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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.


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.


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


Why I Love Learning

I used to say to my kids that “I love learning” and they would just laugh at me. But I do. I relish each new concept I learn and take apart and roll it around in my brain. I love what I do which is helping teachers develop learning environments that are engaging and full of joy. Maybe what I want is for everyone, teachers and learners, to have that same “love of learning.”

I read AJ Juliani’s post “Why do so many bad students turn out to be great teachers?” and definitely could relate. I was just a s0-so student in high school. Traditional teacher-centered instruction just turned me off. I didn’t see why I had to learn the times of events in history from the most boring teacher I ever had. We had to sit straight with our hands clasped while he talked in a monotone voice. This was 10th grade. Now really!!

He destroyed my curiosity about history. I barely passed his class and felt stupid. Then in 11th grade my eyes were open to World History. I was drawn to want to learn more about the people and the times they were living in. We relived times and events and performed as characters from the past. I never had this experience before where I participated in the learning. I was even given a choice on how I wanted to express myself. This was where I got the bug for learning. I grew up in Maryland in a very nice area not too far from Washington, DC. A great place to grow up. I don’t think my experience with school was that different than others my age.

Barbara and Her Mom, RosalieI’m going to go back where I lost my way — when I was in first grade. This is where I realized I was a “bad” student. My teacher was strict and even punished us with a ruler. She would put people in groups by height, girls or boys, and even by color of hair. So that’s when I lost my confidence. I was the only redhead in the class and sat by myself. Why would she do that? The year got worse and my confidence dropped farther and farther. I felt that I wasn’t very smart so this is how I participated in school all the way to 11th grade until I had that great History teacher. There were a few good teachers here and there and my parents always believed in me. My mom was an artist who taught me to think outside the box and draw outside the lines. That was never allowed in my 1st grade class.  I loved learning before I started school, but school made me feel like I couldn’t learn.

After I graduated High School (barely), I moved to California and went to community college. I felt free. I felt like me. I was told when I was younger that I can’t write. But I can. I love to write. I wrote some poems for my English teacher and he asked me to read them in the quad. Everyone gave me great feedback. Then he helped me enter one of my poems in a contest. I won first prize. Then I took Anatomy and Physiology from an amazing teacher who made me want to learn everything about the body. I couldn’t wait to go to his class. Then I took Humanities and Art History. I loved this. All of it. I wanted more and more.

I realized and believe now that I am smart in my own way. I love to write and read and learn. I wish and hope all children never lose that love of learning, the curiosity they were born with, and the opportunities to be creative. This is why I see the importance of making learning personal for each and every learner.

I love learning. Do you?


Reflections on Change and Learning

I find myself in an interesting time in my life. I could retire but I don’t want to. This is an exciting time where all the efforts I’ve taken for years to change education are starting to come together. I can taste it, smell it, and feel it. I’m working with schools around the world and the issue seems to be the same.

There are a few pockets of excellence but we tend to still be embedded and entangled in a system of traditional education. The questions I get from teachers all over the world have the same tone:

  • how do I give students voice and choice when I am accountable for their learning?
  • how do I become a co-designer with students who don’t want to be at school?
  • what if I transform a lesson and it fails?


I can go on but the issue seems to be about trust.

  • Does the administration trust that the teacher will meet all the required curriculum?
  • Does the teacher trust that their students will do the work?
  • Do the students trust the teacher to teach them what they need to know?


I have been thinking about this for a long time. Kathleen McClaskey and I as co-founders of Personalize Learning, LLC were brought together because we needed to be. Both of us were going in similar directions fighting this issue alone. Our mutual friend, Julie Duffield, brought us together several years ago. We created a chart defining what Personalized Learning is and is not in January 2012 and then from all the feedback, we updated the PDI Chart this March 2013. It has changed our lives.

After we created a process with the Stages, we started getting interest from schools, districts, regions, states, and companies. We opened a pandora box. We created an eCourse about the What, Who, Where, Why, and Wow of Personalized Learning and are on our sixth session since February. It is more than exciting. Yesterday was our first session with 34 educators from around the world most from Australia. We are doing several sessions simultaneously. One with Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin. The questions and conversations are the same but they are getting deeper and more reflective.

