I had the ultimate test of vulnerability yesterday.
I walked into Tsinghua University Primary School, welcomed with open arms, by two warm and kind children, Derek and Julia. They told me about their school, some of its history, and walked with me to the place that I would be giving a demo lesson, a lesson to show how one might go about personalizing learning.
I was nervous, admittedly. And it was for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was in a different country, entirely foreign to me, surrounded by an ocean of people I had never met before, many of whom (the children included) did not speak fluent English. At the same time, all of their eyes were on me, seeking an answer to the problem of personalizing learning. Second, I didn’t know any of the children. I believe that knowing the children is critical to personalization, and I wasn’t quite sure how I’d create an environment that fosters personalization without knowing the children. And finally, I would be teaching only one lesson, and I wasn’t sure how I’d convey what I needed to in that amount of time. Personalization is so much more than simply the correct lesson structure or the right instructional resource; personalization requires building a culture of agency and autonomy, one that fosters intrinsic motivation. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do that in 60 minutes, or so I thought.
My lesson structure was simple, one that I follow regularly, and one that was inspired by Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Workshop. It begins with a shared lesson where all the children converge around a common provocation or piece of information. What follows is 30-40 minutes of personalization, where I work with the children in small groups or provide feedback one-on-one. Finally, we come back together at the end to share our conclusions, but most importantly share our thinking.
In the shared lesson at Tsinghua, we discussed mathematical thinking in addition to the importance of taking risks and making mistakes. I shared with the children the ways that mathematicians must approach complex problems in order to learn how to solve them. And for this I shared four mathematical practices with the children, ones that I would be encouraging them to use in order to personalize their own learning experience on this day.
After we got to know each other a bit during this shared lesson, we broke out into their collaborative groups. The room erupted in noise, children speaking to one another, asking questions, and scratching their heads. I circulated around the room, providing feedback to those in need and asking them to use some of the mathematical practices to help them work through the problems. I questioned those who finished quickly, and I even pulled a small group of boys to show them some of my own thinking as I worked through the most complex problem.
Over the course of the 60 minutes, my fear subsided, and my nerves seemed to vanish. It wasn’t until after the lesson had concluded that I noticed sweat seeping out of my pores and the muscles in my body begin to ache with exhaustion. And this was good, because it meant I had given myself entirely to those children and to the classroom of inquisitive educators for the hour that this lesson took place. It meant I had channeled the courage necessary to be vulnerable and let myself be seen, all with the intention of collaborating around pedagogy and discussing how we can better tap into the intrinsic motivation of our students, especially at this scale.
Coincidentally, it seemed that it was necessary for me to exhibit the same grit, persistence, pattern-finding, and precision that I was asking of the children yesterday. What’s more, it was necessary for me to be open to trying something new, to make mistakes, and to count on the community of learners around me to help me grow.
It reminded me that personalization is not just about ability level; personalization is the art of making learning personal for all participants in the room. It’s the art of helping children access their own thinking and learning processes, and it’s about having the courage to make your thinking visible, all for the purpose of constantly gaining a sense of mastery over new content and novel problems. But above all, it showed me that intrinsic motivation, agency, autonomy, and a sense of purpose are all a part of the universal language by which we all learn.