In fact, in this context and under these two fatal assumptions, I would argue it highly likely that the individual will, most certainly, get lost. He or she will be confined to his or her device, working in isolation, consuming information which will be translated into cold, hard numbers, as opposed to co-constructing a nuanced knowledge-base on a topic or area of interest with other children or with an educator. This automated approach robs children of social-emotional learning in academic contexts, and it hinders the development of their sense of agency and autonomy: Instead of making their own choices, choices are being made for them based on a series of binary decisions in the adaptive software they’re using or by an educator sending them prescribed curriculum. It is, for this reason, I’ve become an opponent of these automated programs, especially in the kindergarten and first-grades, where I teach this year.
But this made it harder. I couldn’t just click buttons. Instead, I’d have to invest a lot more, which led me down a path of even more questioning. If technology that delivers content isn’t the solution for scaling personalized learning, then what other inputs could I isolate and focus on in order to promote personalization in the classroom?
I started to think about the classroom as an ecosystem, much like I had written some two years ago. With the classroom modeled as an ecosystem, it made it essential to understand the energy source of this classroom ecosystem. This energy source?
It was the most relevant and potent energy source I could think of. Why? Because intrinsic motivation allows for children to become the primary producers of information, the knowledge constructors within the classroom, much like the plants in a natural ecosystem produce food for the earth using the sun’s energy.
This theory, however, would be remiss without an even deeper understanding of where intrinsic motivation comes from, and for this we can continue to use the ecosystem metaphor by examining the flow of energy. Due to the fact that a plant’s main source of energy can be traced backwards to the sun, it’s important to consider how the sun creates its energy. This process is known as nuclear fusion, where hydrogen molecules fuse together due to high temperatures and an immense amount of pressure.
Just as the fusion of hydrogen molecules in the core of the sun causes combustion and the radiation of heat and energy, the heat of the fusion of love, autonomy, positive reinforcement, and joy, combined with the pressure of authentic, real-world experiences that promote empathy and a purpose for learning build intrinsic motivation. These components do not hinge on a technology tool’s ability to deliver content in an automated manner. Instead, these parts of the classroom ecosystem depend on the quality of a warm, compassionate, and loving learning environment, one that is created through relationship-building, through the serendipitous collision of minds, and through an environment that promotes and stimulates natural curiosities.
It is through this environment, and through building intrinsic motivation, that the learning environment comes one that is run on the children’s intrinsic motivation–on their agency and autonomy–not only freeing up the educator to focus more on habit-building and social-emotional coaching, but as a result, to focus on relationship and knowing children on a visceral level.
But how does one achieve this? Tune back in on Monday for some tricks and tools to create an environment where kids can personalize their own experience.