Learner-Centered and Personalization
With today's Frequently Asked Question, we widen out the lens a bit and try to capture one of the broad concepts that frames much of what we do at Wooster School -- learner-centeredness. Then we sharpen the focus to look more specifically at what this means for our teachers and students -- personalization.
What does it mean when teachers and administrators at Wooster School say that the school is “learner-centered,” and that “personalizing” learning for students is our goal?
I want to begin by answering the question with a question, the one which we ask ourselves most often here at Wooster School, “What does this mean for students?”
When I began my career as a teacher, and then school administrator, I got into the habit of asking this question at meetings all the time. Having come out of a career in the Army and then corporate banking, I was initially surprised at how often this question derailed whatever conversation or planning was happening. It usually produced a range of reactions, from confusion, to annoyance, to thoughtful dissonance. Sometimes all three in the same person. Why was I complicating a process that was already quite difficult -- schooling -- by questioning the core assumptions upon which it was built? Hadn’t we always come up with solutions that could be stretched to fit everyone? Sometimes I would hear this woefully misguided statement from career educators: “This doesn’t have anything to do with students.” Huh? It was interesting, and disconcerting, how often school folks allowed themselves to drift from, or completely ignore, the primary purpose of our enterprise -- students and their learning.
Over the ensuing twenty years, this focus on students and their learning became my raison d’etre. I was always the guy pushing this thinking at work and leading in that direction. I was also on a personal journey to learn as much as I possibly could about how people learned, and how this complicated process played out in schools, or not. As I write to you today, that journey continues. Today’s response is mostly about how we are answering that question every day for students here at Wooster School. It won’t be comprehensive, because people and their learning are incredibly complex, but it might help you to better understand the “big picture” here at Wooster, so to speak.
I’ll start with a quote from my 2018-19 Head of School Goals document. You won’t be surprised to learn that I work closely with the Board of Trustees every year on what our vision is for the school, and how my goals for the year are reflective of that vision, and my own personal journey as a learner. As Head Learner, I should be one model, among many, of how we are trying to teach our students to learn. Here it is:
“At Wooster, we continue to be engaged in the difficult work of shaping ourselves into the kind of school that does not yet fully exist -- fully-personalized to address the needs of individual students, yet holding on to important community-based traditions. A school that is always innovative and steeped in an understanding of brain science and best practices for learning, while remaining fiercely true to our belief that the best learning and growth can occur only in the presence of strong relationships between teachers and learners.”
Only a learner-centered school can realize this vision. But what does learner-centered mean? Broadly, it means from the Board of Trustees on down, whenever we are considering a new policy, program, or any kind of expenditure (money, time, other resources), we begin and end the conversation by asking ourselves, “how will this decision impact the learning of our students?” Schools that are learner-centered acknowledge that our understanding of WHAT is most important for students to learn has to continue evolving with the rest of the world, and that there is more to learn each day about HOW people learn.
Many other schools don’t talk much about WHAT is most important to learn because they accept that for the most part, that was decided a long time ago. They also don’t talk too much about changing HOW students are learning in their school because that would mean that every teacher has to become a learner as well, and that students and parents would have to get used to a more fluid system, one which evolves as new knowledge, methodologies, and technology emerge to improve learning. For most, this sounds like a lot of work and trouble -- because it is! These schools are more “teacher-centered” in that the individual teacher is at the center of each classroom, dispensing the knowledge and teaching the skills, while also owning most of what actually gets taught. As a result, decision-making around change in these schools is often focused on what the effect on teachers would be, rather than the effect on students.
A teacher-centric paradigm is not at all uncommon, and in fact, is still the norm in most schools. The people who work in teacher-centric schools are not bad people -- many are incredibly hard working, gifted teachers who want what’s best for kids -- they are just stuck in the same system in which we all grew up, as did our parents, and grandparents, etc. At Wooster, while we’ve always valued strong relationships between teachers and students and have used those to good effect in the classroom, we were previously more teacher-centric in that much of the decision-making revolved around what was best for teachers. We were also teacher-centric in the sense that each discipline -- math, English, science, etc. -- and each grade level, owned their own skills and knowledge. Our curriculum was loosely aligned in a traditional sense, but we had not yet created the opportunity for teachers to collaborate at a deeper level about the “what and how” of student learning.
So, the first step in Wooster becoming more learner-centered, was creating the time and resources for our teachers and leaders to become stronger learners themselves. Hence our work with developing teacher facilitators and collaborative working groups centered on the concepts in the book Making Thinking Visible. Our goal now is always to support and foster teacher curiosity about how to take the learning in their learning environments to the next level, and to encourage them to test new ideas and methodologies. If we were a start-up company, we’d call this “iterating.” This also means finding teachers who are incredibly hard-working, inspiring to students, and excited about teaching and relationship-building. We have continued to become more learner-centered at Wooster School every year, exploring books like Make It Stick, Visible Learning for Teachers, and The End of Average, devouring countless articles, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, and most importantly, continuing to push each other and our ideas through collaboration.
