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Author: Barbara Bray


Stop Hitting Rewind!

Stop RewindingDo you ever feel like we’ve done this before? That’s what it feels like now with all the new educational reform models. We find one thing that works and do it for a few years. Then we don’t have enough data to keep it going so we throw it out and find another new model to try for another few years. Except most of these models are just reworked old models.

How about trying a new way to look at the problem? The main problem is that we are not meeting the needs of most learners. We definitely “left more children behind” now than ever before. [Drop out rate in California is almost 20%]

The only reason to look at past educational models is to choose the pieces that work toward a shared vision of meeting the needs of each learner. Each learner means any age at any time in their life. Schools were designed around age levels to meet the needs of the school, managers and teachers. Every student at that age level was going to be taught the same thing at the same time. Forget customization or individualization. If you were 6 years old, you were supposed to be able to do specific skills and know information by that age. It didn’t matter if in the class you were way ahead of the other students or years behind. The class was set up to handle the Bell curve with so many at the top and so many at the bottom with most everyone else in the middle.

Large Bell Curve
When I saw this, it brought back icky memories of falling in the below average area for math. I wasn’t average in math. It made me feel bad, stupid, wrong. What was wrong with me? I get it now that I was at where I was supposed to be for me.

What if… I was identified as a math learner with some strengths and some weaknesses. As part of a team, I was given an advisor and math coach (another student who knew a little more than me) and we worked together on activities. My advisor guided me to understand the problems and math activities. The advisor learned more by teaching me how to do the math to solve the problem we were given.

Teacher-directed instruction means the teacher uses existing curriculum (for the average student) or spends time adapting the curriculum to meet the needs of all students. Personalized learning starts with the learner. So when you review the learning theories, B.F. Skinner ideas on Operant Conditioning that contributed to Behaviorism to Constructivism (Piaget, Bruner, Papert) that represents generative learning, discovery learning, and situated learning, teacher-centric learning is still in place. (Source: Instructional Development Timeline)

Schools are looking at trying to embed personalized learning into existing systems that focus on Behaviorism and build projects, Constructivism. It may work for that project, but what happens to that classroom? Is it still teacher-centric with a little student voice thrown in here and there? To personalize learning and meet the needs of each learner, how about rethinking if we use Behaviorist theories in a student-centered environment? This may mean we need to completely redesign everything. Now I have to look for examples of learning environments where the students use their voice and choose the best strategies for their learning path.

I’m going to focus on personalized learning, student voice and choice, and to re-evaluate what learner-centered means.


Constructivism vs Connectivism

I believe in connecting and building your Personal Learning Network (PLN). I never really thought about collaboration and Constructivism being in a closed environment. Steven Downes provided a keynote today on Connectivism and Personal Learning.

I see the move to Open Education Resources (OER) where all the content is there, available, free, at your fingertips. Connectivism is a learning theory that

“emphasizes the learner’s ability to navigate information: the pipe is more important than the content within the pipe.” (Siemens, 2005)

Why this is important now is that with social media, OER, and the Internet, knowledge is distributed available anytime anywhere. Constructivism (Papert, Piaget, Vygotsky) interpretted the higher-thinking skills of Bloom’s to encourage making and producing. In Constructivism, the classroom is still teacher-centric with the teacher managing and coordinating projects. I know we call it student-centered, but the teacher is still designing who does what. It’s a beginning. It’s learning to let go.

Personalized Learning starts with the learner and where they are. If we are moving to Connectivism, then the learner is the center of a network of resources, people, ideas, etc. The learner decides what they need with the help of all the other people in their network. The teacher could be one of the nodes that links the connections. I see this happening by the learner – some are ready now – some may never be ready. There are a lot of questions on how to transition to this type of environment. Traditional school is so embedded in teacher-directed instruction. Maybe we’ll use this piece of teaching and that from learning something new.
Maybe the teacher is the coach on the sidelines guiding the learner on their learning path. Instead of standardized tests, the learner is monitoring their progress, collecting evidence of learning, asking for feedback from their PLN.

