As educators, we are tasked with the weighty responsibility of helping prepare students to be successful in life. And as wide a swath as life may cut, students must be prepared for whatever challenge it unfolds.
Despite many state standardized tests following the cookie-cutter approach of one-size-fits-all testing, educators every day are personalizing learning to meet the needs of individual students, meeting them at the intersection of their learning styles and the resources available to them. But the reality is, you may be personalizing learning, and not even realize it.
So, how are educators meeting the individual needs and personalizing learning for their students? Many would be surprised that activities we engage our students in every day are examples of personalized learning—especially the following four examples.
1. Genius Hour and Passion Projects
What it is: Genius Hour, or Passion Projects, enable students to choose their own topic of study. This type of project empowers students by giving them voice and choice. They can follow their passions and develop them into a project that meets academic content.
When students are beginning a Genius Hour project, they must first choose a researchable question; one where the answer will not result in a quick online search. Students then conduct research on their topic and question. Next, students must create something using their research that helps answer their original question. The creation could be a digital presentation, a 3D model, a comic or brochure, a play, etc. Finally, students must present their findings to an audience.
Often, the audience may be the student’s peers and teacher in the classroom, but finding authentic audiences, such as partner classes via video conferencing tools, on a class blog, or community members, is a great way for students to feel heard and have their work validated beyond a simple letter grade.
How it personalizes learning: My students love having the choice to pursue their interests in an academic setting, and engage in true passion-based learning. They are still following the inquiry steps, conducting research, writing, and speaking on a topic, but it is individualized to meet their interests. This is often a highlight of the week for my students, as they can immerse themselves in a topic of interest and apply the skills we are learning along the way.
The best tools for the job: Since Genius Hour is such a personalized learning project, there are a myriad of tools that students can use. If my students are doing an electronic presentation, then a few of our favorite online tools to use include Google Slides, Sway, Buncee, Thinglink, Padlet, and Powtoon. If students are constructing something more hands-on, then having a supply of paper, cardboard, markers, glue, tape, or any other construction-type items would fit well.
2. Virtual Field Trips and Global Collaborative Projects
What it is: Taking your students on virtual field trips and participating in global collaborative projects are great ways to personalize learning and expose students to new ideas, people, and culture. My students regularly connect with classes via Skype from all over the world—they’ve toured the U.S. Capitol Building, talked with astronauts at NASA, interviewed a published author, and more.
How it personalizes learning: Connecting with others through Skype helps my students become emotionally engaged in the academic material. They are much more interested in learning and better able to retain the information if they are able to have real-world, authentic experiences.
For example, each year, we participate in a “Skype Around the World” day, where my students connect with classes and individuals in all seven continents from the start of school until midnight gathering information on each country’s economy, geography, and culture. Participating in global collaborative projects further allows students to personalize their learning, and collaborating with peers in different parts of the world teaches my students to be creative problem-solvers, using communication and critical thinking skills to tackle real-world problems.
The best tools for the job: Skype in the Classroom or Google Hangouts are the tools for the job. The information gathered during these virtual experiences could have been found online, but my students would have lost the ability to ask questions and recognize that knowledge isn’t confined to the walls of our classroom.
3. Alternative Self-Assessments
What it is: Personalized learning comes into play when students are doing assessments, as well. In lieu of traditional paper-pencil tests, I sometimes have my students perform alternative self-assessments. During this task, students create their own original examples of a concept, and create something that demonstrates their understanding of that concept and/or standard that we have just covered.
How it personalizes learning: When it comes to assessment, a one-size-fits-all test doesn’t measure a student’s honest understanding of a concept. Alternative self-assessments are the student’s chance to prove why he or she deserves a certain grade based on creativity and depth of explaining the concept. Why? Students can use any vessel that fit their own learning style to show their understanding of a concept.
The best tools for the job: Any tool will work, whether it is electronic and online-based or tangible and paper-based. Many students choose to use online tools such as Buncee, Sway, or Google tools/apps to create a presentation covering their knowledge of the concept. Other students may choose to write their own example down on paper, take a picture of it, upload it to a slideshow or their classroom’s learning management system, and do a screen recording of themselves explaining their thinking. Google’s Screencastify, Microsoft’s Office Mix, and Seesaw are all great tools for generating screen recordings, or recording video or audio where students show their examples and explain their thinking. And there’s a bonus: These short video files can then be shared with parents or put into an online student portfolio.
4. Student Blogging
What it is: Providing students with an authentic audience is another powerful way that educators can personalize learning for their students. Student blogging helps provide.
How it personalizes learning: When my students do a virtual field trip, conduct a science experiment, or finish a novel, I often have them blog about their experience and learning. This process allows students to convey what is most meaningful to them about an activity or project.
The best tools for the job: My students have been using Kidblog for the past couple of years. Student blogging allows my students to express their understanding of a concept in their own unique way, while sharing knowledge with an outside audience. We also have global blogging partners through Kidblog, where we have partnered with classes in Ireland, Australia, and Ecuador. Each class takes turns reading and commenting on the other class’ students’ blog posts.
Having peers across the globe read and comment on my students’ posts causes my students to pay closer attention to what they are writing and sharing. They are expressing knowledge and understanding not simply to their teacher anymore, but to an authentic, global audience.
Personalized student learning is not just something that educators ought to do; it is something that we must do if we want students to be successful members of society. The good news is that we are already taking steps in that direction. When we provide students with new and unique experiences, when we allow them to follow their passions, or when we permit students to show their understanding of a concept in a way that makes sense for them, we are personalizing learning. It is a monumental task for sure, but one that will pay dividends for generations. After all, quality education is the world’s best hope for peace, equality, and justice.