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Author: Barbara Bray


9 Ways to Encourage Passion-based Learning


All of us were born passionate learners. We came into the world curious about everything around us. We had a strong desire to want to talk, crawl, and walk. Watch a toddler take their first step, and you see passion-based learning. Listen to a musician practice a difficult piece until they are ready to perform. Watch a skateboarder try a new trick over and over — that takes persistence and passion to not give up.

You don’t always see that same type of passion in “school.” In many cases, school has been associated with pacing guides, required curriculum, grade-level standards, bell schedules, grades, and teaching to the test. In these situations, the teacher or the administration are the ones in control. The teacher tends to become the one held accountable for the learning. Yet to really LEARN something, the learner needs to own and drive their learning.

Are schools designed to help people learn?

In trying to wrap my hands around learning about learning, I look to Chris Watkins, an independent consultant and leading authority on meta-learning in the UK and former reader at The Institute of Education, London Centre for Leadership in Learning. Chris’ research has helped me find my passion to personalize learning by focusing on the learner first. He just launched a new site where he uploaded over 150 of his articles, handouts, presentations and publications on learning. Watkins’ Key Issues shows that learning is rarely a focus on classroom life. He identified three sources he called “space invaders” that take up the space as teaching, performance and work instead of what they should be focusing on: LEARNING.


“Teaching and Learning Policies”, “Teaching and Learning Strategies”, and so on would be better if called Teaching and Teaching Policies! The real attention given to learning is minimal, and just because a teacher is teaching, does not mean students are learning. Watkins emphasizes that we need a better articulation between teaching and learning.


Performance tests, performance tables, and performance management are inventions that influenced the culture of schools in a way that often creates pressure to perform. But this does not get the best performance: learners with a learning orientation do better than those with a performance orientation and the biggest single variable underlying current patterns of school performance is whether students are self-regulating learners.


Be cautious of the word “work.” You probably heard statements like this: “Get on with your work”, “Have you finished your work?”, “Stop copying my work”, and so on. Chris suggests substituting the word “work” with the word “learning” so the tensions are clear. The discourse of “work” shifts the locus of agency: as Harrison, an 8 year old said to Chris: “When you work, you work for someone else and when you learn, you learn for yourself”.

I can relate to Chris Watkins’ “space invaders” during my school years. The focus on teaching and doing work that wasn’t relevant to me changed my thinking about who I was as a learner. I learned to play the game of school and “do” school so I could get “through” school.

Why do we have to change school to focus on passion-based learning?

School changes what kids believe what they are supposed to learn. If you ask kids around 3rd or 4th grade what they are learning in school, you might hear answers around how to behave, be a good listener, or how to do well on a test. We learned how to be compliant and follow the rules. Is this really what we want as the focus of school?

Now it’s time to bring back creativity, joy, and focus on the power of passion for learning. There are two things you can do to right away to get a child passionate about learning:

  1. Model something you are passionate about and share your excitement.
  2. Determine each learner’s strengths, talents, and interests so they can find their passions.


I was shared with Julie Rogers Bascom, Service-Learning Coordinator for Edina Public Schools in Minnesota, that I was writing an article on Passion-based learning. She shared how the following year-long Passion Projects engaged learners in authentic real-world activities. [Edina Service Learning]

All 680 tenth grade learners in Edina High School’s Pre AP Language Arts Class engaged in a year-long Passion Project, digging deep into their interests as a way to meet learning standards.  Each learner chose a topic of importance, researched and investigated the theme they chose and wrote a ten-page research paper. As part of this course, each learner took action for an identified problem in their area of interest. One learner who is interested in computer science held an e-waste collection, filling two semi-trucks with electronic waste, diverting the waste from the landfill. One learner, concerned about clean water for a village where her grandparents live, designed a water filter that would help filter out excess fluoride from wells in rural India.  Another learner, having been a foster child, lobbied for awareness and advocated for resources for foster families.  Following the service-learning cycle:

IPARD – Investigation > Planning > Action > Reflection > Demonstration, learners used their knowledge and experiences from their research to solve community problems by engaging in authentic service-learning. 


Since I have been on the journey with Kathleen McClaskey for over four years to personalize learning, we are finding many models and strategies that say they are “Personalized Learning” like competency education, one-to-one and others that may support learner-centered environments. But when you look at the bigger picture, it all comes down to one thing: passion to learn and changing the focus to learning not on teaching. This has been my mission for over 20 years. Now I’m finding more and more examples of passion-based learning. Julie’s example of service learning is more than an assignment. The learners found a problem they were passionate about and used critical thinking skills to solve it their way.