  • How do you measure achievement?
  • What are you measuring now?
  • How do you design assessment around each learner?
  • When do you start building a learner’s network?
  • What components are in their network?
  • Is there a physical place or places for learning and connecting?
  • Do age and grade levels matter in this environment?

We are moving in this direction. The world is changing, getting smaller and flatter. I have changed since my PLN has grown and become a richer part of my life. I am learning something new almost every day. So if we move to a more Connectivist model, how do we transition and make it work within our current system or do we just start completely over?


What is Personalized Learning?

Personalized Learning is getting a lot of attention along with 21st Century skills as part of the latest education reform movement. Individualizing and customizing learning isn’t new. We have been differentiating instruction, creating individual learning plans and IEPs for years. Yet, these are different than personalized learning where the focus is all on the learner. Learning is tailored to the individual needs of each learner instead of by age or grade level. It is more than just moving to student-centered learning and changing instruction.

So why Personalized Learning Now?

Personalized Learning takes a holistic view of the individual, their learning styles, skill levels, interests, strengths and weaknesses, and prior knowledge. Now with the rise of the use of technology, social media, and mobile apps, learners are taking control of what they want to learn when they want to learn it.

Education is changing because it has to. After years of teaching “one size fits all,” learners are demanding to meet their needs. Each person is unique and different. They are leaving traditional school environments for online courses, home schools, and/or dropping out. Schools are closing. Teachers are being laid off. Communities are suffering. Change will happen if learners have anything to say about it.

High Tech HighA personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles. This more than changes the teacher role. It changes the whole learning environment. School doesn’t look like traditional school anymore.

Three examples of personalized learning environments:

I’m going to be interviewing leaders, teachers and students in future posts. If you have some ideas or examples about personalized learning to share, please add a comment or contact me at


There You Go -- Being Ridiculous

If you look back ten years (2001), can you ever imagine people walking around talking into their earpiece? or having a smartphone that does everything? At that time, that would be ridiculous or you would think that the person talking to them self was crazy. You probably would have walked a really wide circle around that person. Now lots of people walk and talk into an earpiece or headset. It’s not ridiculous anymore. Right?

I read this article “IDEO: Big Innovation Lives Right on the Edge of Ridiculous Ideas” and it got me thinking. When you visit Google or Apple or other innovative companies, there’s a lot of chaos, playfulness, laughing, and experimenting. They encourage brainstorming lots of ideas even if they seem crazy. You never know when someone will come up with a new idea or tool or app.

The important thing for schools is what results you get from an environment like this. You give permission to play right from the beginning – early childhood. Play is purposeful. Pre-schoolers play real world games like pretending to drive, being a doctor, and imitating what they see D.Bootcamp at Stanfordfrom the adults in their lives. Look at the d.School at Stanford where they are redesigning spaces, bureaucracy, and executive experiences. If you look at IDEO and why they encourage playing at work, you see a hands-off culture where everyone can create and experiment and try lots of different ideas that push boundaries. Many of these ideas may seem ridiculous to others but someone may come up with something amazing. So can this kind of environment work in schools? I say “Why not?”

Think about your classroom where students are part of your team like a start-up company. Look at some of the IDEO examples and think about you and your kids redesigning the space. Tell them to make it playful. Move things around. I like to have an area for kids to sit on bean bag chairs and another space for pacing or for people to stand up. Who knows what kids will come up with if they get to move when they feel like it. Stop forcing kids to be what they’re not.

Have students look at the curriculum with you and take one topic and have them reinvent it so they own it. Tell them to be creative. Come up with a problem they can solve. Let them be ridiculous. They may design a new app or game. If you just let go, you can personalize learning for each child by letting them explore, discover, play.

