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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. 


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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.”


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.


Curiosity and Learning from Finnish Education

Every child is born curious. You may remember the saying “the world is your oyster.” A child takes that oyster and tries to figure out how to open it. As soon as we can ask questions, we do. We ask why this and why that. The questions are more important than the answers.

The Future Belongs to the Curious from Skillshare on Vimeo.

How do we bring curiosity back to schools?

For so long schools have killed creativity and squashed curiosity. Students are fed information and then tested on it and then labeled from the test results. The system isn’t working and needs to change now.

Finland realized this in the 1980s. They were testing and teaching to prescribed standards by grade level. They realized their system was mediocre and were creating a population of people who did not know how to think on their own. So they changed everything. They threw out the tests and changed teaching so it became the most valued profession. Teachers compete to get into the teaching masters two year program. If they are accepted to become a teacher in Finland, they attend for free — and they work very hard. They then intern in a teaching hospital where they are given a mentor and students as part of a lab. The teacher matters. Students matter and learning is different. Learning is personalized.

From this article from the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal: Finland has taken to better serve all students and educators, including:

  • Improving teacher recruitment and training at colleges of education.

  • Offering a high-quality curriculum with pathways to high-quality vocational training at younger grades.
  • Emphasizing play and the arts in education.

How does Finland bring back curiosity and creativity to learning?

They encourage questions. The teacher allows students to drive their learning. In doing this, the teacher’s role changes. Can this happen in the US? I am seeing pockets of change with charter schools and a teacher here and there. However, we are still working within a system of prescribed curriculum, teaching to the test, and standards at each grade level. It’s amazing that Finland did start over, and it worked, but Finland is as large as the state of Texas. They are a diverse nation with multiple cultures but not like the US. Each state in our nation is different. Each state has their own standards even though most adopted the Common Core Standards.

Changing teaching and learning in the US is going to take lots of time because everyone involved has their own preconceived ideas of what teaching and learning should look like. I am going to keep doing research on how to personalize learning, what personalized learning is, and find models and examples to share with you. I welcome any comments, research, or links to help me on my quest.


Occupy Learning

OccupyA learner is going to find a way to learn what they need to know no matter how much they are tested, scolded, and herded from grade to grade, teacher to teacher. The world is changing. People are changing. I am seeing how more and more learners are finding their own way — to figure out who they are. Some are working through the system to get a degree and maybe find a job that may last a few years. They may retire with a pension, but, in more cases, they will move from job to job and not know if they will ever be able to retire. Many cannot find a job in their field. The system is broken and there’s a whole generation of workers discouraged and wondering why they spent their hard earned money on a degree that doesn’t get them a job or work that is something they are passionate about. A few start their own businesses but being an entrepreneur is something they were not prepared for in school.

Schools were designed around the factory model which has been in place for over 100 years. After years of teaching the same thing to all children — the “one size fits all” model, learners are demanding that their education meets their needs. Each person is unique and different and they are reaching out to get what they need wherever they can find it. Even the theorist John Dewey wrote in 1897:

John Dewey
“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.

How come Dewey knew this that long ago and the teacher still is the expert and the hardest working person in the classroom? Why is it taking so long to change?

There are a lot of factors in place that are impacting how schools are run. US schools are focused on teaching to the test and raising test scores. Textbook companies design curriculum and most teachers teach from the prescriptive script. That’s how they were taught and, basically, it is easier since the tests come from the same sources as the textbooks. Teachers are not supposed to be creative and innovative or take risks with the curriculum. It’s been tested, tried and true according the adoption process. But is it working?

Most textbooks are broken down into separate objectives that work if you are a high-achieving linguistic learner from New York or Texas. Everything is teacher-directed with examples and tips. However, each child is different in each classroom. Each teacher is different also. They may even have a mind of their own, background experiences that they can bring to the topic.

Personalizing learning will help your students do more than increase their scores because they will own their learning and use higher-order thinking skills that they will need to be global citizens and marketable. The world is different and more and more of our children are falling behind. We cannot teach out-dated strategies that will not prepare them for their future. The learner needs guidance to break out of the dependent role and drive their own learning. Students 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.