9 Ways for You to Encourage Passion-Based Learning in your School

  1. First few days of school.
    Get to know your learners right away before you start teaching. Every teacher and learner deserves a new opportunity to achieve. Consider waiting at least two weeks before jumping into academics. If you already started teaching academics before getting to know everyone, pull back. Check out Rich Czyz’s ideas for the First few days of school
  2. Get to know your learners and their interests.
    Invite your learners to share what they are interested in and their talents and aspirations. Have you ever thought of spending time one-on-one with each learner maybe schedule a lunch date? Ask them to start a journal or portfolio so they can share stories of their interests. Check out Michael Wesch’s Journey to the Joy of Learning so you too can see each learner differently.
  3. Share interests.
    Ask learners to do a pair/share where two share with each other what they are interested in. Invite them to ask each other:

    • What are three things you are really interested in?
    • Why did you choose each of those?
    • Which one excites you the most? Why?Then have them choose one with the help of the partner to share their first choice with all learners in the class. Encourage the class to ask questions and provide feedback with these two prompts
    • I like…
    • I wonder…
  1. Explore interests.
    Encourage them to explore their interest and how it might have a connection to the real world. Since you are probably still a part of the current traditional system, invite your learners to connect to required standards. Have them create a mind map of their interest and ways they can connect to what they know, what they have to learn, what they would like to learn, how they could demonstrate that they learned, and what questions they might have.
    KWL for interests
  1. Identify a real-world problem.
    Sometimes learners cannot connect their interest with a real-world problem. You could start with a problem where they might be able to make a real difference if they could solve that problem together. Walk around your school and go outside to observe what is around you. You and your learners may find a problem or issue you never thought about before. This is called “generative curriculum” which means coming up with questions and direction for learning as you learn.
  1. Plan learning.
    Let them plan together or individually using the following 3 questions from George Couros that drive Passion-Based Learning from his blog, The Principal of Change
    • What will I learn?
    • What will I solve?
    • What will I create?
  1. Make learning meaningful.
    Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D [ ] shared experiences where she noticed that there was a problem with how she was being asked to learn. She was cramming and memorizing information, being tested for mastery prior to having enough practice time and learning facts with no context or relevance to what she needed to learn. In her post, she hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. She also discussed the importance of context as relevant meaningful tasks.Learning in context

“Learning can and should be natural, fun, and engaging.” @jackiegerstein. I agree with Jackie that learning has to be meaningful and have a purpose.


  1. Build a new culture of learning.
    Give good reasons for learning. Watch this video from Dr. Tae about the culture of learning  with secondary science teachers and university professors. What is the secret to learning? Real learning is mostly self-motivated paired with the right mentor.Read Terry Heick’s article Promoting a Culture of Learning  that walks you through using a gradual release of responsibility model:

    • Show Them
    • Help Them
    • Let Them
  2. Create a Makerspace.
    Diana Rendina, Media Specialist/School Librarian at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL transformed her library to serve as an informal STEM learning space for her learners. Check out Renovated Learning to follow her Makerspace journey.Diana Rendina Makerspace Journey


When I think of all the educators I know who stretch their thinking and go the extra mile like Diana, Julie, Rich, Jackie, and George and others, I know that no one can transform education alone. We all need to share and learn together. I found my purpose. It is to learn all I can about learner-centered environments, connect to others who believe all learners can learn their way, and share their stories of transformation of “school” to cultures of learning. I wrote this quote over ten years ago…

“Go with your strengths and interests, find your passion and, then discover your purpose.”

Quote on Purpose by Bray


I am thinking of changing that last part to “and your purpose will discover you.”
Has your purpose found you?


[Post was created for an article in the Fall OnCUE 2015 issue]

Next post will be a review of Pernille Ripp’s book: Passionate Leaerners


Put the "Person" Back in "Personalization"

This is a cross-post of a blog I just wrote for Personalize Learning:

There is a lot of talk going around about “personalization” and “personalized learning” harming kids. We need to clarify this NOW. It’s time to put the “person” in “personalization” and stop the conversations going in directions that take us off course.

We went back to the post and webinar from Elliot Washor (@elliot_washor) on April 2014 about this concept of  putting the “Person” in “Personalization.”

“There is a great deal of discussion and a strong ramp up of what is called “personalized learning” in schools both with and without technology.” Where is the person in personalization? What are the expectations that students have for deep productive learning?”

We decided we need to bring back this idea that Elliot shared and expand on this discussion. We need to focus on our learners and learning and take semantics out of the conversations. 