I remember one of my teachers would come to school dressed up as a famous historical person. That was ridiculous. I loved it and remember it. Now it’s time for kids to have permission to be creative, playful, and ridiculous.


Student-Centered Learning: Meaningful Work

Project-based learning that is student-centered works if it is meaningful work. According to the article “Seven Essentials for Project-Based learning” on Education Leadership:

A project is meaningful if it fulfills two criteria. First, students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well. Second, a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose. Well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

It doesn’t matter the age of the learner, every learner gets more involved in the process if the task at hand means something to them and there is a purpose for their work. Let’s look at purpose.

  • Teacher one gives an assignment for their students to write a paper. Usually, the student hands the finished paper in to the teacher who then spends the evening reading and grading the papers.

  • Teacher two shares a topic or asks students to find a topic that is meaningful to them and write why it is meaningful. Students generate questions about their topic, come up with an opinion piece, and then share their writing with their peers who provided feedback. They use a rubric to grade each other and themselves.

Which do you find more meaningful and engaging?

Wanting to know more
Students come to school curious about the world. They want to know more. If the teacher can let students pursue their interests and what they are curious about, then the classroom changes. How about the teacher bringing in a photo or local topic like a polluted nearby creek and letting students discuss it? Then they could go to the creek, take pictures, do research about the creek, interview water experts, etc. What they could find out is that they can make a difference somehow. They can research the problem, find out how a polluted creek like this one could impact the environment and life in the creek, get the right people involved to clean up the creek, and even pick up trash around the creek themselves.

What about the standards?
When I work with teachers they are told to meet the standards, follow the pacing guide, and use the textbook. When you are moving to a student-centered classroom, you are slowly changing the way you teach. You can still meet the standards and cover most of the curriculum. Instead of trying to “cover” everything, there may be another way to involve your students as co-designers of their learning.

  • Show your students the standards — right from the beginning. Explain that they will need to meet these standards with the project. Projects also cover multiple disciplines. If you focus on creeks for 4th grade (CA Science – Earth Science – Water), then you are also meeting Investigation and Experimentation, Language Arts > Writing Strategies > Research and Technology) and probably more.

  • Tell them that you need their input as co-designers so their learning is more meaningful to them. Mention that you normally teach the lesson like this but would like to have more of a student voice. Have them review the topic, the standards, and come up with questions based on this information.

    Good driving questions help focus the project
    We are all born curious. Most children want to learn something by first asking a question. “Where does rain come from?” “Why does a hummingbird flap its wings so fast?” The questions lead to more questions. If you think about the creek and pollution, maybe some of the questions might be “how did the creek get polluted?” or “why do people throw their trash in the creek?” or “how does the pollution affect the fish and other life in the creek?”

    A good driving question gets to the heart of the topic or problem. The creek is polluted. Life in the creek is impacted. The environment is affected by the pollution. Sometimes a good driving question is a call to action. “What can we do to stop the pollution in the creek?” The other questions asked before supported this question.

    Students working in groups
    This is the piece that teachers find difficult to manage or coordinate. Do you let students choose their groups or group by topic or do you choose the groups for them?

    The first time you ever do a project-based learning activity, be kind to yourself. First time, you choose the groups. Each group will have roles for each person but you decide on the roles. Let them choose who will do what. Some students will take on multiple roles and help each other. Some may not.

    I’m going to go into more detail in later posts about how to set up groups, designing questions, etc. The main thing I wanted to get across in this post was to focus on meaningful work and purposeful projects. If your students, no matter what age, feel they can make a difference, they are more motivated to learn, to share, to write, and to present.


Student-Centered Learning: Changing Teaching

Teachers come to the classroom with life experiences, their experience as a student, and what they learned about being a teacher. Teachers go into teaching to make a difference. Most of their instruction was teacher-centric. They only know what they know and what their mentor or master teacher presents to them.