So I say: Occupy Learning!!
Find a way to learn what you want when you want it. I use social media and curation tools to find resources around topics. I ask and search through my PLN (Personal Learning Network) for new ideas. We’re all learners together. You can find free online courses and webinars and even find a coach to guide you along your learning path. Learn who you are and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Find your passion and go for it. Use whatever works for you. Don’t let anyone stop you from realizing your hopes and dreams.

Hopes and Dreams


Whatever It Takes

“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. Read more about Finnish Education

Finland Schools

“Whatever it takes” should be education’s manifesto everywhere. Every child is unique, special, and gifted. Finland values good teachers, expects them to be highly trained (Master degrees), pays them what they are worth, and provides them ongoing support. Children start school at seven and stay with the same teacher for at least six years. At least 30% of Finnish children may be identified with special needs and are given additional support. All teachers are mentored and coached. No one is allowed to be left behind. So how can we adopt or adapt some of these strategies so schools in the US do “whatever it takes?”

Here’s some ideas to throw around…

    • Study the Finnish model in teacher education programs.

    • Set up weekly study groups (on-site or online) for teachers to discuss this model.
    • Compare and contrast US and Finnish curriculum.
    • Facilitate the design of personal learner profiles for students and teachers.
    • Personalize learning so it is about the learner so they drive their own learning.
    • Be flexible to include all children in learning AND be flexible in how children learn.

Each student is unique. I remember studying Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and thinking how much sense this made. He developed this in 1928 and it is so needed now. In the zone of proximal development, Vygotsky saw the need
for an adult mentor, a guide who could help the learner connect new
information to older ideas and take on new challenges.

It is time for people to think about personalizing learning NOW. It is truly about the learner.


Creativity, Failure and Learning

Science 21st Century Skills

21st Century Skills include three areas of creativity:

  • Think creatively.
  • Work creatively with others.
  • Implement innovations.

The elements for these skills include:

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

Traditional school doesn’t allow for people to take risks and fail. Glenn Wiebe wrote in Are You an Under-taker or a Risk-Taker?

“One of the reasons that we as teachers don’t take risks is our fear of failure. We’re afraid that our state tests scores won’t be good enough or that we’ll look silly in front of kids or that the technology won’t work or that we’ll get calls from parents or…

But we also know that failure is often a prerequisite to success. Teachers take risks because they understand that screwing up is not necessarily a bad thing. Risk-taking involves possible failure. If it didn’t, it would be called Sure Thing-taking.”

Standardized TestNothing in life is a sure thing-taking. That is except the answers on a standardized test. Life is not a standardized test or we would have everything labelled A, B, C, or D. Today is so different than yesterday. Look at the economy. Who knows what’s going to happen with the stockmarket? Look at jobs and unemployment. What type of jobs will be available for us in the future? Many jobs we used to offer are no longer an option. Because of that higher ed is changing or needs to change. So why am I talking about failure?

For hundreds of years, people were preparing for factory jobs. That’s why schools were set up in that model. They needed to know how to follow orders and not question. Failure was NOT an option. Candidates for most jobs now need critical thinking skills and to stand out of the crowd. They need to be remarkable. The only way you can be different is to take risks, fail, and come up with new ideas. You also need to build up a network of people you can ask because the world is changing so fast. You won’t find the answer in a book. You may not even find the answer online. You will need to know how to collaborate and work together as a team. Each of the team members will bounce ideas off of the other members of the team; some ideas work, some don’t. You learn from things that don’t work.

Thomas Edison with Light Bulb

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
― Thomas A. Edison

We want our kids to be inventors, thinkers, team players, and innovators. The only way to do that is to create a learning environment that encourages failure or new ways that won’t work. I believe the secret to success is failure. We need to create an environment that challenges students so they struggle with unfamiliar or difficult information. Why make it easy for someone to learn? Why is it that teachers are working harder now than ever? The students need to be the hardest working people in the room and challenged so they are excited about the topic.

When you look at children playing a game that challenges them in a good way, they are motivated. They don’t win right away. They get feedback right away. What is the fun in winning right away or all the time. The fun is in challenging themselves beyond what they know. I know myself and how I am writing and taking risks to write down new thoughts. I learn from you. I learn from others. I don’t have to have the right answers all the time. That’s what learning is all about. Challenging yourself to change; trying new things and failing and trying again.