Free for commercial use / No attribution required

Right now it’s so easy to be pulled in different directions and think you have to take one side or another about the terminology. Consider yourself as a learner and what you need. Yes – technology makes it easier to access information, engage with the content and express what you know. Mobile devices make everything available at your fingertips just when you need it.It’s not about technology. It’s not about the test or improving test scores. It’s really not about school. It’s all about the learner, how they learn best and that what they learn is meaningful and for a purpose.  It is all about the relationships that learners make and need to support their learning. It is also about the teacher – a valuable person in the relationship. Teachers and learners can work together to develop learning goals and design activities that are authentic and relevant for the learner so they are engaged in learning. Learning has to have a context that learners can grasp and understand. And, of course, an important person in the relationship is the parent who wants the best for their child but they may not know how to support their learning.

digitaltattooHere’s the catch: today’s kids brains are wired digitally, so they will figure out how to use the tools by experimenting or teaching each other. What they need is to acquire the skills to choose the appropriate tools for the task. They also need to understand who they are, how they learn best, and how to be global digital citizens. They probably don’t realize that their digital footprint is actually a “digital tattoo” that can never be removed. They need to become self-aware of who they are, how they learn best, and be aware of what they do online can affect them and impact others.

When we put the focus on each learner and how they can own and drive their learning, then we see engaged, self-directed learners with agency. They become the ones responsible for the learning. Isn’t that what we want?

Our traditional education system was designed to create compliant workers who follow orders. That’s why it looks like a factory model. This isn’t working anymore for today’s kids, but that’s all we know and how most of us were taught. Teachers also think they have to teach like a champion because they are the ones responsible for the learning. Don’t you think that this is backwards? Teachers are an integral piece of the puzzle, but the focus has been on curriculum, teaching to the test, and teaching subjects instead of kids. When we focus on learning and not on curriculum, teachers roles change. We still can teach to standards but let’s involve learners in the process and give them a voice so they own the learning.

The system is changing now because it has to change. Our future depends on it. Consider this quote from John Dewey:

“If we teach as we taught yesterday,we rob our children of tomorrow.”

It is our children’s future, not our past. So what that means is that what we know about school will have to change and change is scary. That’s why we understand the discourse about the terms. There are companies that frame “personalized learning” as adaptive learning systems using algorithms to choose the right path for learning. So we’re going to end this blog emphasizing learners need to be the ones who choose their path with their teacher guiding the process. It is about encouraging learners to have a voice and choice in their learning. It’s happening now all over the world.

We’ll be sharing more and more stories of learners being empowered and teachers who are excited about how engagement and motivation has changed the landscape of learning. This is just the beginning of a new world of learning and it’s time to put the “Person” back in “Personalization.”


Connecting the Maker Movement to Authentic Learning


I love the idea of making, inventing and tinkering. Just watch kids who are immersed in the activities and you can see the engagement. But is the learning authentic and relevant?

One Work Place Maker EventI presented three sessions at the Free Maker Movement event at One Work Place on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 with some amazing educators who presented hands-on activities. The event will took place at our Oakland Center for Active Learning .

I decided I needed to spend some time researching where the Maker Movement was happening and find examples of authentic learning. This gave me the opportunity to talk to several of my friends and share how they have transformed learning spaces to Makerspaces. Everyone I talked to made a point that it is about creativity not consumption. Yet when I went to different Maker events, I saw activities that an adult set up, purchased a kit or provided directions for activities. They were all fun, but I was having trouble seeing the connections to real learning or any ownership from kids.


I read Jackie Gerstein‘s post: MAKE STEAM: Giving Maker Education Some Context where she wrote “recent discussions with other educators and administrators made me realize that the idea of maker education is often vague and seems unrealistic in terms of regular classroom instruction.”  She shared her thoughts of Maker Education in the context of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) where teachers integrate maker projects into their classrooms. Read her blog and check out the Thinglink by clicking on the dots for more information.



I reached out to Shannon McClintock Miller, @shannonmiller, who is a Teacher Librarian at Van Meter Elementary in Iowa. Shannon stretches the imagination of children and manages the Library Voice as a place to be heard through creating, technology, connecting, reading, collaborating and noise.  I love her quote:

“We as librarians and educators and as people
who care about young people need to CHANGE!”

Shannon emphasizes the power of story where learners can play with content, media, narratives, remix, mashup and then tell their story. She encourages her learners to connect to the story in different ways: Skype with authors, create their own stories, and publish eBooks. One learner loved the “I Spy” books and wanted to Skype with the author “Jean Marzollo so Shannon set it up. What came out of the Skype was for learners to create their own “I Spy” book for Van Meter School.

Screenshot 2015-09-26 11.10.07

Shannon redesigned the library to move to creative, innovative spaces: Makerspaces around the concept of stories. Learners took their iPads and used an Augmented Reality program, Layar, to add multimedia to texts, posters, and books. She found different apps and organized them in a Digital Makerspace using Symbaloo. After pulling together different Makerspace activities, Shannon wanted a way to provide opportunities for making in the classroom.  So she created Makerspaces Mobile bags that teachers could pick up and use in their classrooms.