Teachers have similar Characteristics of Adult Learners. Teachers come with their own beliefs and opinions, are intrinsically motivated, and just like their students have individual differences. Teachers have so much on their plate. If you add another professional development that is not relevant for them, they tune out, grade papers, and may even leave.

TeachersThe most effective approach is to connect with the teachers and what they teach in their classroom. Teachers learn best in the same ways that most students learn best: actively, drawing from prior knowledge, and in a comfortable environment. [source] This is where I see the power of coaching and working with each teacher or a small group of teachers that teach the same units. Let’s say you were asked to coach grade level teams of teachers to create project-based learning activities and integrate technology.

First Meeting

  • Set up collaborative planning time for the teachers. Work with administration to get subs for the first 1/2 day meeting.

  • Do an assessment to determine how teachers teach and learn currently, topics they would like to expand into a project, and the resources available for projects.
  • Set up a website with links to examples, projects, and resources about PBL and send them the link.
  • Ask a teacher leader or administrator to do an assessment of the teachers determining the stage of concern or how each teacher handles change. <Changing Teaching and Learning: CBAM>
  • When you meet during the first meeting, ask teachers to share “how they teach now” and an example of a lesson.
  • Review the pacing guide/curriculum/standards to choose a topic/lesson to design a project.
  • Share some examples of projects around that topic.
  • Ask them how or what they would like to do to change the lesson. Give them time to work together and share ideas.

If this is the first time they have designed project-based learning activities, they need time to learn. This may even be too much to ask of the teachers, but finding time is always a challenge.

[Photo from Playshop at Mid-Pacific Institute - teacher teams collaborating]


What's your Normal?

I shared a poster this morning on Facebook about being normal.

Some questions arose:


  • what does normal mean to different people?

  • If everyone were the same, would they have the same normal?
  • How do you teach people who have different normals?

Think about your normal, how you were raised, and what seems just “normal” to you. Your normal may be to be quiet, be safe and secure, not take any chances, and enjoy each day. You may like to “smell the roses” and meditate. You’re just happy to wake up each day.

Another person’s normal may be to get up early and take on the world. Their mantra is “to make a difference” every day. To challenge everything and take risks. They rarely take time to sit. Every minute needs to be scheduled.

Is one of these normals you? Is one wrong and the other just perfect?

To personalize learning for each student, we not only need to understand their learning style but their normal. The one thing that is difficult to not do is judge someone’s normal.

  • Can we teach that?

  • Can we teach how to accept people as they are?
  • Can we teach how to be tolerant of people’s differences?

A great addition to our curriculum would be to teach empathy and compassion. Figure out your normal and understand other people’s normal. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.


Innovation Centers for Real-World Learning

I’ve been thinking about the promise of Innovation Centers. These are Community Learning Centers that incorporate K-12 schools, the public library, and a local university and/or community college where learning happens 24/7 with learners of all ages. These centers could be a combination of all of these places and include businesses and non-profits in the area. In some cases, community colleges and senior centers might be involved. In other cases, a preschool might be included in a project. These can also be blended versions where the place is one or all of these sites plus a virtual place to collaborate and learn. I’m going to expand on the virtual place more later.

The idea of an Innovation Center in different parts of the country means that each community can investigate local issues on a global scale. Each Center will include the latest technology and enough bandwidth to handle multiple devices per person. Each Center will be designed by the community to reflect their community. The center is open to all learners but not like a regular school.

One community might address urban gardening and how to feed more people in less space. Another community might address strategies for recycling and reducing trash. All findings will be shared among all Innovation Centers and collaboration will be encouraged.

The goal could be to push the envelope: where learning focuses on real-world projects, problems, and challenges on a global scale. Just imagine identifying a local problem in your area in the US and connect with a school in Africa or Nepal with the same problem. Common problems could be:

  • Lack of clean water

  • Pollution in your area
  • Money managing skills
  • Culture and Community
  • Jobs or Entrpreneurship

Everything will be student-centered and inquiry-based. Teacher roles change. They are co-learners and co-designers with their students and are advisors for a team of learners. As advisors they are with the same learners for several years. Actually the learners are driving the design of the projects and the community. The community is a viable entity that happens anywhere and everywhere. The culture of that community transcends the design of the projects.

