Tag Archives: personalization

“I want students to own their own learning”


What do educators even mean when they say, “I want students to own their learning” in our school? Think about the context of that statement for a moment. In our highly standardized curriculum and over-tested classroom environments, this statement is an admission of guilt. Students are predominantly consuming “our learning,” being force-fed to them whether they like it or not.

Scenario 1

Imagine telling a child on her birthday that it is her special day and that she can have a party with a special meal, games, and gifts. Then imagine planning the party based solely on healthy food, a low budget, and what is convenient for you, ignoring any of the many attributes that make her a unique and special child. So a meal is planned, making sure to include the proper daily amount of fruit and vegetables and avoiding salty and sweet foods. Children are invited that she does not really know well or play with. Activities and decorations are based on themes that she has no interest in at all. Gifts are chosen by asking a stranger working in the store what a 6 year old likes. In all aspects, the cheapest option is chosen.

No parent would ever do that!

Scenario 2

Instead they would start with a birthday theme around her interests: mermaids, princesses, or unicorns. They would make her favorite foods, balancing nutrition with her tastes.  Her friends would come with personalized gifts that reflect her passions and hobbies. Maybe her parents would even plan a trip around something she loves because it is HER day, and HER party.

Reality in School

But isn’t the first option what school is like? Children need to learn required curriculum with a “balanced” intake of reading, writing, and math. Every student has to learn the same things, at the same time, sorted by age groups. They work with assigned groups on the same activities regardless of their personal interests or backgrounds. There is very little opportunity, in most schools, for students to “own” anything. It all comes in a one size fits all package from the district.

The same analogy about choice can be made for buying a house, a new car, or even clothes. When people “own” something they make choices, customize it to make theirs, and personalize it.

Voice and Choice

So if we want students to “own their own learning,” districts, administrators, and teachers need to give up some control and turn to student “voice and choice.” We don’t need to get students to “buy in” to something that they are not interested in (notice that this financial jargon implies that schools are “selling” something that students don’t want).

The first year of our wall to wall PBL school, the biology teacher did a project where students had to make a video on invasive species. A group of students approached him with a different idea. They had heard about a de-icing agent being used at our local airport which was ending up in the local stream. He let those students pursue this project instead of the video. The students went to the stream and did testing to prove the effects. They ended up getting more out of this project than any other group because they were allowed to explore their passions in biology.

Humans are naturally curious explorers of their world, and all children have things that they are passionate about. If we ever want students to “own school”, we have to give them the power to control some aspects of it and pursue their interests. Students will never own the learning unless we let them make it theirs.


Don’t Personalize Learning-a response



Benjamin Riley wrote a post criticizing personalized learning. Dan Meyers agreed. I would like to offer a response. First Benjamin criticizes two “definitions.” I will consider them in opposite order since I agree with his second argument as he presents it.

The second definition he calls personalization of “pace” where students control how fast or slow they learn. I too oppose this if it means students sitting in front of an adaptive computer program and learning at their own speed. I also think that using the same mandated, sterile, and boring curriculum but letting students progress at their own speed will not work. So looked at in isolation, I agree with Benjamin that personalization of pace is not helpful and probably only “works” with students who are self-motivated, high achievers. I also agree with Benjamin that technology is not some kind of magical solution that will motivate kids.

Where I disagree with Benjamin in his argument is his first point of personalization by “path.” My overall critique of this argument is that he seems to make some assumptions that I think are untrue of a good, personalized learning environment. First, the learner is on her pace and path in isolation. I have watched students work in my colleague’s chemistry class where they often are allowed to design their own experiments to test what ever they want. Students form groups of their choice based on the experiments that they are interested in. They work together constantly. They also share with other groups their work and results. Through the public sharing students are exposed to other areas that may not be their “passion” and also see how multiple perspectives fit together to form the bigger principles of a discipline. I have often been asked to come down and watch their results. They are definitely excited and engaged in their learning.

Second Benjamin implies that the teacher is not involved or has no influence. He uses the following quote as his main “evidence” against path personalization:

There is a large body of research which shows that not all learners prefer nor profit from controlling the tasks and that forcing such control on them can be counterproductive…The reason for this is that learners do not have or do not know how to utilize appropriate strategies when they are left to themselves to manage their learning environment (i.e., they do not have the capacity to appraise both the demands of the task and their own learning needs in relation to that task in order to select appropriate instruction). In other words, learners often misregulate their learning, exerting control in a misguided or counterproductive fashion and not achieving the desired result.

(Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183.)

This quote is accurate in regards to many of my students. They struggle to stay focused, manage time, and many lack research skills. But this is not an argument against “path.” This quote assumes a situation in which kids flounder on their own with no guidance from adults. It is a strawman argument. Teachers should be experts learning along side students. They should be asking questions and yes “pushing” the learner both forward and challenging their assumptions. Personalization does not happen in a vacuum but the learner is engaging with the teacher, classmates, and outside experts. The same chemistry teacher, at times puts limits on what science concepts that they need to test. A social studies teacher (like myself) comes along side students researching their personal interests and uses his background knowledge to tie the specific content into the “larger” history context.

Specifically, in regards to the quote, teachers need to teach management skills to students (unless we assume they are all going to work in a factory where they are told what to do).  Students not having these skills is NOT an argument against students controlling their learning path. Our job is to teach students these strategies. We also have to detox students from teacher-controlled classes where they have no voice and choice. Students need to be gradually released into personalized learning and given scaffolding to support them especially in areas of literacy, research, and organization. Just because students don’t “prefer” it does not mean they shouldn’t be pushed to learn how to learn on their own. I consider teaching these skills to be one of the most important parts of my job.

We have been “doing school” the structured, teacher-controlled way for over a century and it works for a subset of students. Although I would argue against even that statement because grades and test scores does not equal thinking citizens who can think and learn on their own. But a large group has been left out this entire time and it includes the children of color and poverty that Benjamin is worried about falling behind.

Finally whenever research is used to “argue” I wonder what they are measuring? Test scores? I am not interested.