26 Aug 2016

Personalizing Student Learning Like Burritos

Personalizing Student Learning Like Burritos

Isn’t our life great!  Really, I can customize almost every aspect of life.  I can walk into a fast food restaurant and customize my burrito or my coffee to suit my individual tastes.  Wouldn’t it be ideal if schools were personalizing student learning like burritos students can order in a restaurant?

About 6 years ago I participated in one of the most impactful, yet simple, professional transformational experiences.  I was working with the principal at our middle school on designing an impactful staff development exercise to kick off the new year.  Throughout our conversation we discussed a need, to the extent possible, to focus on personalizing learning for our students.  We realized our approach to deciding the what, why and how was from our perspective so we decided to talk to our students for insight.  Novel idea right?  We called a dozen students and asked them to give us a couple hours of their summer break in exchange for some pizza and conversation. We set out with the goal to ask a couple of open ended guiding questions and then sit back and listen.  One question was “What does the teacher do that makes their class your favorite?”  We had several developmentally typical responses but one in particular stopped us in our tracks.  It was “I like it when the teacher has activities that allows me to express who I am more than just putting my name on my paper.”

That single question and profound response set the stage for the first professional development session of the year.  After the principal set the stage with the staff, shared the questions asked of the students and provided the response a palpable mood came across the room of dedicated professionals.  We must provide instructional practices and opportunities for our students to personalize their learning in order to engage them and unleash their wonderfully unique personalities. The staff responded and through providing opportunities for students to individualize their learning they too grew in individualizing their teaching.

Our students today have choice in almost every aspect of their lives.  This will not change yet the one place where they have little choice is at school.  Assignments in class are given equally to all students. Courses they take are largely predetermined.   Add to that the master schedule must be filled so many classes are assigned to students they did not choose.  Schools tend to have lanes (or tracks) students go down based on previous class selection, assessment score and teacher recommendations.  Throughout this process there is rigidity in weaving in and out of tracks that largely do not take into effect as students mature and their unique talents and interests materially change.

I personally like burritos and while I am still ordering a burrito I have the ability to customize it to my tastes.  While ordering burritos and a student’s course selection may be a flawed comparison- should it be?


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