Digital Makerspace


Screenshot 2015-09-26 11.37.09Laura Fleming, @NMHS_lmsis a Teacher Librarian at Milford High School in New Jersey who is a strong advocate of using New Media and Vanguard Techniques for Interactive and Transmedia (multi-platform) Storytelling. Her website is Worlds of Learning.  She wrote the book World of Making where you can find invaluable guidance for creating a vibrant Makerspace on any budget. The book includes practical strategies and anecdotal examples that help you:

  • Create an action plan for your own personalized Makerspace
  • Align activities to standards
  • Showcase learner creations


Laura’s goal is to create learning experiences that empower and equip students with necessary skills to effectively produce and consume content across multiple media platforms. She went from K-8 to the high school to a library that was very traditional that was under-utilized.

Milford HS - NJ Library

In less than two months she transformed the library by just adding activities aligned to classroom instruction. She even used DonorsChoose to purchase a 3D printer and provides multiple suggestions to build your own makerspace.



Diana Rendina, @DianaLRendina,  is a Media Specialist/Librarian at Stewart Middle Magnet School in Tampa, Florida. Diana is passionate about school libraries being places for students to discover, learn, grow, create, connect and collaborate. She shares her journey on her blog, Renovated Learning: Building a Culture of Creativity and Discovery in Education.  She has worked to transform her school’s library from a quiet, dusty, cluttered room into a vibrant and active learning space where students want to be.  In 2014, she created a Makerspace in her library to serve as an informal STEM learning space for her students. 

Diana Rendina Makerspace Journey

Diana shared how their Makerspace has changed, grown and evolved since it was first conceived and started in January 2014.  Follow along with the story of their journey here.  Hopefully it will inspire you to start your own Maker journey.


This is just the beginning and a short overview of how libraries are transforming to Makerspaces. But one thing I did find from talking to Jackie, Shannon, Laura and Diana is that the librarian’s role is changing and Makerspaces can connect to learning. The Library is changing and bringing stories to life. Makerspaces can be digital and mobile. If Teachers and Librarian/Media Specialists collaborate on curriculum design, projects can be integrated in to STEAM and other curriculum activities. So this is just the beginning of my investigations how these Makerspaces can expand authentic learning activities.


Dancing for Balance

I want to keep this short. I’ve been writing, speaking, tweeting, sharing, learning, and traveling a lot. Some days I’m not moving out of my chair for hours. I know I tell everyone about getting in the “flow,” but this is ridiculous. I sometimes work right through lunch, breaks (what are those?) and then the phone rings or get an email asking a question. I end up working more.

dancingplaqueAll of a sudden I just had to stop and take a deep breath. I turned the music up high and decided to dance. I mean really dance until I only think about my dancing and nothing else. You see, I have been so focused on trying to transform teaching and learning, I forgot about me. I need to take care of me so I can be here to continue to drive my purpose.

When you are driven by something you are passionate about, you forget to stop and think of why you are doing what you are doing. There has to be some balance in your life.

I have this plaque on my wall: “Dance as if no one were watching” and remember how happy I am when I dance. So stopping right now — to dance.


Making Professional Learning Personal


These days, too many teachers are leaving the profession because they may not be getting the support they need to do the job they are required to do. Now is the time to reverse the trend of teacher burnout. This can happen with improving their own professional learning by making it personal.


Every class, every teacher, and every learner is unique so each situation could bring up questions, opportunities, and even confusion. Teachers could find that they will be learning something new more often than not.  Teachers are the most valuable element in the classroom.

Teachers can be partners in learning with learners. To do this effectively, teachers need to determine their purpose for professional learning that defines learning goals specific to learning outcomes. Then they can identify instructional practices needed to implement so learners meet those learning outcomes. “One size fits all” professional development will not meet each teacher’s purpose and plan. Every teacher will need a plan with specific learning goals to personalize their professional learning.

Learning Forward [] created a workbook for States, Districts, and Schools: Professional Learning Plans as the navigation system for the comprehensive professional learning system as the engine that powers educator learning. A program of professional learning is “a set of purposeful, planned actions and the support system necessary to achieve the identified goals.” Professional learning plans focus on the specific content, learning designs, implementation support, and evaluation of professional learning. The comprehensive professional learning system establishes the overall infrastructure and operations that support effective professional learning. The workbook provides teachers, schools, and districts the tools, resources, examples and models that will assist them in developing whole system professional learning plans and personal professional learning plans.


Some key questions to drive the development of your plan:

  • What results do we seek for our learners?
  • What teacher practices contribute to those results?
  • What must change in order to achieve those results?


