This opinion piece was originally written for The Hechinger Report, June 2, 2016
Can we teach all students? In an increasingly diverse nation, I want you to consider the question. If you are not sure, it’s o.k.
Now I want you to imagine a world where you would not have to do this — a world where everyone ate the same food, did the same job, drove the same car, lived in the same type of house and had all the same beliefs.
Are you thinking what I am thinking, that this would be a horrible world?
The needs for freedom in choice and personalization of service are fundamental truths many of us value and appreciate. In almost every facet of our day we receive some type of personalization, whether through the food we order, the medicine we receive, or the cars we drive. Every decision that we make is guided by a choice of options that are tailored to a diverse want or need.
In the field of education, however, this practice has been overlooked and undervalued. Education is the only market that forces its consumer to consume a product without justification of its benefit or variety in choice. Can you imagine someone telling you that there was only one type of coffee, or one type of food that you could and had to consume? The freedom to choose from diverse options is something we all seek and appreciate, so why not provide that option for our students?
Many people want to know what blended learning and the personalization of student learning are and how they look in implementation. I too have grappled with these questions for the past several years and continue to evolve my definitions, but here is what I have determined:
Personalization of student learning puts the child at the center of the learning experience to create an optimal learning environment. It encompasses flexibility in space, content and learner pathways to provide a suitable environment for student success.
In a personalized learning environment, student needs drive the design of the learning. How you group students, spend time with students, deliver content and create the learning environment is adaptive. Additionally, all students have a path toward success. Student learner pathways are customized based on students’ strengths, weaknesses and goals; and learning experiences vary.
Students also have the ability to work at their own pace. Competency-based learning allows students to increase ownership and responsibility in their learning and choice in their pacing.
I have made tangible the concepts of personalized pathways, competency-based progression and flexible learning environments.
In creating my lessons, I always try to provide options. Some of my students love direct instruction, some reading, some adaptive online programs, so I always plan with this in mind.
My classroom is a blended learning classroom and every student has a laptop.
I use programs such as i-ready, ST Math, Zearn Math, Blendspace by TES and EDpuzzle so that students are able to access content to build their conceptual, procedural and fluency understanding of various concepts.
These programs have built in assessments that analyze students’ understanding and mastery. As students work through programs they gain mastery points, certificates and access to the skills they still need to work on.
To build on this concept, I also provide students with daily “to do” lists. These are daily activities that are customized to support students’ needs. Some of these activities might include short daily projects, math tasks or adaptive intervention online programs.
The biggest shift in my class, however, has been the concepts of space, the physical environment in which students learn, and time — how long they have to work on learning activities.
Prior to creating my innovative learning environment, my classroom was similar to others. In my new classroom, however, you will see students working in a variety of ways. Students are work in groups on a couch, alone in a corner. They collaborate on white boards around the classroom.
Students also have the first hour of the day to choose what they are going to work on. I give student a list of four to six assignments that will all move them toward mastery of a concept. Students must complete two to three of the activities within the hour. Students then spend the second hour rotating through groups based on their mastery of certain concepts that they are learning.
From my lens, personalized learning and blended learning have changed education, how students learn and what they are capable of doing. The question, “Can we teach all students?” is no longer relevant, yet has evolved. Now we must focus on the “how.” How do we create personalized pathways, flexible learning environments and competency-based progression curricula and lessons that will allow students to have optimal success?
Again, I ask you to imagine a world where everyone ate the same food, did the same job, drove the same car, lived in the same type of house and had the same beliefs.
Are you thinking what I am thinking, this would be a horrible world. If we want our students to be the next designers, builders and innovators, we have to give them the space, time and freedom to do it. Success starts with personalization, and personalization starts with choice and options.
Give students the choice of how, where, what and when they learn and you too can experience the success of personalization of learning.
Brandon Johnson is a fifth grade math and science teacher at Browne Education Campus in Washington D.C. A former social worker and Urban Teacher Center resident, he has earned a master’s degree in elementary and special education from Lesley University and hopes one day to start his own elementary school.