National STEM ChallengeHere’s a new challenge: The 2012 National STEM Video Game Challenge that opened today is a multi-year competition whose goal is to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games. Go ahead and show your students this challenge. It is open to multiple ages. They have until March 2012. Have them experiment, fail, and come up with something amazing. They will learn so much.


Immerse Yourself in Video

A new iPad app just came out, Condition ONE, that lets you change the perspective of what you are seeing in the video. You can physically control the camera’s perspective in the video by moving the events on the iPad as if you are holding the camera. This is just the beginning of what we will be seeing in the future how you will be able to make your virtual experience with technology more personal.

Condition ONE Demo from Danfung Dennis on Vimeo.

Condition ONE was created by photojournalist Danfung Dennis and his partners as a way to make more immersive documentaries, but the format has the potential to work for any topic or subject that is enhanced by a feeling of immersion (sports, live music, education). The app turns specially encoded video into a virtual reality experience, where the iPad becomes your window into the video that you are watching. Using the iPad’s gyroscope, as you twist your body the viewing window follows with you as if you were in control of the video’s camera. Want to see where that action is coming from? Just turn your body (with the iPad) and look.

How do you see this as an app in education?

Download Condition ONE here.


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?


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.


Rethinking 21st Century Skills

Most schools today are not able to make the necessary changes they need to make to be a 21st Century school. It’s not just about technology, teaching, and learning.

Here’s what I see:

    • Schools putting in wifi and maybe enough bandwidth for one device per user.

    • Training teachers on the specific devices and software with a few examples for the classroom.
    • A few schools going 1:1 at school. Very few school-home connections.
    • Very little community and parent involvement at the school.
    • Most funding for 1:1 is soft money with little available for ongoing support.
    • Top down mandates and decisions about types of technology allowed.
    • Firewalls and blocking software that do not give access to most Web 2.0 tools and social media.
    • Focus on increasing student achievement (i.e. raising test scores).
    • Lots of talk about student-centered learning with only pockets of best practices.
    • Cuts in arts, physical education, counseling, libraries, and technology.
    • In-flexible curriculum where students have no say in their interests or passions.
    • No emphasis on the skills and values employers are looking for in their employees. See post.
    • Most educational conferences still focus on testing, technology, and status quo and not on real change in the classroom. Talking about the future is sexy but teachers don’t think it’s doable in their classroom.
    • Teacher education programs are subject-specific silos and tenure-driven organizations. [source]
    • Collaborative planning time, if there is any, is mostly used for lesson plans tied to textbooks and tests.

Change is difficult. Everything is changing around us. Our children are not prepared for today. Just ask your neighbors who have their children who graduated from college who are not able to find work. This is a national crisis. Media and politicians point fingers at schools and teachers as the problems. This is not right. Everything is changing. All of us need to pull together and look at how society is changing. It is all children we are putting at-risk now. Teachers need to be valued instead of blamed for all the ills of society.

I work with public and private schools — high poverty and wealthy schools around the country. Change is slow no matter what type of school.

High poverty schools keep trying different strategies. One year it’s the technology. Another year it’s professional learning communities. After that, something else. The problem with high poverty schools is bigger than one thing. Teacher retention is an issue. Social issues in that community play a big factor. Families in crisis is such a big issue that children get lost in the system. They come to school barely able to function. Teachers can only do so much. Class sizes are too large and many teachers are inexperienced to deal with many of the issues they children face.

With wealthy schools, the test scores tend to be high so parents and teachers don’t see a need to make changes. In fact, there is a concern about taking some risks then seeing scores fall. The issue for these schools is not academic achievement, it’s more of a social issue. The students from wealthier schools have issues they are not talking about: drugs, eating disorders, pregnancies, depression, wrong career choices, children graduating and not finding jobs, etc.

Nothing will happen if the school or district doesn’t support change and talk about the real problems at hand.

Science Leadership AcademyI am looking for schools that really want to make change and address the real issues that are happening with their students, teachers, and the school community. I know a few making some amazing strides where students shine and show entrepreneurial skills like the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Duke School in Durham, North Carolina where the university, teachers and students design innovative curriculum together.

I’m going to look for examples, interview people, rant, yell, shake up some systems. It’s all about our kids now. I challenge myself, you, and all of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s time to plan and develop a vision for local communities so their students can be global citizens of the 21st century.

Are you ready?