The goal of professional learning should be stated in terms of learner outcomes. Changes in educator knowledge, skills, dispositions, and practice are the means to changes in learning. Learner and teacher goals written in the SMART format increases the strength and clarity of the goals. Working SMARTER, not harder: SMART goals keep key objectives in focus as follows:


S  = Specific
M = Measurable
A  = Attainable
R  = Results-based
T  = Time-bound

Consider this question: What learner outcomes do you want to see that can be transformative?

Teachers need collaborative time to review and analyze learner data. There are schools that are scheduling time once, twice and, in some cases, daily, where teachers meet to plan together. Teachers usually work alone and have been isolated behind closed classroom doors for too long. When teachers have the time to work together, they can review how their students are learning, what they are learning, and any challenges. They can use SMART goals to develop learning objectives. For example, if teachers determine that 42% of their high school learners do not understand linear equations, they can develop a learning goal that targets these learners.


Example SMART Goal

42% of the high school learners will have resources and opportunities for small group, one-to-one instruction and ongoing peer support to increase their knowledge and skills around linear equations.

Teachers only know what they know or were taught. Many follow a pacing guide and use existing curriculum even though we now know that doesn’t work for all learners. A teacher who is trying to “cover” the curriculum based on the pacing guide will never meet the needs of those learners who are falling behind.

When teachers start putting together SMART goals around learning outcomes based on data, they can go several steps further to determine how each of the 42% learners learn best along with any challenges they might have. There are always several learners in your class that stand out with unique characteristics. Teachers may find out that more than one learner may have trouble understanding math symbols where others have issues focusing on how the problems are stated. When you know specific issues that are challenges for your learners, you can pull together strategies to target those challenges. This is where the Personal Professional Learning Plan comes in for each teacher.


Sample Personal Professional Learning Plan

(adapted from source:

  1. State the Action you will take
  2. Describe an Area of Focus for the Learning
  3. Include the Rationale
  4. Add the Activities


State Action Describe Focus Include Rationale Add Activities
Improve Teaching Skills Assist at-risk students Stay current with new practices
Develop Proficiency in technology tools Support instruction Identify specific tools and resources


The activities are personal to each teacher. This is where teachers can take control of their own learning. If a teacher wants to improve their teaching skills to assist at-risk learners, they can use alternative learning opportunities to support them with their research. Traditional PD usually doesn’t allow time for personalized support and attention. Some questions teachers have asked about PD:

  • How do you stay current with new practices if you sit in a lecture that does not support your learning goal?
  • How do you find specific resources around Algebra if PD that day is on classroom management?


Teachers can get support by building their Personal Learning Network (PLN) in their school, district, community, and in social media. There are multiple learning opportunities outside of traditional professional development. This is where “personal” expands professional learning with opportunities that include:

  • Common Planning TimeTeachers helping teachers
  • Unconferences
  • Edcamps
  • Using Social Media
    • Twitter chats
    • Facebook pages
    • Google+ Communities
    • Linkedin Groups


Common Planning Time

Common planning time is different than “teacher preparation time” or “prep periods,” which are periods of time during the school day when teachers, typically working on their own, can plan and prepare for their classes, meet with students, or grade assignments. Common planning time is an evolution of the traditional preparation period to time that encourages more frequent and purposeful collaboration among educators. Its primary purpose is to bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects that will lead to improvements in lesson quality, instructional effectiveness, and student achievement.


Unconferences and Edcamps

An unconference is a conference organized, structured and led by the people attending it. Instead of passive listening, all attendees and organizers are encouraged to become participants, with discussion leaders providing moderation and structure for attendees.

Unconferences are founded upon The Law of Two Feet, which states that:

If during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to some more productive place.

An Edcamp is a user-generated conference – commonly referred to as an “unconference“. Edcamps are designed to provide participant-driven professional development for K-12 educators. In both cases, instead of one person standing in front of the room talking for an hour, people are encouraged to have discussions and hands-on sessions. All of the space and time are reserved for the things people want to talk about.


Twitter Chat

A Twitter or Tweet Chat is a planned “chat” on Twitter that organizes a group of people with similar interests in a particular subject matter. The host of the chat is the person that arranges and promotes it to their followers by picking a regularly scheduled time for the chat to happen. Teachers that are looking for specific resources can find them fast. Sign up with your own handle and find hashtags to follow like #edchat, #edtechchat, #tlap, and #plearnchat.

#plearnchat is our Twitter chat we host every other Monday at 7pm ET, 4pm PT. Join us!



These are just a few strategies that teachers can use to take control of their own learning. Learning is personal and teachers are learners too. Check out what Vicki Davis wrote about 12 Choices to Help You Step Back from Burnout if you find yourself feeling a little blue.

Learning Forward. Professional Learning Plans.