So that’s why I thought it was time for me to reflect on everything that has happened the last 2 years. All I can say to teachers who venture down this road to turn the learning over to the learner so they own it, thank you! I am in awe at all you are doing. I am amazed when a school system says it’s time to rethink learning and change how we teach and learn. I want to thank Kathleen for sticking with me through this. We are fighting an uphill battle against structures and entities that have been entrenched in a system that is over 150 years old.

We wrote a post Learners NOT Students and the response was overwhelming — most good but a few educators got upset. What we and others are saying shakes up the system. It needs shaking up. My granddaughter is starting kindergarten this year and all I can think is Oh My — she’s so creative and the school will take that away from her. We have to give the learning back to our kids. They need to own it — drive it.

I cannot stop now. We cannot stop now. This is the time for a revolution like Sir Ken Robinson said in the latest Ted Talks Education along with Rita Pierson and others who talk about passion, interests, human interaction. Watch this and then we’ll get this revolution going and finally do it right for our kids.

Watch TED Talks Education on PBS. See more from TED Talks Education.


Driving My Way

Driving Stick ShiftI like to drive. I guess I like the control and know how I drive. I also drive a manual (stick) and love it. I was driving this morning to get to an appointment and realized that there were many cars with only one person (the driver) in the car.  The system rewards you if you carpool, but many of us don’t want to give up control to others especially strangers. I think I might have been one of very few driving a stick. At one point, I was cornered between a large truck and a slow car. I know you can do this with turbo-charged automatic cars, but I was able to downshift and maneuver to another lane easily. I did it safely and made it without causing any problems. Now if I had a passenger with me, they might have lost a little faith in me if I maneuvered like this without explaining what I was doing.

Now why am I saying this? and what does this mean in reference to learning?

When you allow someone else to drive, you are putting your faith in that person that they are a good driver and will protect you. It’s about trust. It is the same thing when you are a passenger on a plane. You trust the pilot to get you to your destination. And the airline will probably not let you fly the plane — :o

Trust is a big part of letting go. As a teacher, you are like driving the car and flying the plane. Your students trust you to get them to their destination — their learning goals or targets or whatever you are required to do.

“I remember sitting in one of my graduate class realizing that I already took the class with a different title. The notes were the same, the required text was the same, the professor was the same — that is, except the title of the course. I raised my hand and asked the professor if this could be the same course we took several quarters ago. He emphatically said “NO!! and please follow the lecture.”

That moment was the turning point for me as an educator and why I wanted to find ways to make learning personal. I quit that masters program and signed up for another. They were all the same. As a professional developer with a little background in coaching and building communities, I was required to take a course on coaching from someone I had coached. The system just wasn’t working for me. If it wasn’t working for me, then maybe it wasn’t working for many others.

What about the classroom today. The teacher is driving and responsible for all the learners in their classroom. They are given the manual and told what to teach. Let’s look at the learner today. They know how to drive their learning. They had to take control or they wouldn’t have walked or talked. They had to take the first step and fall and then get up again. Their parents couldn’t do it for them. The same with every word they learned.  If you get a chance to watch this Ted Talk from Deb Roy about the Birth of a Word, you get it. We are the observers.

His child would eventually learn how to say “water” his way. Why and when did we think we could teach everyone the same thing at the same time? Why is it that someone who can demonstrate mastery of a skill is required to learn that skill or content over again?

Times are changing. Put yourself in the passenger seat of someone’s car that you are not sure how they drive. Do you trust them? Put yourself in a class where you are learning content you already know and the teacher is driving the instruction. Now how do you feel?


Didn't we do this already?

It’s Sunday and a great time to reflect on the last week. All I can say is that it was a whirlwind. Working 12-14 hours every day on Race to the Top proposals, refining our process, talking to different groups about what is and what isn’t personalized learning. The talk always goes back to technology.

It’s not about the technology. It’s about the philosophy you embrace around personalizing learning.

If it’s all about the learner and starting with them, then everything about teaching and learning changes. Technology supports personalizing learning but should not be the focus.