Learning will be personalized by personal learner profiles with support from advisors. Each learner and advisor will be encouraged to take risks, question, and use critical-thinking skills to address local problems as collaborative projects. Personal learning goals will meet Common Core Standards and address curriculum requirements of their learning plan. Individuals and teams will meet learning goals as part of each project or re-evaluate the goals as they monitor their progress towards the goal. Each learner will collect evidence of learning in an ePortfolio and share via social media, websites, mobile devices, etc. Or the evidence will be a product, a showcase, an event. This all depends on the designers of the projects — the learners. We may even want to call them something different than learners.

I started thinking about this many years ago and then again recently when I added my idea to the Grand Challenge. If you like this idea, vote here. If you have more ideas for this challenge, please add your comment there and/or here.

I know there are great ideas and innovations out there. It’s all about finding out about them so we can share and learn together.


Prepare Students for the Real-World

“The average age of community college students in Texas is 27 and many have Bachelor’s degrees. Some have Master’s degrees,” quoted Richard Moore, Executive Director of the Texas Community College Teacher Association. There are barriers for older students, because these students attend classes with everyone else who may be much younger and have goals to attend a four year college.

JoAnn Jacobs writes in her article Reinventing higher ed in California in the Community College Spotlight “Currently, more than 70 percent of the state’s college students enroll in underfunded community colleges. Most attend part-time, leading to high attrition rates. Only 18 percent of community college students earn an associate degree. By contrast, 45 percent of California State University students and 90 percent of University of California students complete a bachelor’s degree. Instead of increasing access, Cal State campuses are cutting enrollment to cope with budget cuts, which have forced faculty layoffs and reduced course offerings.”

I don’t think this is a unique situation for California or Texas. JoAnn added, “…In Florida, for example, the experiment is about “training people for real jobs,” says Miami Dade Community College President Eduardo J. Padron, who cited nursing and teaching programs.”

Richard shared with me that there is a Student Success Movement in Texas with several initiatives that fund innovation. The issue which seems universal is that community colleges are separated by community college districts. In Texas, there are 50 districts. Each is a different terrain where they often have an impact on each other. This can affect how community colleges are funded. The terrains are…

  • Policy

  • Geography

    — State by State

    – Region by Region

  • Discipline

    — Academic vs Vocational

    — Within each discipline

I believe the community colleges will be impacted more with the increase in fees and limits on attendance at four year universities. It all comes down to money. Times have changed. I went to a community college before I went to a four year college. It was a great way to transition and get to know what I really wanted to do with my life. Some people are lucky that they know early what they want to do and that career is also one that pays enough for them. I wish I could make it that anyone could go to the school or university they want to to learn anything they want. They can take classes online. There are open source courses available, but until accreditation changes, courses are universally accepted from different colleges, and life and work experience counts, this is going to be a difficult road for many.

I also believe that if…

  • community colleges are able to change the accreditation process, more adults could take advantage of an amazing source of learning.

  • learners can challenge courses where they have life and work experience, this could be a way to move more people to real jobs and provide a revenue source to community colleges. This could also be a source of revenue for four year colleges and maybe even high schools.
  • we pull together as a nation, we need to look at the bigger picture: people need jobs. We need to rethink four year colleges and who can afford liberal arts studies and who has the skills for specific types of real-world jobs. We provide a learning guide with each student that enters college.
  • we start early in middle school to provide a personal learning plan for each student and a personal learning coach to monitor their progress, they won’t get lost in the system or drop out early.
  • we provide a mentor or advisor to each high school student to help them identify their strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, and guide them to choose an appropriate learning path.
  • we offer multiple learning opportunities including online courses along with a learning coach, learners will not feel lost in a system they feel doesn’t care about them.
  • we rethink the Community College system as a stepping stone to the real-world and fund them appropriately, we help our people get back to work.

