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Helping Students Learn What Makes Them Tick

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Drew Schrader is the Director of Assessment for New Tech Network (NTN) a national nonprofit working with schools, districts and communities to redesign teaching and learning for a modern world. Follow Drew at @edutwitt

 "The only way to raise overall standards is to engage the energies and imaginations of every student in the system."

--Sir Ken Robinson

Ken Robinson's rallying cry in defense of creativity in schools has served as my own personal "why" for educational reform as well as an entry point into personalization. Deeper learning makes school meaningful for students and reconnects teachers to the meaningful work of education. Educators engaged in deeper learning are familiar with that moment when a project has tapped into student passion and creativity. There is a hum and energy in the classroom that is palatable.  When you visit a school collectively committed to that pursuit, that energy and sense of purpose pervade the entire campus.

I had the good fortune to spend the day with a group of colleagues at such a school: Aveson Charter Schools in Southern California. Aveson is deeply committed to personalized mastery learning and has been refining their TK-12 approach for more than a decade. I am still sifting through my thoughts and notes from the visit, but one insight I found most orienting as our own organization learns more about personalized learning came from a conversation we had with some Aveson teachers.

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The staff was from Aveson School of Leadership, their TK-5th grade school, and when asked how they go about advising young students around the pursuit of essential questions in project based learning and in the creation of personal "passion projects," their answer was instructively simple:

"We have to make time to really listen to each student. The goal has to be to find out what makes them tick."

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Yes. If, as my colleague Jim May noted at our New Tech Annual Conference this past year, personalization involves an intentional turn "from the rhetoric of all, to the thoughtfulness of each," then the only way we get to that thoughtfulness is to find ways of making students more known--more known to their teachers, to their peers, and to themselves.

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As an approach to instructional design and pedagogy, I believe project-based learning (PBL) creates numerous ways to making students more known. More importantly, I believe that the ebb and flow of a PBL classroom can create conditions where teachers have time and leeway to really listen to each student and learn what makes them tick. Below are a few examples to illustrate:

  • Knows and Need to Knows - Often, we fast-track knows and need to knows as a way to raise key questions we want to teach around. Making time in the know, need-to-know, next-step process for students to note what they personally know or be curious about can provide great insights to us as teachers about how we might shift our approach to the project to take advantage of how our students are coming into it. The "know" step isn't just a "feel-good"; it is a way of uncovering students' backgrounds and interests and building momentum for going forward. Students will often need particular prompting and encouragement, but the time and attention are well worth the effort.
  • Journals - Simple and not necessarily only for PBL; I have seen many teachers take advantage of regular journals and reflections as a way to have students make their thinking visible.
  • Contracts - While we often introduce group contracts as a tool to manage group accountability when things go wrong, their real function is to help groups work better. One of the prime benefits of working in a group is to be able to take advantage of each individual's strengths. Much as in the know, need-to-know process, it will typically take some intentional planning and prompting to get students to meaningfully identify and share their strengths as they relate to a given topic or project, but it has the potential to radically reshape their sense of themselves in relation to the project.
  • Conferencing - PBL done well gives a class a momentum and energy of its own. Students engaged in a meaningful project require less continual management to be "on task" and the result is a space where teachers have time to work with students in small groups and 1:1. We should take a page from Aveson and consider these small check-ins as continual opportunities to "learn what makes each student tick."  
  • Team Teaching - While not an option for every teacher, a common theme across the classes we saw were multiple adults in each room working with students. Aveson makes strong use of instructional aides as well as co-teaching situations to create more opportunities for small-group, and 1:1 instruction.

I anticipate additional insights as we unpack and reflect on our learning with Aveson, but even if it started and ended with strong evidence of the power of really listening to students the trip will have been well worth it.

Photos by Drew Schrader.

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