Students can tell when a teacher is passionate about teaching just by how they interact with students. I’m thinking back to end-of-semester course evaluations, full of questions such as: “Does the instructor seem enthusiastic about the material?” and “Does the professor encourage discussions and questions?” We may not think about these specifics day-to-day, but at the end of the semester it is easy to think back and recall how you felt sitting in the classroom. This is one aspect of personalized learning – to guarantee the instructor gets through to students so they remember what they have learned. The best way to learn something is to connect it to yourself, personally, so it sticks with you.
Education: A Mirror
Technically I have never had personalized learning in school, but I really wish that I could experience the movement. Although, I’ve definitely had elements of it; occasionally in math class we work at different paces to learn the material without holding each other back. We use other students or the teacher as resources to get through the material at our own pace. In addition, my favorite English class in high school definitely used elements of personalized learning. We went back and forth between discussing the readings in groups and using computers (we each had a desktop in the room) to work on projects that coincided with the reading. This was a far more collaborative learning experience, but we wrote personal pieces based on the readings. These pieces could be in various formats, and no two assignments were even close to being the same. We all worked on slightly different tasks at the same time, but all toward understanding the reading (we were not always all reading the same material at the same time, either). We were very engaged in the learning experience and I recall much more from that class than any other class in high school.
Most often the discussion about personalized learning revolves around closing learning gaps and allowing students, who take longer to understand a topic, the opportunity to actually learn it. While I totally agree with this, I can provide insight into how this benefits another group of students, one that we may not always talk about, a student I sometimes was: the unmotivated achiever.
I always did well in school, but there was no area that I felt extremely passionate about, and I mostly viewed high school as my way to college. From an early grade level we were told about the importance of going to college and because of this there was significant pressure to participate in after-school activities and work hard to get good grades. It seemed like building up your college application was more important than actually learning anything. Due to this, I was not always motivated to actually learn the material. I did pretty well being able to memorize the material and then empty out my brain onto the test and never look back. I didn’t always do this, but I had weeks where there was too much to learn and not enough incentive to actually absorb it.
It wasn’t all bad and I definitely did learn and retain a lot throughout my education. I don’t want to make it seem like I was a bad student or that my school district was terrible. I went to a good school, worked very hard, and did well. However, if I had experienced personalized learning, there would have been that incentive to actually learn all the concepts or competencies every time. Personalized learning forces students to take the initiative to actually learn in order to progress.
In general, I am interested in the course material when the teacher is enthusiastic. Teachers work with some of the most impressionable people in society and they have the amazing ability to shape the lives and the minds of future generations. Kids are often referred to as sponges, absorbing everything around them. But they are also mirrors. They absorb the emotions surrounding them, and also reflect them. If the instructor is interested in the coursework, then (most of) the students will be too. However, implementing personalized learning holds students accountable for actually learning the material so that they don’t just remember the information for one day. This benefits the struggling student as well as the unmotivated achiever.
Surviving Group Work
A current movement in education today is toward more collaboration. This is an important skill, but it is abused easily. As a student, let me take this opportunity to explain the difference between collaboration and group work. Collaboration is joining forces and working together to produce something. Group work is a form of cooperative learning, which is an educational approach to organizing classroom activities where students capitalize on one another’s resources and skills. Now I know that the intention of this is not the exploitation of each other as students, but to me, that is what it sounds like and, honestly, on most days group work feels like it is.
In middle and high school, my memory of group work is negative (although I am sure I had some good experiences). The first issue with group work is that if a teacher is not sitting next to the group monitoring participation (which would obviously be a waste of their time), then it is difficult to grade the students separately. This results in the same grade for each student in the group. However, that’s not a fair grading system, unless each student is putting in the same amount of time or effort. The typical group work experience goes like this: the assignment is given to the group, one person takes control (and usually does more than their fair share of work), one person does virtually nothing, and the remaining group members get by doing a minimal amount. If you think this is an effective learning experience, I direct you to the pie chart below.
While my middle and high school memory of group work is negative, in college I have learned how great collaboration can be. In higher education, working with other students can be your ticket to acing a class. This is not because of an abuse of the system, but because you can work with other students and tap into their understanding of a concept and their overall knowledge. Whether it be studying for a quiz or working on a homework assignment, when collaboration is allowed, it is easier to join forces with students who understand things in a different way. Collaboration has literally gotten me through college thus far, but the voluntary kind; not through mandatory group work where each student gets the same grade.
Another education initiative is competency-based learning. This is something I had experience with during high school. My home state of New Hampshire implemented a competency-based program requiring a focused competency every quarter in each class based on a specific topic we covered. This came in many different forms, some were separate assignments and others were part of an existing project or exam. These assignments were pass-fail, and the majority of the time they were relatively easy, but they caused a great deal of stress. When they were first introduced, a panic ran through the student body. We all thought, “If I fail ONE assignment, I fail the class?” I don’t actually know of any students who failed a class due to this, as we were allowed to retake the competencies, but there was intense pressure every time we heard, “This unit has a competency at the end.” While it added little to no extra work, there was a burden attached that seriously freaked us out. The idea makes sense, and maybe if this was something that we had known throughout school it wouldn’t have fazed us, but introduced as a new program while I was a student, it was something we had to adjust to.
Thinking back on my experiences as I write this, it is unfortunate how vividly I remember the classes and teachers I did not like, and how much harder it is to recall the good experiences. In K-12 education, teachers are dealing with students not yet completely grown into their personalities. Unfortunately, the bad experiences sometimes drown out the good experiences.
From the student’s perspective, all forms of teaching can take a bad turn, even new and innovative ones. There is no fool-proof way to teach that forces everyone to get the most out of their education. However, if teachers are excited to use their experiences in shaping the minds and lives of the future generations, then new and innovative forms of learning can be a great solution.