This post was first published in OnCUE  Spring 2015 Vol 37 No 1 p. 23 and 26


We are not there yet

After attending conferences and reading numerous articles that focus on personalized learning, I just have to say it. We’re not there yet. Some of us are, but the focus keeps moving back to traditional teaching methods. There is also much focus on companies that boast about their technology that personalizes learning. I’m having an uneasy feeling that the rhetoric is really confusing people, and sounds too good to be true. Are these methods and programs doing what they’re supposed to be doing? Are we talking a good talk when we say all the right things but then continue with the status quo? Or are some taking a good idea and framing it one way but actually implementing personalized learning  for the wrong reasons?

Why am I saying this? Because to do it right, we have to transform the whole system. There are educators that jump in head first, take risks, turn the learning over to their kids who become expert learners responsible for their learning. Teachers share their successes. We share their stories. It’s great and the kids win. The teachers win. The school community wins. Then we hear from these same teachers stories of these kids moving to the next grade (the system may not be competency-based nor have all teachers adopting personalized learning) where they may go back to a traditional system with grades, tests, etc.

It’s just not fair to do this to our kids. We give them opportunities to celebrate their successes, let them take risks, maybe fail and learn from mistakes, unlearn and learn again. Then when they move to another teacher or grade level, we take their voice and choice all away. I hear kids say “I just do what I have to do in school so I can get out.” or this: “I just want to pass the tests.” Oh my!!!

Grant Lichtman’s article Take aim at innovation with students at the center is what made me think about all of this. He mentioned that technology is not innovation and stated, “As a group, schools are still mired in the mindset that technology is the innovation, not that it is a tool embedded in innovation.” Lichtman also says  – it’s about flipping the learning to what he calls it Flip 2.0 – turning the learning over to the kids. This is different than flipping the classroom. This got me thinking that it is not just the confusion about how to personalize learning. it is about coming up with a shared understanding of what personalized learning is.

Then there are districts that start in high school but they don’t take the time to plan or involve the kids. It’s about time to ask our kids several questions:

  • What is working and what is not working for you in school?
  • What advice would you give your teachers about how to teach you?
  • What do you need so you can learn?
  • How would you design school?


Personalizing learning means the learner owns and drives their learning. It means the teacher plays the role of facilitator and advisor. They become a partner in learning with their kids. Think about the current system. Personalizing learning turns everything upside down. Teachers don’t know how to do this. They need help. All of us need to work together on this. Actually most of us experienced learning in traditional teacher-directed classrooms. In fact, during the last 10 to 12 years, the focus has been mostly on creating prescriptive curriculum that teaches to the test. We didn’t involve the kids. We didn’t ask them what they wanted. It’s time to change that.


Update about this site:

Make Learning Personal BookI’ve been focusing on making learning personal for years and am co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC with Kathleen McClaskey since 2012. I keep this site,, so I can share from my own view what is happening with learning, to learners and teachers, and how the system needs to change. Everything I do with personalizing learning now is with Kathleen. Two heads are better than one and I have learned so much from her. We co-authored Make Learning Personal, published October, 2014 by Corwin Press and, yes, I highly recommend it if you want to make learning personal. Just had to say that :o)

So why am I writing this here? It’s because I want to keep this site so I can do a little of my own ranting. I need my readers to go to our website, Personalize Learning to get the latest information and resources about personalized learning. All of the latest charts, resources, and even my services around personalized learning are on the Personalize Learning website.


Seeing the You in You

Sarah sings “Let it Go” her way sharing what it is like to live with autism. All of us need to tell our own stories. We need to be able to see the person first not the disability or challenge.We need to change our education system so each of us become the best we can be.

Read more

This Time It's Personal and Dangerous

2013 has been an interesting year. Education is being juggled more than ever between pedagogy and corporate control AND it is personal — for you — for me — for our children. The marketing strategy of adaptive learning systems is that of 24/7 services that you can access at any time, in any place and at any pace. Education has adopted this language to reduce costs with business-like customization and streamlined productivity. The expectation is for a flexible education system that will also be more efficient and cost effective. Rebirth of the Teaching Machine Through the Seduction of Data Analytics: This Time It’s Personal by Phil McRae]

“The adaptive learning system crusade in schools is organized, growing in power and well-funded by venture capitalists and corporations. Many companies are looking to profit from student and teacher data that can be easily collected, stored, processed, customized, analyzed, and then ultimately resold”.

There’s money in it, but not for the right reasons nor for the right people: our children. I read this research by Phil McRae and it all made sense. This time it is personal. Corporations are taking our educational system, shaking it up and spitting out children who cannot think for themselves. They are calling it cost-effective but actually, adaptive learning systems are more costly than we know. It is all about the data this time. This is so dangerous for our society that I have to speak up and hope you speak up about this also. We need to fight for our children and their future and their data.

