As the child of Korean immigrants, education has always represented aspirational possibility in my life. And though the vocational aspirations that my parents had in mind for me never became mine, their belief that education could lead to boundless possibilities certainly did.
I always did well in school and enjoyed it, but I never harbored ambitions to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, despite the cultural ideals of success that were ubiquitous in my early life. Instead, because of the guidance I received from my advisor in graduate school, I became a teacher. That advice marked a defining turn for me—it was both personal and personalized. My formal teaching career began in boarding schools. During the 14 years that I lived and worked in that immersive environment, I learned the clear value of knowing more about my students than whatever was or was not reflected in their schoolwork.
But it was not until years later that I learned that personalized learning is much more than having personal connections to students. That is a distinction that many teachers should spend more time thinking about. Bruce Mau, founder of the Institute without Boundaries, once asked: “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?” I ask the same of my colleagues in the teaching profession.
The body of knowledge about what works in education is a vast toolbox and within it, every teacher can discover the tools to build personalized learning environments for students. In the context of my own journey towards personalized learning, it came down to two things—autonomy and the right “tools.”
Having the Freedom to Personalize
As a career teacher, the most important lesson I have learned is that young people can produce amazing demonstrations of their learning when they are presented with the right opportunities. Unfortunately, it was not until later in my career that I began to learn how to personalize learning experiences for my students. Once realized though, the result is that my students are better positioned to produce work that reflects their unique strengths and talents.
My evolution as a teacher who is focused on developing and using personalized learning practices is informed and buoyed by the autonomy that I have as a teacher at Colorado Academy, an independent school. This freedom has lead me into a world of possibility where I can exercise agency to create opportunities that engage student interests and talents as a part of learning. Take, for example, my decision to stop using any assessment that has a “one-size-fits-all” structure. Doing this has been both experimental and iterative, and it has given flight to my imagination about what is truly possible in schools or in my classroom at the very least.
The Best Tools for the Job: Growth Mindset and Design Thinking vs. the Tyranny of “Average”
Along the way, I have picked up some powerful tools that have helped me personalize learning for my students as a part of my ongoing development as a teacher—but I am not talking about technology tools. One idea that has guided teaching practice toward personalization is the growth mindset research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Although it is still a work in progress, using growth mindset principles to frame dialogue in my classroom has given rise to increased agency in my students and decreased grade-inspired compliance.
The best tool I have adopted in my work and life as a teacher is design thinking. Also known as “human-centered” design, the empathy-based, iterative process known as design thinking has been transformative for me because it has allowed me to personalize learning for students. The dynamic focus on empathy in design thinking has taught me how to be more responsive to student learning processes and thereby develop more creative, nuanced curriculum. By recognizing that students have “jagged learning profiles,” I have tried to distance my work from the general tendency that causes students to be grouped into a mythological categories based on averages.
Over the past few years, Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education has studied “the tyranny of the average” in the world. He argues that in schools, the misguided approach of teaching to an “average student” causes teachers to depersonalize learning in their classrooms. I posit that tools like design thinking can help teachers better understand a student’s jagged learning profile and avoid assumptions that limit the possibilities of what a student might achieve.
Tools like design thinking can also help teachers develop personalized curriculum because it emphasizes feedback-based prototyping that allows for curricular fidelity. In my own growth, design thinking has led me to become a “hacker.” I have found that hacking curriculum allows me to customize the resources at my disposal in order to customize lessons for different learners. As a result of these efforts, I now use a pass | fail grading policy for a part of the year; I have adapted Sugata Mitra’s work to create self-directed projects; and I schedule assignments in a way that allow students to self-pace their efforts.
Teachers as a Cartographers of Personalized Learning
There is great promise for personalized learning in education, given the tremendous synergy being generated at the intersection of education and neuroscience, technology and algorithms, and imagination and human will. In a world where learning has the real possibility to be an “any time, any place, any path, any pace” experience, where young people need to develop “any century skills,” teachers need to do real work in their classrooms with real students.
In his book on reality pedagogy For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, Christopher Emdin compares personalized learning in schools to the experience of going to a barbershop–every person sits in the same seat, but has a unique personal experience that is curated by the barber. I believe that design thinking and a growth mindset are to teachers what clippers and scissors are to barbers. Unfortunately, even when teachers intuit the value of design thinking and growth mindset, they do not explore the possibility of using them to personalize learning.
Today, the realm of possibility is so expansive that it can be difficult to even acknowledge it. It is easier to use self-imposed constraints to argue that certain possibilities do not exist. Education has a unique relationship to this dilemma. On one hand, possibility translates into the need for standardized policy and curriculum in education. On the other hand, possibility inspires the freedom and agency that teachers need to personalize learning.
In the end, it is the individual teacher who has to decide if a constraint is real, or if they can explore possibilities to personalize learning for their students.
Are you that teacher?