Most importantly, we intentionally and relentlessly incorporate what we’ve learned into our vision for the school, and the day-to-day practices in our learning spaces. We are not just talking about being learner-centered, we are living what that means! Our progress is evident in our Parent, Student, Teacher conferences, the Deep Learning Initiative, our evolving Humanities Program, Conceptual Physics, the Catapult Project, Days of Reflection, and many of the methodologies employed in our learning environment, like thinking routines, reflection, journaling, opportunities to continue working on assessments with no penalty, fewer and smarter homework assignments and many other practices aligned with sciences of the brain and learning. To be clear, this work never ends, nor should it. We are always a work in progress.
Personalizing Within the Learner-Centered Environment
So if Wooster aspires to always be a learner-centered school, with teacher learners who are laser-focused on student learning, it follows that when a Wooster teacher looks out at the faces in her class, she/he understands that each individual is coming to the learning experience with different sets of existing skills, dispositions, and knowledge AND each is likely to learn differently depending upon what is being asked of her/him (we call this “jaggedness,” a phrase popularized by Todd Rose in The End of Average). If you have more than one kid at home, look at them during dinner tonight and think about how different their learning experiences have been, and how, over time, you parent them differently. You’ll know what I am talking about.
We also have to believe that each individual exists within a particular context -- family, socio-economic status, life experience, what she/he had for breakfast, or not -- and that context impacts learning. Finally, we have to believe that people learn better when they have some choice in how they are being asked to learn. When students have some choice in their learning pathway, earned through demonstrated actions (what we call “agency”) and independence, they’ll do more. So, within the context of any learning, how can we give kids alternative pathways which, though different, all lead to mastery of the same skills, dispositions, and knowledge that we use to define success along our continuum?
So, true personalization of learning for students requires that we first understand where our students are in their learning relative to a well-articulated set of learning goals for all students within each discipline and across grade levels. The design of these goals, which we now call competencies, requires intense collaboration among our teachers, and ultimately, agreement about what is required within the academic disciplines. This is the work that we are now doing together. Put differently we are mapping the skills, dispositions, and knowledge that students must demonstrate mastery of if they are then to progress to the next level. I will write more in a later missive about the nuts and bolts of how we are personalizing the experience of how students progress toward mastery of the competencies, but suffice it to say it requires many of the practices with which we all are familiar -- reading, writing, lecture, quizzes, tests, etc. -- along with a higher level of independence and more focus on the development of student agency at developmentally appropriate levels. One overarching goal is for students to be able to “transfer” knowledge -- which is “eduspeak” for: Can use what you’ve learned to actually do something? (not just tell us what you learned). If one can transfer learning, it takes on greater meaning and is more likely to stick.
Once we have this framework of competencies built (all of our departments are currently working on this), we can then begin to integrate higher levels of personalization into our learning environments. This happens over time within the context of grade levels, and classes, and even units within those classes. Another key facet of competency-based learning is that until you demonstrate your mastery, you can’t move on to the next set of competencies. In other words, you can’t just take a 2 or 3 and move on to new learning when you have not actually demonstrated your mastery of the current learning. Look for another note from me in the future on how personalization also changes our thinking about assessment and our traditional system of assigning grades to students’ work and progress.
Talk of personalization often leads the uninitiated to conjure up visions of chaos: students left completely to their own devices (figuratively, and these days, literally); each individual deciding, without guidance or a plan, what they want to learn and when they want to learn it; teachers rendered powerless or replaced by a computer; and ultimately, no one really learning anything. At Wooster School, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The irony is that a well-designed learner-centered environment in which learning is personalized for students requires far more structure, more talented teachers, and operates at a level of complexity which makes traditional classrooms look, well, kind of primitive. Each teacher needs a highly articulated plan, and the tools, often in the form of technology, to help collect and provide feedback on learning to make it work, both of which are things that we have been working like crazy to develop. In the end, however, only the teacher -- in the presence of the student -- can make it all work.
You Can’t Do Personalized Learning Without Great Teachers
Even with a better system and more sophisticated tools, personalized learning is not going to happen without those teacher/student relationships that have always been at Wooster’s core. The system and tools are designed to help us better understand students and their learning AND provide more time for teachers to work with individual students and small groups. When the teacher has better data and can provide more personalized feedback (the primary function of the AltSchool platform), and the student better understands the plan for learning (the pathway), the relationship is strengthened and better leveraged, and more progress can be made . When teachers and students get to spend more time together working through problems and sharing ideas, the real magic happens. Another benefit is that there is nowhere to hide in a personalized learning environment. Everyone has to learn, and failure is not an option because you’re going to keep working at it until you get it right. This is where technology can really help, not to replace teachers, but to give them superpowers. More on that in my next missive.
Head of School