Personalized Learning Progress & Reflections
I think it will be helpful to both myself and any other teachers interested in personalized learning (especially in social studies) to document and reflect upon how this method is progressing throughout the year. Please share this with anyone who is curious about personalized learning, frustrated with traditional teaching methods, or already experienced in new methods of teaching. I welcome collaboration, feedback, and advice. Here is my update for week three of personalized learning in the social studies classroom.
Off to a Great Start
This has easily been the best start to any school year since I began teaching in 2009. My students started off by learning the “why” behind learning history/political science as well as the “why” behind personalized learning. Once the learning journeys (like this one for APUSH) were explored and explained, they finally dove off into the Summit Learning platform to learn at their own pace, utilizing resources that work best for them, and using strategies of their choosing. Once the rubber met the road, and the students began their learning journeys, I experienced the same combination of triumphs and negative reactions as I did from March through May of last school year.
Setbacks & Opposition
First, let’s look at the negative reactions. Some students say that they, “Don’t learn this way”, meaning that they don’t learn well using a digital device. They dislike reading online articles or watching videos as a way for them to master objectives and learn about history. They say that they would rather use a textbook to do the same thing, but when I re-explain that they can do just that, they still remain fixed in their opposition.
Some are confused about how to use the Summit platform. They are not sure how to use objectives and the attached playlists to take notes and process their learning. I explain how to use the platform and provide multiple strategies for note taking and processing learning. This helps some while others remain confused.
Some students say that they miss having me at the front of the classroom, explaining things and providing valuable insights. I refuse to stand at the front of my classroom and lecture every day. What I can do to adjust is provide a brief lecture every now and then that highlights a focus area and allow students to ask questions and discuss with me while others who dislike lectures/discussions can learn on the platform during the same time period. There is no reason that students should have to listen to me lecture if they are going to learn more deeply on their own.
Some students and parents are concerned that digitally-powered, personalized learning is not teaching because students are plugged into a device instead of interacting with their peers or with me. I get this, but they are misunderstanding the structure of the classes I teach. Yes, there are times that students are using their devices to learn about history or government on their own, but there are also times for collaborative learning, discussions, warm ups, and share outs built into every week (see the description of my APUSH course above for more information). I love interacting with students too much, and I value the importance of collaboration too much to just plug students into a computer and learn in a boring way. What I also know is that in the classroom, the doers are the learners. If I am the sage on the stage, then I am the one who is learning. If students engage in learning in a tailored fashion, they are the learners. Students too often equate personalized learning with the Summit platform when in reality, the Summit platform is just the medium that I use to enable deep, authentic learning to occur inside and outside of the classroom. The digital platform actually opens up new potential opportunities for passion-based learning, mastery of skills, and authentic relationships between teachers and students.
Now comes the good stuff. As I wrote back in May, it is better to appreciate the roses on a rose bush instead of focusing on the thorns. For every challenge I encounter with personalized learning, there are multiple examples of success stories.
Several seniors struggled to master their first focus area content assessment in AP U.S. Government & Politics. After taking the assessment and receiving a score that was less then what they had hoped for, these students reflected on the objectives in need of more learning, and they dug back into their resources. Once they demonstrated new learning, they retook the assessment, which is generated randomly from a bank of questions tied to objectives. Throughout class on Friday, I could hear students shout, “Yes!”, clap their hands, or pump their fists Michael Jordan style when they realized that they had finally mastered the focus area. It was because of their struggle, failure, and work effort that they were so excited. When the pressure is removed from tests, and students are allowed to review/retake them, assessments become the demonstrations of learning that they ought to be instead of anxiety-riddled gauntlets. As the students exited my classroom, many of them gave me high fives as I joined them in celebrating both their authentic learning mastery and the fact that they can now move to the next focus area without waiting on the rest of the class to finish. These students have been empowered and enabled to learn deeply at their own pace.
Several seventh grade ancient history students also excelled this week. One student made a 60 on her first focus area assessment attempt at the beginning of the week. I was able to conference with her one-on-one during class while the other students were learning, and she voiced disappointment in how her learning and effort did not result in a higher score. We analyzed how she had been learning so far, and I helped her to better learn how to learn in a way that works for her. On Friday, the reasonable volume of the classroom was shattered by her passionate shout when she mastered her focus area objectives on the assessment.
Another student in this class was unhappy with the results of her first focus area assessment, and this frustration only grew more intense when she only increased her score by 10 points on the second try. I met with her after school, and we learned that she was missing questions because of test anxiety and a lack of careful reading of the questions and answer choices, not because of a lack of learning. I explained that this was one of the downsides to multiple choice questions, which I dislike, but use in a limited way. I told her that these focus area assessments are only worth one third of her grade, and that she could continue to retake them many times as long as new learning was demonstrated. After realizing that the worst case scenario for her was to have to retake the assessment again, she took the pressure off of herself and mastered the focus area objectives. It is personalized learning and the Summit platform that gives me the ability and freedom to meet one-on-one with students about learning while other students are exploring the learning at their own pace.
I will continue to learn and grow as a teacher this year, and I hope that my understanding and approach to personalized learning continues to get better as well. If you have any questions about personalized learning, or if you have any advice to make it better for the students, please feel free to leave a comment here on the blog or on social media.
by Bryan Hunt (History Teacher & Department Chair at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas)