A Personal Journey in Personalization



We in education were slow to face the realities of a digital world; it could have been the cost of going to scale with digital devices in classrooms and schools and districts that bogged us down. Perhaps it was a focus on tools rather than students that lessened our collective desire to link up to hyperspace. Whatever the reason we, in education, were slow and now are once again running to catch up with the increasingly shrinking world.  The question now mumbled across staff meeting is not what does it look like to have a class filled with both kids and computers; but how do we make this shift meaningful?

Personalized, problem or project based learning, and flipped instruction are all over the media, Those same pop stars of educational jargon are added to those same mumbling staff meetings; Along with the classically ambiguous terms like “paradigm shift”, “best practice”, and “standards based”.

I don’t mind the jargon, every profession has it, but the attempts to clarify new paths with new terms or ideas can and must fall short of offering complete understanding. When I am asked how to use all this technology to offer our student more than what they already have, rather than simply a shinier version of it. The response needs to come with real world (real classroom) examples and absent new unfamiliar terminology.




Technology offers a host of tools to both the teacher and the student so that they can frame the learning of the standards around their own interests or passions.  For example, A fifth grade student that has not written a paragraph all year recently accepted a challenge from me to a Star Wars trivia contest via email.  After half an hour of research and study, I was sent a long rambling email explaining midichlorian and the childhood of Anakin Skywalker.

The student did not magically make the ELA writing standard.  But she was engaged in real research and writing for the first time this year.

She is now spending lunch recesses talking about why all the Sith lords have names that foreshadow their fate.

I am not a Star Wars geek, nor am I going to become one, but the tools in front of us offer the power to tap into my student’s passions with nothing more than 20 minutes of research. And, much more importantly, my student is now writing! And talking about foreshadowing!




The funny thing is that Deeper learning looks a lot like what the best teachers have been doing for the last… forever.  The teacher in high school that made us understand Shakespeare not just read it.  The math teacher that made you think rather than just calculate.  The ones that asked questions that didn’t even have right answers.  Those teachers where making you think deeper.  The shallow answers can now be found on Google, the deeper ones can’t.

Working with a third grade class on the book One Crazy Summer a student explains the book to me like this. “This group called Black Panthers, but not like the Avengers guy. They are like all crazy and scary but, they not really… well, they kinda are, but kinda not too, and that what the book is about… it’s about kinda, and how we need to think about that.”

I am not clear if that student knows the Black Panthers were real, and as a history buff that nags at me. While that is not an unimportant detail that we will have to address, The deeper learning, however, is that they are now pondering “kinda” in profound ways.




Our world is now flatter, faster, and fuller, than it has ever been. It is in no way easier. As long as our job is to improve the human mind, we should expect to be overwhelmed and assume the challenge is beyond an individual person’s ability.  What this techno color digital world offers is more than one person’s ability.

This week, I sat with a class as they Skyped with a Robotic Engineer. Before that video conference, those students did not know that was a job.  He creates far more questions than he answered, both during and after the call. We saw math being used in ways not discussed in out texts and real world problem solving in the real world.

As a teacher, I could not be more grateful for the extra work he created for us.


Too many years spent in public education has made me leery of both jargon and bandwagons. And Personalized Learning has plenty of the first and elements of the second.  On the other hand, for the first time in my “too many years” I see the foreshadowing of a path to the kind of teaching I dreamed of doing back in college, when I dreamt of engaging kids in their own learning, by cleverly crafting lessons that connected kids to curricula, the real world and each other in powerful ways.  The tech is a big part of that, but it’s not where the power of personalization lies.  The power to change lives still rests in the creative classroom teacher.


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