Framing adaptive learning systems as “personalized learning” has to stop.  This image “At School in the Year 2000” – a futuristic image of learning as depicted on a postcard from the World’s Fair in Paris, Circa 1899 predicting what learning will be like in France in the year 2000. It is scary that this depiction is becoming true in the US and other parts of the world because we are being sold a bill of goods. Corporations and politicians are really good at framing what they believe we want to hear around a philosophy or concept that markets something they want to sell or use.

Teaching Machine

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons The idea of children having their own personal choice how they will learn is being redesigned as increasingly data driven, standardized, and mechanized learning systems. Children should not be treated like automated teller machines or credit reward cards where  companies can take their valuable data. It is all about control and saving money. But who’s money? Yes, technology can help personalize learning, but what technology and how? And who’s data?

Let’s be real: adaptive learning systems are for those things that can be easily digitized and tested like math problems and reading passages. They do not recognize or encourage high quality learning environments that are creative, inquiry-based, active, relevant, collaborative, and what our children need to be global citizens who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

We did this before. McRae reviews the history of using technology to control learning. It was all about feeding information to kids and controlling what they learned. B.F. Skinner did this in the 1950s where learning was about measurability, uniformity, and control of the student.

I grew up then and remember having problems understanding some concepts. That was mainly because everyone in the class was supposed to learn the same content at the same pace — too much content — too fast for most of us. I was provided an “intelligent tutor” outside of the classroom and sat in front of a screen answering multiple choice questions about what I read. I felt stupid and ashamed. It still didn’t make sense, but the teacher didn’t have extra time to spend with students falling behind.

I know I’m smart, but I felt stupid in many of my classes. If I went through that then, how many others felt like me? I wanted to give up, but one teacher and my parents believed in me. They spent time with me figuring out why I didn’t get it. That’s all I wanted — time with a real person who cared. We didn’t have all the technology then that we have now or I would have googled it and figured it out by myself. The problem with the technology then was that it wasn’t personal for me. It was the same worksheet I didn’t understand in the first place now on a screen.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) became the next big thing. Programs like PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations)and Computer Curriculum Corporation (CCC) were building labs for schools for large numbers of at-risk children paid with Title I money and categorical funds. I remember these because I was asked as technology coordinator and professional developer to help set them up. Schools put these labs in any area that would fit. Some high poverty schools had them set up next to heaters and most were managed by a parent or para-professional. Teachers would rotate their classes in and out every week. Kids were so excited at first to play the games that supposedly taught concepts they needed to learn.

After about six months, kids got bored with the games and clicked on any keys just to get through the games. There was nothing relevant or made sense for them to be there. Kids are so much smarter than we give them credit. When they were in their classes, they felt like they could maybe ask questions about their learning. But, in the lab, there was no one or no way to question what or if that was the one right answer. After a few years, the labs were dismantled or used for other purposes. But all the money was gone so there was no one left to run the labs or train the teachers. <p> CAI is now back as “adaptive learning systems.” Some of the old programs have been repurposed with more interactivity. McRae states it as “adaptive learning systems still promote the notion of the isolated individual, in front of a technology platform, being delivered concrete and sequential content for mastery. However, the re-branding is that of personalization (individual), flexible and customized (technology platform) delivering 21st century competencies (content).” [Source: McRae’s research]

CCC’s SuccessMaker is now Pearson’s adaptive learning system. Other adaptive systems have repurposed content but they still promote building mastery with sequential content. It is similar to the old worksheets repurposed using new technology. Dreambox refers to Skinner’s teaching machine and “adaptive learning as a computer-based and/or online educational system that modifies the presentation of material in response to student performance. Best-of-breed systems capture fine-grained data and use learning analytics to enable human tailoring of responses. The associated learning management systems (LMS) provide comprehensive administration, documentation, tracking and reporting progress, and user management.” [Source:] Source: U.S. Department of Education , Office of Educational Technology, Enhancing Teaching and Learning Through Educational Data Mining and Learning Analytics: An Issue Brief October 2012, page 30

Dreambox is now framing their system as “Intelligent Adaptive Learning” and others are starting to use the term “Intelligent Tutors.” Companies are creating hundreds of white papers and studies to prove that adaptive learning systems benefit our children. Be careful! Read them closely for the messages being delivered. We need to be critical consumers for our children’s sake. McRae writes why we are so seduced for adaptive learning systems:

“First, it is seen as opening up possibilities for greater access to data that can be used to hyper-individualize learning and in turn diagnose the challenges facing entire school systems. Second, the modern teaching machines, and the growing reach and power of technologies, promises to (re)shape students into powerful knowledge workers of the 21st Century.”

