Why Is It so Hard to Teach K-12 Educators How to Personalize Learning?

Personalized Learning

Why Is It so Hard to Teach K-12 Educators How to Personalize Learning?

By Irene Bal     Apr 18, 2018

Why Is It so Hard to Teach K-12 Educators How to Personalize Learning?

As a long-time music teacher and instructional technology coach, modeling has been key to my work for over a decade. The concept of gradual release of responsibility is second nature to me when working with students in grades K-12, but in my new role teaching graduate students in an education technology program, I am struggling to model so many of the practices I expect these teachers to use in their own classrooms. Why is it so hard to teach K-12 educators how to promote student agency and to provide choices around content and pacing—why is it so hard to teach educators how to personalize learning?

I am a faculty member at Loyola University Maryland in the Educational Technology Program for the School of Education. My official title is “lecturer,” but that is a far cry from how I teach. Our students are current K-12 educators who have a passion for technology. In Fall 2017, our program began a fully online cohort and I am redesigning a course for the program called “Digital Innovative Schools,” which focuses on the change needed in current K-12 schools.

I want students to use their passions to shape projects, control the pace of their content and set their own deadlines, but building this kind of learning environment is challenging. It’s easier to provide a syllabus with structured projects and assignments that have assigned due dates and clear grading parameters.

I know that by putting some of these elements into the hands of my students, I can model how to transform learning environments beyond the traditional classroom. I realize that transferring control to my very capable students will allow me to move from managing their work process to providing the support they need to engage in deeper learning—but letting go of my structure, pace and definitions of success has been a grueling process.

Making “Voice and Choice” More Meaningful

“Voice and choice” has become a buzzword over the past few years, yet implementation is generally underwhelming. In many classrooms, voice has come to mean letting students choose their own projects and choices are often structured and limited. I wanted my course to provide a learning environment where students can use their voice to guide their projects and make choices that actually matter.

While designing a project about digital innovation in the classroom, I had an "aha" moment. I was creating guidelines for the end product, which was initially a presentation each student would design and share with an identified group of adults outside of our class. “You need to create a pitch, in video format, not to exceed two minutes, presented on a public forum,” I wrote into the directions. In my attempt to be specific on my expectations of what they should create, I had limited my students.

It wasn’t my intention to create such strict parameters, but I essentially left them with one choice: the platform. Even that was limited to some type of video creation tool. In the end, what I could expect was a series of cookie-cutter presentations.

After crying to a colleague about all of the time I spent developing these guidelines, I stepped back and asked myself: what do I want students to be able to do and why?

I wanted them to reflect on their digital innovation idea, share it beyond our classroom community and consider the next steps for implementation. BAM! There were my guidelines. By placing the structure in the purpose of the assignment, I opened up more possibilities. My students were no longer confined to a video presentation, but instead were free to explore the steps that were needed to implement their idea like designing lesson plans or submitting grant applications.

Balance of Support

When letting go of some structure to encourage student agency, the balance of support changes. There is more self-guided learning and less direct instruction. Each student is focused on different pieces of the content, learning through various means at unique paces, and has different experiences and prior knowledge to draw upon. Finding the appropriate balance of support for each student requires continuous communication. I’m constantly asking myself: when is there too much support and when is there not enough?

After building flexibility within the content to allow my students to design projects that are aligned to their passions and useful to their practice, I found myself facilitating 25 individual projects simultaneously.

I needed to create purposeful interactions with each student to effectively support agency. After conducting student conferences in K-12 classrooms for years, it was a natural progression to implement and model this strategy in my graduate classes. I hold conferences through synchronous individual online meetings and I have started using asynchronous communication to gather updates on progress and respond to questions.

This balance of support will be an ongoing consideration as I continue to redesign and teach the course. It has helped to simplify project guidelines, use conferences to provide more targeted support and to embed feedback and checkpoints within the course, but I realize that it will never be perfect. The needs of my students are diverse and will continue to evolve as teaching and learning changes over time.

Pacing Impacts Everything

In some ways, handing over control of the pace of the content seems simple. After all, most adult learners know when they understand something and are ready to move on, right? But it’s more complex than that. When there are 25 students who each have control of their own pace, how do you engage them in meaningful discussions based on the content and ensure that they complete their work in a timely manner? Letting students control the pace changes everything.

I am still grappling with these questions.

I’m considering having students create their own course timelines, in which they determine their work flow, milestones and deadlines. In this case, I’d provide an end date to help them ensure that all work is completed with enough time for me to assess.

For example, a third grade teacher interested in integrating virtual reality into his classroom might develop a timeline including two weeks to research the technical elements necessary for VR integration and identify which programs are age-appropriate and relevant, and a third week to develop some lesson plans to pilot. A high school science teacher looking to blend her classroom to increase student agency might create a timeline with two weeks to conduct a series of student interviews to determine when and how her students learn best, and another two weeks to analyze the interviews. In both cases, the projects will be complete prior to the course ending, which gives me time to assess their work.

This concept raises other questions and causes hesitation, but if I’m not willing to risk leaving my comfort zone to experiment with pace, how can I expect my students to try it out in their classrooms?

Building a Community of Support When Your Peer Group Changes

Reflecting on my time in K-12, I recognize that a support system of other educators was key. The game-changer is that my peer group has changed. Now it’s postsecondary instructional designers and instructors.

I’ve started connecting with new peers across the country through Twitter and Voxer and it has been helpful to communicate with people outside of my local network who are doing the things I want to try so I can learn alongside them. I am engaging in deeper conversations, learning new strategies and getting feedback on my ideas, and I need that. I also need people I can cry with when I’ve spent hours crafting guidelines only to throw them away, and in moments when managing 25 projects and timelines simultaneously feels impossible.

Redesigning this course is going to be a journey of reflection and possible failure, but I am hopeful. As I expand my community of support, I hope to create learning experiences that will inspire the K-12 educators I teach.

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