Just putting technology in teachers’ and learners’ hands doesn’t mean they know how to personalize learning. I remember the early days of technology in schools. I believe the late 80s and early 90s, schools built labs called CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction) such as Computer Curriculum Corporation, Success Maker and others.

Old Computer LabAs a technology consultant during those times, I was asked to help build those labs. Most of these labs were built in high poverty schools in rooms that weren’t made for computers. Even the electricity in some of these older buildings couldn’t handle the capacity. They would string together extension cords from other classrooms and hold them in place with duct tape. In some rooms, we had to step over the cord that was 2 feet high. There were some rooms where they moved the computers next to the heaters. Actually, that didn’t matter, because the heaters didn’t work. I needed the work at that time, and that’s where all the money was going. One lab with 50 computers and the software took all the technology budget. There was no money left for training. Only enough to train a paraprofessional who managed the lab. There was no integration with any curriculum in the classrooms.

I observed these labs. Kids loved them in the beginning because it was new, interactive, and included games. They loved the idea of playing in school. The paraprofessionals collected the data and shared with the administration. Scores were going up. The kids rotated through the lab once or twice a week.

But after about six months, kids started talking about how boring it was. One third grade told me that it didn’t matter how he answered the questions so he just hit any key to make it go to the next screen. Scores were at a plateau then dropping. Dropping all over. All the labs. Everywhere. Few years later, the labs were changed. They took off the headphones and brought in technology teachers. Teachers with credentials. Only issue I saw was that they were prep teachers. This meant that there tended to be very little integration of what was happening in the classroom to what was happening in the labs. I know so many of these fantastic computer teachers who did amazing projects. When I was asked to come in, work with the computer teachers, and help integrate technology into the classrooms. Classroom teachers were so busy teaching the curriculum that they didn’t have time or the energy to take the work in the lab and connect it to the classroom. So once again, the work in the labs stood alone and was mostly focused on building isolated technology skills. But there were some amazing computer teachers and librarians who found ways to integrate the skills with projects happening in the classroom.

So now fast forward to today and learning labs to support blended learning rotations. The labs look similar to the CAI of the past and, yes, the scores are improving.

Rocketship Education

But the real learning that is needed seems to be lost. In some of these environments, the student to teacher ratio has increased because the computers “individualize” the student’s learning and they don’t need as many teachers. Maybe that’s how or why schools are looking at this solution — to save money. Based on algorithms and data, teachers keep track of performance and work with individual students to respond to intervention — to increase scores based on standardized tests. This may sound good to some people, however, to prepare our children for the global workforce, they need different skills then they acquire sitting in front of computers like this. It just cannot be about the scores.

The skills needed for today’s jobs include:

  • collaboration and teamwork
  • problem-solving
  • critical-thinking
  • creativity and innovative thinking
  • choosing and using the appropriate resources for a task
  • building a network of learners locally and globally
  • learning how to learn, unlearn, and relearn


Computer labs like the ones some schools are building to blend learning are fitting learning into strict schedules: 20 minutes at one station then move to another station. Real learning doesn’t work that way. We did this already, and it didn’t work. Now we have mobile technology and learning can happen anytime anywhere. Let’s rethink this strategy before we invest millions again into set labs with desktop computers that are just trying to increase scores and use curriculum that adapts to their performance based on algorithms instead of how they learn best.

Personalizing learning needs to be social. It starts with the learner not the technology. Real learning encourages play, creativity, experimenting, taking risks. Learning is supposed to challenge the learner and that cannot happen if they don’t have a stake in it. Learners have a stake in their learning if they have a voice in their learning and are motivated and engaged in the learning. Learners just cannot own and drive their learning when they sit in front of a computer with headphones on clicking through adaptive activities that keep track of their keystrokes.


Reflecting on Reflection

Reflection is a powerful tool. Today I woke up and wondered why I haven’t written a post in so long. I paused, thought about it, and realized my life has been spinning the last two months. Usually the words just come to me, but these past months have me working every minute. I am a co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC with Kathleen McClaskey. We are being written into many Race to the Top applications around the country. My eCoach has been approached to support different groups Communities of Practice, so that is growing at the same time. It’s very exciting, but I need to write about ideas that may not be about the work I do. I love to write. These ideas come to me, and I need to put them down. Even if I am working 20 hours a day, I need to stop, pause, and reflect.

