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What Happens When Your School Asks You to Reverse Course on Personalized Learning?

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Personalized learning is all the rage in K-12—or at least in some schools. John Davenport, a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher at Corte Madera School in Portola Valley, Calif., embraced the technique, with encouragement from a former district administrator. 

But this year, he was told he had to reverse course, in part because of parent complaints.

So what exactly did that look like for him? Education Week interviewed Davenport about his experience. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

When and how did you get started on personalized learning?

Davenport first started experimenting with Google docs in the classroom back in 2008, and kept going from there.

"I kept moving towards an approach that would allow students much more autonomy in what they were doing, in what they were learning, how they were learning, the pace they were learning at. I tried to make everything as self-paced as possible," he said. It never became a districtwide push, but it was something he was committed to doing in his classroom.

How did leadership changes in your district impact your approach?

"We had a director of curriculum, I think his actual title was director of innovation and learning. And he was very much tech-oriented. Really saw technology as being the way that you could make [teaching] much more effective. And he was a driving force behind moving forward.  He was very encouraging of me trying out new technologies and new methods of working with those technologies. So I was kind of an early adopter.  When he left, I kept going but the momentum I don't think was there anymore."

Tell me more about how this personalized approach played out in your classroom.

"I was really putting an emphasis on self-pacing. Laying out the curriculum in advance and having students work through it at their own pace. [There was] a lot of team work. I would say to kids 'you pick something that you're really interested in and you're going to research the history of it.' [Kids created Google sites based around topics like the history of fashion or LGBTQ issues.] What I really was pushing for was the whole four c's thing: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking. I wanted to use the content as a way to develop these skills, rather than the other way around.

Davenport also had his students create their own discussion questions and posts. Those were "an attempt to give control over their learning so that they became content creators, not just content consumers online.  I was just a moderator to make sure everyone behaved themselves."

His students discussed "everything from gun control to abortion. I was really impressed with how serious they could be and how much they were willing to learn from each other and engage each other, he said.

What was your approach to grading?

"I'm not a fan of giving letter grades. I don't think it tells you a whole bunch. It usually doesn't have a developmental aspect to it. If I give a student a 'C' they are going to look at it as 'I failed, what did I do wrong?' On the other hand, if I tell them 'hey you're doing really well but you could do this a little bit better, it doesn't have that same judgemental note of finality. So before I did grades I would have them fill out a form saying what they think their grade should be and why. Then we would sit down together and I'd say 'this is the grade that I'm looking at, what are you looking at?' and we would discuss the grade. And if we came to an agreement about the grade, that's what I would post.

Most of the kids were very honest and open about what they thought their grade was. I wanted to involve them in the process of their own self-reflection" with real stakes for the student.

What happened earlier this year that changed your classroom practice?

Davenport's principal told him there were "some concerns about what I was doing," he said. Davenport was told his coursework needed to be more firmly grounded in the district-approved curriculum. He was told to have his grading and assignments more closely mirror district practice. He was directed to lecture more, so that his students could build note-taking skills. He was also told that any student online discussions should be graded, more grounded in course content, and that he, not the students, should choose the questions. He also asked to stop having 8th grade students serve as coaches for 7th graders. (Such multi-age grouping is oftentimes a hallmark of personalized learning.) And he was told to offer students a maximum of one project per quarter. (Project-based learning is another mainstay of the personalized approach.)

"The general thrust of it was, they wanted a much more traditional approach in the classroom," Davenport said.

Did you make the changes?

Yes.  "It's my job. I'm a professional and I'll do it to the best of my ability. I'm making it work," he said.

Do you think your students are learning as well as they were before?

"I think they are learning the content, probably, maybe better than before. But before, my emphasis was not the content. My emphasis was a particular set of skills. If what you're after is content material, then definitely the way that I'm doing things now is better. If what you're looking for, however, are skills that are broadly applicable and that will be applicable for the long-term, then I'm not sure that's what's happening. Yes, the test-taking and the note-taking, they are going to need those in high school and in college. But I think the ability to be creative and to collaborate, think critically, communicate effectively, especially online, I think those are skills that would transcend even college."

And he's still a believer in the personalized approach, even if he's doing less of it now. "People are talking now about personalized medicine," he said. "If not every illness is the same, how could every piece of learning be the same. I'm still very much a fan of personalized learning."

Want more? We wrote a broader report on personalized learning, including a look at teachers' attitudes on it and how they compare to principals' attitudes. Check it out here.


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