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A journey into personalized learning

Something extraordinary has happened this semester in one of the courses I teach at WKU, EDAD 684, Instructional Leadership.  Largely through the interest and initiative of my students (all of whom are practicing P-12 teachers), this class has transformed itself into a seminar on personalized learning that has possibly altered their views about schooling - and mine - permanently.

Instructional Leadership is a foundational course in our education administration programs.  The work of Robert Marzano takes center stage, and we explore Marzano's argument that instructional leadership - which we define as activities that help teachers improve their teaching practice - is the most essential role of a school administrator.  Marzano argues that the first condition for promoting improvements in teaching is a clear, common framework for what effective instruction looks like.  We use his book, Art and Science of Teaching, to establish this framework, and his most recent work, Effective Supervision, to learn strategies for supporting these practices.

About halfway through the course, while discussing strategies for engaging students in learning, on a whim I showed the class this video about the Independent Project, an initiative at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington, MA, that places students in charge of their own learning, which I first wrote about here:


This video provoked some of the most thoughtful, engaged discussion I have yet experienced as a professor, and so, emboldened by the students' interest, each week I started offering supplemental readings and videos on the topic of personalized learning.  I followed the Independent Project with a video about education researcher Sugata Mitra's revolutionary "hole in the wall" experiments, wherein  he equipped children in some of the poorest slums in the world with some rudimentary tools and then observed as they taught themselves English, genetics, and more:



After discussing Mitra's experiments, I shared this recent article from Wired magazine about a teacher in Mexico who, upon learning of Mitra's work, transformed his own teaching with his students, all of whom were residents of a desperately impoverished bordertown.  The results were stunning: in one year the teacher's students posted some of the highest (if not the highest) test scores in the entire country.

Each week my students marveled at the implications of these kinds of experiments for teaching practice in our own schools, and lamented the institutional challenges they would face if they tried to make such a shift themselves.  And yet, without much fanfare, each of them began to try.  Soon after watching the Sugata Mitra video, one of my students emailed me to say,

Yesterday, I wrote two open-ended questions on the board and stopped talking. Every single student spent over an hour researching the answer. Once they got the basic answer down, I would ask what words meant that they had copy and pasted, how they were relevant, and “Is that all?”
Students went deeper than I ever would think they could and I could point my efforts where they were needed. It really highlighted the difference between gifted and over-achievers. I can’t do it with every class, everyday…. Yet.
One way or another, the times, they are a-changin’.
Nearly every student in the class launched his or her own experiments, with similar encouraging results.
I started to think about the most radical models of student-centered learning I could present to my class, and decided to share the "unschooling" methods developed at the Sudbury Valley School, and now replicated at 35 other Sudbury-inspired schools around the world.  This recent New Republic article profiles Sudbury Valley, and in class we watched this video in which SVS students tell their own stories:
Our discussion gradually began to shift from questions like, "Is this a better way to encourage student learning?" to a conviction that personalizing learning is the right thing to do, and now we are struggling with questions like, "How do we ever make this kind of vision work in our traditional public schools?"  And, perhaps more compelling, "How can I ever go back to teaching the 'old way' again?"
As the semester approaches an end, in the spirit of personalized learning I have encouraged my students to design their own culminating reflection assignment that allows them to wrestle with the big questions that have emerged for each of them individually from this journey.  The essential question for us all, though, seems to be, can we ever reconcile what we now know about personalized learning with the rigid, adult-oriented structures of our schools?
Despite the enormous challenges, my students seem eager to try to endeavor to bring some part of individualized learning to their own classrooms.  I can't wait to see what they do.  These five young men and women in my class are themselves extraordinary, and I believe each of them fully possesses the capacity to turn the world upside down.
This journey into personalized learning was a totally unexpected, but greatly appreciated, surprise on my part.  I have been thinking and writing about these topics for a few years now, but it remained just a theory that motivated my work rather than a practical possibility for the schools I (indirectly) serve.  Now, I think it might be genuinely possible to bring a transformation in teaching practice to real schools.
And - perhaps most importantly - I have begun to rethinking my own teaching practice, which has, despite my interest in such topics, remained rather conventional as graduate professional education coursework goes.  Now I'm wondering about the possibilities of putting my students fully in charge of their own learning journeys.  And, like them, I am anxious about all of the institutional obstacles to doing just that.  But inspired by these amazing teachers, I think I must try.
Stay tuned.  I'll keep writing about the journey.


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Bruce Smith

Gary, if you and your students ever find yourselves seeking dialogue with practitioners of personalized learning, I'd love to help facilitate something. Having worked at Sudbury schools like Alpine Valley ( these past 17 years, I'm always glad to discuss it. Knowing from my own experience how complicated this paradigm shift can be, I thank you for encouraging your students in considering it.

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