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March 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 6
Getting Personalization Right
Carol Ann Tomlinson
Shifts in instruction are a learning process for teachers as well.
Long, long ago, in a time that seems far away to many of today's teachers, it was common to find classrooms that would be reasonable exemplars of "personalization"—in other words, classrooms that elevated student voice in content or mode of learning. Some of us are old enough to have taught in those classes and to have learned much about teaching—and ourselves—in the process. It all took place in a time when fostering thinking in young learners was common and when striving for joyful and engaged learning seemed wise.
I truly loved being able to say to my students, "Here are some things we need to learn. Here are some ways I think we could do that. What ideas do you have?" Coconstructing curriculum was dynamic and helped lay a foundation for shared ownership in almost all of what happened in our classroom. I really loved working with colleagues and students to develop inquiry-based and problem-based learning experiences. It was intellectually challenging and stretched me beyond the parameters that generally bound my discipline. I particularly enjoyed project-based learning because that approach allowed for student input and resulted in a product that would matter to and be reviewed by a broader audience than just me or "4th period."
At one point, my students brought in their favorite early childhood books. They choose to read their books to the class, record them on audio or video, or ask someone else to read their selection. We had grand discussions about the benefits of reading to young children and why these books were objects of their affection. Students were keenly aware that part of the charm was remembering how they sat in a grandparent's lap or read to a younger sibling. The students then decided to write their own books and read them to youngsters. These early adolescent learners opted to study child development to understand questions and issues that would likely be important to their audiences. They examined Caldecott criteria for excellence. They analyzed texts to learn about the use of figurative language, onomatopoeia, humor, and context clues. They discussed appropriate options for illustrations that would enhance and help communicate their ideas. They sought and responded to feedback and had serious debates about how to decide which pieces of advice were beneficial.
In the end, my students visited primary-grade classrooms and shared their books with young children, who were mesmerized by the "real" authors. My students became more invested in and more insightful about the elements of language arts than they would have if they had simply followed a "traditional" learning trajectory. They matured as learners, grew in autonomy and responsibility, and exhibited a level of joy and pride I'd venture to say has never emerged from a worksheet, textbook analysis, or prescribed essay assignment.
And yet, as my colleagues and I evolved into champions of student-centeredness and personalization, we often struggled. The work challenged our view of ourselves as teachers. There were times when we felt guilty—even derelict in our duty—when we let students struggle to figure out things we could have more efficiently told them. We debated how to handle students' stumbles when we could have intervened but chose not to. We had to find new ways to interact with students rather than mostly from the front of the room. We certainly had to create routines that allowed for many simultaneous activities and that balanced predictability and stability.
We had to learn a new level of trust in our students. We had to believe that learning happens in students, not to them. We had to trust that they could do things they believed they could do and that we had never envisioned them doing. We had to trust them to use time wisely, set goals, follow timelines, seek help when needed, and honestly reflect on their work. And we had to back up and cry "uncle" when both they and we overestimated the possibilities.
We had to learn that one-size-fits-all personalization or student-centeredness works no better than one-size-fits-all reading instruction or math assignments. Students who didn't trust themselves, or who couldn't read well, or whose emotions made it difficult to work with peers, or who had no effective support system at home, or who panicked in the presence of uncertainty needed us in different ways—for scaffolding, support, and feedback.
We had to learn that merely encouraging students to do what they know how to do doesn't result in growth. Growth happens when someone who can see further than we can pushes us a bit into the unknown and supports those next steps. It's tricky to know how and when to nudge students forward in independence, analytical thinking, risk-taking, and so forth.
We had to toss aside established ways of assessing students and reporting on their progress, and instead talk with parents in ways that were instructive, honest, and reassuring.
Some of us learned lessons like these slowly, but willingly. Some of us learned eagerly and with reasonable speed. Some of us were never comfortable in the new structures and elected to return to the familiar ones.
And maybe that's my takeaway. Teachers, like students, differ greatly in their approaches to the world. If we understand that, our instructional decisions on behalf of students will necessarily account for teachers' varying needs, interests, and points of entry as well. To fall short of planning for that reality is to fall short all around.
Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She is the author of The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (2nd ed., ASCD, 2014) and, with Michael Murphy, Leading for Differentiation: Growing Teachers Who Grow Kids (ASCD, 2015).
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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