Each year, I am approached by students with the same concern: They don’t feel that their teachers understand who they are, and they often fail to see how what they are learning is necessary or relevant. When reflecting on these concerns with my colleagues, we all agreed that we don’t know our students as well as we want to.
As teachers, we have a lot to accomplish in a school year. This pushes us to focus more of our time on the content we teach instead of learning more about our students. As a result, we are often unable to connect instruction to students’ interests, broadening the gap between students and teachers. This realization was hard to stomach at first. I knew that if I wanted to help my students, I needed to figure out the best ways for them to succeed.
Taking a Page from Social Media’s Book
After researching different strategies, I discovered learner profiles. Similar to social media profiles, these profiles show a student’s interests, family, goals, jobs, and more. However, they build on the concept with an academic lens, including focus areas like different learning styles, academic interests, strengths, areas for growth, thinking styles and attitudes towards reading.
An important aspect of learner profiles is the considerable amount of teamwork that goes into their creation. As the primary source of personal information, students are integral to the process. Then, teachers add their knowledge from the classroom, and students’ families bring in more information about their backgrounds. Through inventories, interviews, and online tools (such as the Learner Sketch Tool), the team works to combine their knowledge and gather it into a concrete document or representation. This becomes a tool to help the student make progress.
It’s worth noting that, once completed, the profile is not set in stone. Everyone grows and changes as they go through life, so strategies or learning preferences that emerge as strengths one year may not be the only ways students can learn or succeed going forward. In fact, some research suggests that learning styles may not be as important as originally thought.
So, view the profile as an adaptable starting point that should be updated over time. Having all the information can be useful, but it’s not your only option for understanding how someone learns. The ultimate goal is to help your students, so use the information to blend their strengths and push them to develop other areas.
The Upside of Getting Personal
I knew that using this tool would help me differentiate and personalize my instruction for my students. Even better, I would get to know more about them and develop stronger relationships with them, which are key to fostering successful learning.
Since I started working with my students to create these profiles, they have told me how much they enjoy the process and feel that the profiles will help them this year and next. But, there have been challenges. Many students had not thought much about their learning in the past, and they struggled to determine what made them successful and what was hard for them. These discussions initially required a lot of support, but the students soon made progress. They have begun thinking more critically about their own learning and strengths. They have even asked for more resources to help build on their strengths or sought help from teachers to make sense of the information. The students are pushing themselves at a young age that will help them become better lifelong learners.
Another positive outcome is my students felt that I had really heard their concerns. They could see that the choices I made in class were based on what I learned through this process. My students were excited to know those future teachers would go into the next year ready to support them, thanks to this information. The feelings of ownership and engagement that students received from creating these profiles made it clear that I had found a tool that really helps students feel included in their education.
At my school, we talk a lot about being a team and family, and we strive to make it clear that we are all in the process of learning and growing together. We let students know we care by going to their games and recitals and offering as much support as we can. This is why I would recommend using learner profiles to any teachers who want to improve their connection with students. This strategy has helped me show my students that we are a team of people who understand each other and push each other to become our best selves.
Nicholas Mosher is a special educator at Elementary School 2 at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Cumberland, RI, a charter school that works with students from the four surrounding communities of Cumberland, Lincoln, Central Falls, and Pawtucket. BVP is a network of intentionally diverse charter schools in northern Rhode Island with a mission to prepare every scholar for success in college and the world beyond.
The author recommends other additional resources for Learner Profiles:
Making a Difference: Meeting diverse learning needs with differentiated instructions: Government of Alberta, Canada
How Learning Profiles Can Strengthen Your Teaching by John McCarthy
How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed-Ability Classrooms by Carol Ann Tomlinson
Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R Moon