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Author Interview: 'Students At the Center'

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Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Connect with them on Twitter @benakallick and @allison_zmuda.

LF: You define personalized learning as having four key attributes: voice, co-creation, social construction and self-discovery. How did you choose those four elements, and can you provide an example of what each might look like in a classroom?

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda:

As we observed many schools and classrooms that said that they were doing personalized learning, we realized that if we wanted people to transform their schools rather than merely operationalize what they were already doing with some new practices, we needed to identify key features that distinguish personalized learning as transformative. 

We define personalized learning as "a progressively student-driven model where students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes."  We integrate that definition with Habits of Mind which are "characteristics of what intelligent people do when confronted with problems, the resolutions to which are not immediately apparent."  

We put personalized learning and habits of mind together as we recognize the need for students to become self-directed and build their capacity to think critically and creatively as they engage with complex problems and challenges.

The two distinguishing definitions together with four key attributes can serve as a lens for seeing the degree to which personalized learning is taking place in schools and classrooms.  Below we explore how modeling and growing certain habits in conjunction with the attributes nurtures the learning partnership between teacher and student: one grounded on trust, increased autonomy, shared responsibility, and thoughtful actions.

  • Voice: Listening with understanding and empathy, thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, questioning and problem posing. For example, we see students developing a strong voice when advocating for their ideas and opinions, feeling confident to contribute to dialogue and discussions or asking for choices that best represent their styles and performances of learning. Students recognize that the reciprocal to voice is the capacity to listen with understanding and empathy, raise critical and constructive questions, and think and communicate with clarity and precision.

  • Co-Creation: Thinking flexibly, persisting, creating, imagining, and innovating.  For example, inviting students to assume a significant role in the development and implementation of problem solving, curriculum design or inquiries that lead to further actions. Students need to consider many alternatives, stay with a problem when it is frustrating or difficult, and to be willing to think creatively.

  • Social Construction: Thinking interdependently, taking responsible risks, gathering data with all the senses. For example, students need to build on each other's ideas as well as reach out to expertise that is beyond the classroom.  When they are in a conversation with others, they need to be willing to gather data as they support their perspectives, be open to the influence of ideas that may not directly match with their own, and take the risk of reaching out to experts who they may not know.

  • Self-Discovery: Thinking about your thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, applying past knowledge to new situations. For example, as students manage the uncertainty and turbulence of a world of new learning, they gradually become more self-directed.  As they reflect on what and how they are learning, they celebrate their successes and make connections to what they are learning as they engage with new situations.

We consider learning to be within and beyond the walls of the school or classroom. We look to see the attributes signified in the curriculum, instruction and assessment.  We also see the attributes exemplified in assemblies in the school when, for example, students co-create a forum for solving a school wide problem or for example, when students develop their voice as they advocate for more choices for internships.

LF: Some educators, including myself, sometimes have a hard time distinguishing the difference between personalized learning and differentiating learning. You talk about that in your book. Can you briefly describe how the two might be different?

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda:

Differentiation embraces the reality of all the learners in the room, with their range of skills, readiness levels, and areas of interest. In this model, the intention is for teachers to design a range of learning experiences that students can be assigned to or select themselves. This differentiation encourages student choice within the confines of what the teacher has developed as viable options. The teacher is still primarily in control of the design and management of the experience.

In comparison, a personalized learning model is the intention is to progressively open up the door for students to significantly shape what they do and how they demonstrate learning. They may have a seat at the design table, the evaluation table, and the exhibition table. They increasingly have more ownership from start to finish around the development of an idea, the investigation, the analysis, the refinement, and the presentation to an authentic audience.

Differentiation is a very important educational strategy for addressing differences among students.  However, a teacher can be differentiating instruction by providing multiple options for students but it does not require making certain that the student has a voice in the choices nor does it require that students become co-creators of their learning experiences.  It is possible to use differentiation as a strategy in a teacher centered classroom.  Personalized learning always puts the student in the center of the learning experience with the intention of moving the student progressively toward more control of their learning.

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LF: Personalized learning has been generally used in the context of using technology. What do you see as the benefits and the dangers of using tech as part of personalized learning?

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda:

There has been much talk about technology forcing "disruption" in the schools, but what we see frequently is that technology is used to replace a teacher-centered classroom with a technology compliance driven classroom.  The advent of technology has ushered in the possibility of "anytime, anywhere" learning -- which for some folks is synonymous with personalized learning.

When technology is used to individualize the learning experience, students are assigned the learning tasks, and they go on to use technology, such as computer adapted models, a software platform, or a teacher-generated playlist, to complete those tasks. Typically, the students control the pace of their learning experience on the road to demonstrating mastery of the material. They can replay videos, do practice problems, answer questions, and receive instant feedback on their work in preparation for a computer- or teacher-generated assessment.

Individualized learning is "personalized" in that it is a way to use the efficiencies of technology to adjust the assignment and pacing to reflect the needs of the learner. There might be an emphasis on students reflecting on their learning and deepening their understanding of how they learn best. However, the relational part of the learning may be overlooked. A danger that we see is that many teachers use technology mainly as an opportunity to have students put on headphones and do skill development. Technology needs to be a tool for enhancing and deepening learning. The uses of technology require thoughtful planning or the technology will not help to raise the level of thinking to a more critical and creative level.

A personalized learning model involves students in the design and development of the tasks they engage in. This is a welcome development. Engagement is not measured by how quickly a student races through the material; it comes from how relevant, interesting, and worthy the student finds the material. This kind of engagement is built into personalized learning, as the students themselves identify or create an idea, question, or problem; determine key actions, resources, and timelines; engage in an iterative cycle of drafts; receive and reflect on feedback; and pursue next steps until the task is completed.

The teacher's role is to work with students to hone skills and acquire knowledge; to give that knowledge context; and to help students ground knowledge and skill development in authentic, complex, and problem-based endeavors. A typical class period might have a range of teaching and learning opportunities, including guided instruction; self-navigated, technology-assisted instruction; teamwork; and 1:1 conference sessions with a peer, an expert, or the teacher.

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LF: What do you say to an already overstretched teacher who hears about the concept of personalized learning and thinks, "Oh boy, another buzzword that's going to make me go to more boring professional development workshops and create more work for me"?

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda:

First of all, personalized learning is an act of self-discovery that is as good for the adults in a school as it is for the students. It is the work—not something that we are doing on top of an already overloaded set of responsibilities. We use the four attributes as a filter to reflect on and potentially reimagine our lessons, classroom rules, grading policies, strategic planning, etc. It puts the learners at the center where all of us have potentially different perspectives, approaches and ideas to make experiences more meaningful.

Secondly, if we are truly learner centered, then we must treat all members of the school environment as learners. Teachers need to develop their voice in establishing what they need.  They need to be brought to the design table to co-create meaningful options for PD. They need to engage in social construction by working interactively with others of their choice. And they need to be able to document their self-discovery as they continue to become the professionals they aspire toward. We take pride in how we continue to develop personalized professional development that includes our new book, a series of online courses, web-based learning communities that feature practitioners who share designs, tips, missteps, and next steps to grow possibilities in the mind of any educator.

LF: Thanks, Bena and Allison!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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