Learners are all ages now. Everyone is reinventing themselves. We need to rethink our entire educational system.



BYOL means Bring Your Own Laptop. I know I know – acronyms – Why? I’m trying to make a point here. If you have enough resources for each child (BYOL), then you can grow professional learning communities (PLC) with all learners. When you have these communities sprouting up around your district, you build communities of practice (CoP).

Forest Hills Local Schools in Cincinatti, OH launched their laptop program in January 2011. They focused on all 7th grade students who would bring their own computers to school or use the school’s laptops. They decided to start with a pilot program to gather data and learn what works and what didn’t work before they expanded to more grade levels across the district.

Cary HarrodI’ve known Cary Harrod (, the Instructional Technology Specialist, for many years and knew how persistent she was to get a program like this off the ground. I remember her saying to me several years ago, “it’s all about the kids” and “how do we make change when there aren’t enough resources?”

So after I heard that Forest Hills piloted a BYOL project, I interviewed Cary last week. She shared with me how the district proposed a 1:1, where the district would purchase laptops for all students but that it was cost prohibitive for a district of 7,800 students with 6 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 2 high schools. Two years later (April 2010), they wanted the tech team to come up with something different and we decided to go BYOL. The school board and administration supported it and the technology leads researched existing 1:1 programs. They wanted to focus on digital learning that supports student-centered learning pedagogy.
@1st Centurizing Learning

A critical piece was designing a professional development plan that incorporated 21st century learning. They agreed on the importance of personal learning as the first step towards understanding the shifts occurring in education. They wanted to create a “hothouse” where great ideas begin, new methods of learning are shared and communities are rooted.

The structure included:

  • cultivating a professional learning community (Ning, Twitter, Diigo, Skype, f2f meetings)

  • providing for sustained practice and anytime learning (Ning, Twitter, Diigo, Skype)
  • modeling Inquiry Learning
  • providing coaching
  • modeling effective collaboration
  • developing Theoretical & Practical Understanding.

The district, school board, and the 7th grade administrator, Natasha Adams, developed a partnership with teachers, students, and parents to bring everyone on board. Only a small percentage were resistant. In November 2010, the district has a showcase of projects where teachers set up booths and invited parents. They also set up



along with conference style tool workshops after school and on Saturdays. For all families that were included in the BYOL program, there was a mandatory session on the Nuts and Bolts of laptop maintenance and safety. Over 1,000 people attended all of the sessions.

While the professional development began with conversations about the tools, they quickly
began talking about what this will look like in the classroom.

The principal required all teachers to develop their PLN (Personal Learning Network) and read and discussed Tribes by Seth Godin. 40 teachers went through the Partnership for Powerful Learning. Forest Hills TeachersAfter spending a month on how to articulate the move from 20th century to 21st century learning, the teachers brainstormed a list of characteristics of a classroom with good teaching and good learning. They then used the characteristics to transform a 20th century lesson and give it a 21st century bent.

The pilot started with 7th grade with 559 students, 353 brought in a device. There were already 160 laptops available to lend and the rest of the parents provided their children laptops. Now that every 7th grader had a laptop, support at home, and the teachers were ready, they focused on lesson design.

Students used their devices in all subject areas and utilized the many tools available to access, manage and organize information; connect with other students and experts; and create multi-media projects.

Due to the success of the project, the program has expanded, allowing all eighth graders to bring in their own devices. Currently, over 580 students are bringing in their own device. Further expansion will occur in the 2012-2013 school year, when the program moves to grades 9-12 with a possible expansion to the elementary grades in subsequent years.

Link to BYOL
Nagel Middle School, Forest Hills Local Schools