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Personalized Learning Tasks and Roles

Yesterday, I read a great post by Jim Rickabaugh dealing with the roles of learner and teacher in a personalized learning environment by looking at tasks. The roles were set up on a continuum. This article timed perfectly with a reflection on part of Students at the Center by Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick on idea generation and task development I had in mind. These two works are the focus of my reflection here.

I think a key misunderstand teachers have when it comes to digging into personalizing learning is that for planning purposes, we no longer begin with standards but with student desires.  I believe like all good instruction, we need to start with the standards.  Think about it, standards are what we want all learners to know and be able to do as a result of passing through our educational system. That is why it is essential that we make sure that standards are representative of what we believe is important for learners to be informed and productive in their future lives. We need to know exactly what we want learners to know and be able to do before we can even begin to start looking at them as individual learners.  Our courses are defined by the standards in terms of knowledge and skills and we need to find ways to personalize learning to ensure that students understand the relevance of these standards to their lives. If we can’t personalize a standard to a student’s life, we may need to rethink the standard.

Once students have defined a personal goal related to a standard. Then we can ideate personal tasks to address that goal. What we task learners with can be thought of as two separate but equally important parts: generation and task design.  In the article by Rickabaugh, he categorizes three points along the continuum of design: Personalize to Learner, Personalize with Learner, Personalize by Learner.  I’m going to adopt these defining phrases. I really love them.  They are simple to understand and really address the difference between them.

  1. Idea or Investigation personalized to learner: In this case the teacher has framed the guidelines and created the pathways for students to follow.
  2. Idea or Investigation personalized with learner: The unit of study may be defined, but students are able to find a path within that topic with the guidance of their instructor to frame it within the unit of study.
  3. Idea or Investigation personalized by learner: There is no teacher guidance to the area of study.  The area of study is chosen and defined by the student. The teacher, though, is responsible for being sure appropriate skills are being applied in the process.

When it comes to the generation of ideas for the task at hand there are three different levels of design.  It is important not to overtly say one is better than the other.  They each have their own appropriateness. The key is that we try to find a place for each.

Once the idea or investigation focus has been identified.  The process itself has to be designed.  Like idea generation, the authors define three levels as well.
  1. Student as Participant in design: Imagine students have a choice between different teacher generated options.
  2. Student as Co-creator of design: Teacher develops parameters but student has freedom to design within those constraints.
  3. Student as Driver of design: Students use the evaluation criteria to guide the process.  It’s interesting that the authors point out these criteria could be teacher or student generated.

It’s interesting to think about the teacher’s role in these processes.  In the participant model, the teacher has done a lot of work up front and these structures become the guiding principles for the process.  But as we move to student as driver, there is less up front work by the teacher.  That doesn’t mean there is less of a role for the teacher.  In fact, the role becomes more important. The teacher is responsible for more 1 on 1 conferencing to ensure that individual learners remain on task to reach their goals. So as teachers give up their front loading of frameworks, their role becomes more important during the process as they keep students on track and hold them accountable via conferencing.

Getting back to standards, it is standards that are framing the process no matter who is driving it. In many senses, the type of standard (knowledge or skill-based) may force us to select who will will drive the process (learner, teacher, or co-design) In my experience, the teacher designed process is most useful when dealing with deep knowledge-based standards. Especially in my AP content area, students don’t know enough about the content itself to design their own process for discovery of knowledge.  In these cases, the content is the challenge and giving them the freedom to experience it in the mode that best suits their preferences is key.  As their teacher, I am able to curate a variety of quality sources to do this. The learner is able to then customize a personal path based on her learner preferences. On the other end, if learners are trying to meet a skill-based standard, the specific content piece they are looking at may be left wide open.  They can choose something they are interested in to apply this skills to. Student may be able to explore a topic of interest in a Genius Hour project, but there are inquiry skills we are still looking for them to master.

Rickabaugh, Zmuda, and Kallick all make the point that these three modes are all personalization models.  So, one cannot be judged as empirically better or worse. It is all about the purpose to which it is applied. Again, it is important to iterate that no one approach is ideal. They are all useful and students should have exposure to each one as they may require different habits of mind.   It is the mixing of these that allows students to become more adaptable and flexible. The book itself is full of great examples of each of these different models.  It would be a waste of my time to simply copy them here.  It’s important for you to dig into them for yourself and see which ones may be applicable to your classroom.

But, don’t forget. As educators, we still start with the standards first.  By filtering them through the lens of the individual learner, we begin to personalize learning.

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