So reflecting on reflection came to me. Actually reflecting means capturing the moment when it happens.  Today is the day for me to capture the moment.  First a quote:

Reflection is what allows us to learn from our experiences: it is an
assessment of where we have been and where we want to go next.
~ Kenneth Wolf

For the last two months, Kathleen and I have been writing every day supporting different RTT-D applications. The last week, we have been bombarded with calls from districts and consortiums of districts wanting our support. We are getting requests from schools and organizations from other countries. Today I need to stop and breathe and reflect. I use Gibb’s Model of Reflection:

Gibbs Model of Reflection

What happened?

Kathleen and I developed a model for personalizing learning over a four year period that meets the requirements of the Race to the Top application. We defined the differences between personalization vs differentiation vs individualization and ended up having Porvir in Brazil create an infographic in Portuguese around our chart that we translated in English. We were hired by Grant Wood AEA in Iowa to talk to their superintendents and now are doing a webinar overview, offering an eCourse and webinar series, and setting up a Community of Practice across the state. That was just the beginning. We are getting requests from all around the country and Mumbai, Singapore, and more.

What am a I thinking and feeling?

I am excited about the interest we are getting. Now about my feelings. I haven’t had time to reflect on everything that is happening so fast. This is good. Pausing. Reflecting. I think I got too excited about the interest and stopped thinking about me and what I love to do — write. This also made me think about kids today and all that is on their plates in school — especially middle and high school kids running from class to class in schools with crazy bell schedules. I need time to reflect. I don’t know how kids do it — starting and stopping thinking– thinking in one subject and then jumping into another subject.

Personalizing learning means creating time to reflect, pause, and have flexible schedules that allow for risk-taking and reflection. There is no time for risk-taking or reflection when you are preparing for a test or writing an application.

What’s good and bad about the experience?


Kathleen and I are revisiting and refining our model and process. It is getting better every day. I am excited about what we are coming up with and know there is still lots more to do. Every school, district, teacher, and learner is unique — there is no cookie-cutter answer to meet the needs of everyone involved.


My feelings are that I’m overwhelmed. Guess that’s the way kids feel daily. I get it. That’s why we are doing what we are doing. School does this same thing to kids that is happening to me right now. Overwhelmed. No time to think about thinking. I say that reflection is very important and needs to be part of every day. Pause. Think. Reflect. Write.

What sense can I make of the situation?

Kathleen and I complement each other. We both bring a lot to the table. I live in California where the education bubble burst some time ago. Professional development budgets crumbled and professional developers fight over the same dollar. I thought this was happening everywhere in the US. Kathleen, who lives in New Hampshire, opened my eyes to what is happening in New Hampshire: competency-based learning in all the high schools and 1:1 iPad schools in the Northeast. We interviewed leaders and transformational teachers and found CESA #1 in Southeastern Wisconsin where Jim Rickabaugh shared how there is co-teaching, learning plans, and learning changing. British Columbia is transforming learning across the province where Dave Truss shared about the Inquiry Hub. So much is happening in other places around the world. Why couldn’t it happen here in my backyard?

It can. It is but in pockets, but not the way I was hoping. Some large corporations are coming in and spouting that they can personalize learning by adapting the curriculum and blending learning with learning labs and algorithms. They can “Personalize” the learning for students. Sorry — but personalizing learning means starting with the learner — changing teacher and learner roles. That’s why we made our chart and had to do what we are doing. We see the importance of knowing how learners learn best using Universal Design for Learning principles which then changes teaching and learning. Motivation — Engagement — Voice. That’s what works. Technology can support this but not be the only thing that personalizes learning.  Whew!!  Pause. Reflect.

What else could I have done?

Take time off every day and pause. I need to stop and reflect every day somehow. When I write, it seems to put everything in perspective for me. I still write my column for CUE, but this site is for me to share my thoughts and findings. I will never go months again without writing something even if it is another reflection about my reflections.

If it arose again, what would I do?

Write on the calendar in big letters: Pause. Reflect today. 

It is important to capture and treasure every moment. This is my learning environment that is personal to me. I forgot that every day I am learning something new. How cool is that?