As I said in my own situation, all I needed was time and someone who cared and listened to me. Today the technology is at our fingertips and children are using technology at younger and younger ages. We don’t need to spend millions on these systems. Information is available when we need it now. We just need to teach our children how to acquire the skills that help them access, evaluate, and use the information they find. We cannot feed information to children from “Teaching Machines” like what was in the 1899 postcard and what Skinner projected. It didn’t work in the 50s or the 90s. It won’t work now. This is dangerous for our children and our society.

Our children need caring and compassionate classrooms that encourage independent, creative and collaborative work. Technology is changing rapidly. We don’t need to go backwards and plug our children into machines.They will do that on their own but they need guidance in a different way. They need to know what is happening with their data. Schools protect student data, but adaptive learning systems sell the data to third party companies. Consider all the free social media and other programs available that collect data from you. You probably are aware when you sign in to certain programs, they know you and your data. But you might not have known that your child’s data including social security numbers and health concerns are being sold to third parties. This is dangerous! It will get even more dangerous if the government funds it and encourages the use of adaptive learning systems without some oversight.

Teachers need to know how to facilitate a different kind of learning environment that is flexible, personal, and creative. Personalized learning means that learners own and drive their learning not the technology using algorithms based on performance that controls learning. Learners need to learn how to think on their own. This will not happen if adaptive learning systems control how and what they learn. It is personal now! Let’s all work together and do the right thing for our children. Teach them to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Show them that they can drive their learning so they can reach their fullest potential.


Learning that is Personal and Beyond Ourselves

Everything is “personalized” and kids today are so connected more than ever. Will kids be ready for their future?

Read more

Visualizing Learning Spaces

When you think of school, you may think of it as it looked when you went to school. Maybe your kindergarten looked like this…

Picture of Traditional School

In many schools, it still does.

When I see this picture, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. I remember sitting with my hands on my desk forced to keep my mouth shut. The teacher did all the talking. She only called on people who she believed knew the answer. If I answered wrong, I was humiliated. Now I did have some good experiences during my education, but seeing this configuration brings back some of those awful feelings. I even worked in schools where the desks were bolted to the floor. It really is all about control. I know that teachers can only do with what they have, but there are other options for learning spaces.

Reggio Emilia is a learning approach where the environment is the Third Educator. The learning spaces are significant for the learner to learn. There is a flow and adults are observing and chronicling the learning. This approach was started after World War II in the city of Reggio Emilia for preschool and now is being explored for K-12 around the world.

Reggio Emilia Approach

Learning spaces are all about design. What is design as it relates to school? Design encourages creativity and innovation. It helps you shape your ideas and thoughts. If the design is restricting you from moving or exploring, it may also restrict your thinking. At ISTE 2013 in San Antonio this year, I visited Steelcase – an interesting furniture design company for organizations including schools. They have chairs that swivel with spaces to store your backpack — desks that move and link.

Steelcase Design at Northview High School

“A lot of times now, I am grabbing a chair and becoming a part of the groups, which has changed how I do things.”

Sheri Steelman, Northview High School teacher [source]



Steelcase also had some very cool tables that group and let you connect your iPad or other tablet to a display. Other tables had places to hang small whiteboards with handles and use a slot to stand them up right on the table to continue working. I want that. Just grab and whiteboard and go. If you know me, then you know I definitely would love this…

Steelcase Whiteboards Then they took me over to an area with a couch with round tables and ball chairs. The couch has sound proofing behind it. Cool! Look at the round flip chart pages on the top of the round table that you can pull off and use for brainstorming. The ball chairs moved up and down and were just like the exercise ball I sit on while I work. I want one!!

Steelcase round tables, couch and ball chairs

Chris Edwards, a Year 2 teacher at Chad Varah Primary School Lincoln in the UK.  He shared with us (me and Kathleen McClaskey, co-founder of Personalize Learning) what his classroom looks like as part of “messy learning.”  As a musician, artist, and education technologist, Chris just couldn’t see teaching like he was taught. His kids have iPads and different learning zones to create, design, and engage in the learning process. Check out Chris’ Messy Learning website and watch for more from this innovative educator.

Messy Learning from Chris Edwards

In Sweden, architect Rosan Bosch designed the school to encourage both independent and collaborative work such as group projects and PBL. Even the furniture is meant to get students learning. Bosch says each piece is meant to “aid students in engaging” while working.

Swedish Architect Rosan Bosch

With mobile devices, online courses, and independent study, learning can happen anywhere, anytime, at any pace. Maybe if we visualize schools as learning spaces instead of classrooms, learning is the focus.
  • How would you design school?
  • Would you call this space where learning happens school anymore?
  • What would you call it?
Check out this Ted Talk video “How would you design school” from Graham Brown-Martin