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March 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 6
Getting Personalization Right
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
Teaching students how to control the path and pace of their learning.
Ideally, personalization in education allows students to control both the path of learning (the scope and sequences of skills needed to master a discipline) and the pace of learning (the speed at which one travels the path). But as Benjamin Riley (2015) points out in a critique of personalized learning, unfettered freedom for students to follow their own path at their own pace, with minimal guidance, brings with it the risk that they won't learn what they need to know.
So let's consider what's vital for a traveler's journey, and how we might give students the tools they need to reach their destination. First, a traveler benefits from a knowledgeable guide who understands the terrain, the possible obstacles, and the hidden treasures that shouldn't be missed. The traveler also has his own tools, including a map and compass that provide a comprehensive picture of the journey, and a way to figure out where he is now in relation to where he wants to go.
In the classroom, the teacher is the guide, and clear goals and formative assessment opportunities are the map and compass. By purposefully teaching students to track the progress of their learning journey, we create self-directed learners who can articulate what they're learning and why, who seek feedback, and who understand how to gauge their achievement of goals. Such learners have developed the skills they need to begin to teach themselves.
Self-directed learners understand the importance of a clear purpose, success criteria, feedback from their teacher and peers, and opportunities to self-assess and gauge their own progress.
Effective learning begins with establishing the purpose of the lesson (Fisher & Frey, 2011). Terms like learning intentions, targets, purposes, and objectives all boil down to making sure that both the teacher and the student understand the what, how, and why of learning.
In the video that accompanies this column, teacher Néstor Espinoza-Agraz fosters self-regulation skills in his 3rd-grade dual-immersion class by ensuring that his students know the purpose of their reading. Maestro Espinoza, as his students call him, draws the class's attention repeatedly to the purpose statement posted on the wall, which he calls their learning map, to help students remember that their goal is to find the main idea in a text about Christopher Columbus leaving Cuba.
To emphasize the importance of knowing one's purpose before setting out on a journey, Maestro Espinoza begins by telling his students that one day he set off to walk to the store to purchase food, even though he had no map or GPS to navigate his path. As his students predicted, the story ends with their teacher losing his way, wasting time, and never getting the food he wanted. Maestro Espinoza tells them that readers sometimes wander without a map in the same way, getting lost in the process. Their learning map will tell them where they need to go and provide a purpose for their reading.
Closely linked to purpose are the criteria for success. Anyone who goes on a journey needs to have a way to know when they've reached their destination. The problem is that novices don't necessarily possess much more than a superficial understanding of what success looks like, and therefore they often confuse it with task completion. They need exemplars, rubrics, checklists, and other concrete models of success.
Moss and Brookhart (2009) assert that such success criteria are effective motivators, noting that "students who have clear pictures of the learning target and of the criteria for success are likely to also have a sense of what they can and should do to make their work measure up to those criteria and that goal" (p. 28). Motivation comes not just from a student's interest and investment in a topic of investigation, but also from having a clear sense of what she is striving for.
In the video, Maestro Espinoza makes it clear to his students that their success criteria include not only being able to answer the question but also being able to cite supportive evidence from the text.
Teachers need to provide feedback that helps students gauge where they are in their learning. The best feedback is timely, actionable, understandable, and goal-referenced (Wiggins, 2012). It's different from advice. "You might want to write a summary sentence at the end of that paragraph," isn't helpful.
It's important that feedback lead students back to the purpose of the learning task. Maestro Espinoza uses learning maps every day, and asks his students to regularly point to and reread the purpose. Then he links his feedback to that purpose in his meetings with individual students.
As part of each lesson, Maestro Espinoza meets with several students individually to discuss their work. In the lesson taught in this video, he had previously identified six students he wanted to meet with during this time to gauge their progress in writing with evidence. "I see you have a reason listed in your summary," he said to one student, "But you need evidence, too. Can you turn back to the part of the text where you found this information?" After the student did so, he asked, "Now, how could your reader find your evidence?" The student remembered, "I can use the page number!"
Effective teachers create opportunities for self-assessment at regular intervals. One means for doing so is a mid-lesson check. Unlike exit tickets, which come at the end of the lesson, these checks enable students to take action. For instance, some teachers have students pause to show the number of fingers corresponding to their current progress on a learning task (often called Fist to Five). Students can then regroup in the room on the basis of their self-assessments; those who rated themselves 5 can assist groups who rated themselves at slightly lower levels while the teacher meets with groups who self-ranked at 0 or 1 and need more support.
Maestro Espinoza gives his students the opportunity to self-assess when he asks them to consider whether they are ready to answer the question he has posed, and whether they believe they can cite evidence to identify the main idea of the text about Columbus.
To benefit from personalized learning, students need to learn to set goals, gauge their own progress, and seek feedback. If we send them off on the journey without these navigational tools, students may wander without purpose. Giving them the right tools can set them on a path and at a pace that ensures they will benefit from both the journey and the destination.
Watch a 3rd grade teacher build his students' understanding of the purpose of their reading, the criteria for success, and the importance of self-assessment.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2011). The purposeful classroom: How to structure lessons with learning goals in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2009). Advancing formative assessment in every classroom.. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Riley, B. (April 22, 2015). Should personalization be the future of learning? Benjamin Riley and Alex Hernandez square off. Education Next. Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/personalization-future-learning
Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16.
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High and Middle College. They are ASCD authors, and their work inspired ASCD's FIT Teaching® program.
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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