Learning is a personal experience where, regardless of how people learn, many factors are at play in the process of learning. Because learning is a process and can take time, engaging learners through meaningful and personal experiences help. The term personalized learning has become more prominent in recent years. Personalized learning, or personalization, refers to a teaching approach and educational lens that values connecting with and nurturing learners as whole people. This is a strategy intended to plan for and address the learning needs, interests, goals, and backgrounds of individual students. When I first heard of the term, I quickly discovered and read the book How to Personalize Learning by Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClasky. Their work collectively and, now, individually, has helped to shape key goals for educators in creating a responsive classroom built to meet the needs of all learners in thoughtful and meaningful ways.
After learning more about personalized learning, I understood a systematic way to create a personalized classroom experience. Through my reading and some further research, however, I also discovered that while I work at personalizing the classroom experience for my learners, my projects are not personalized; they are personalizing. As such, I reflected for a long time about the work that I do and the projects that I create. I ended up evolving the description of my BOB approach from personalized to personalizing: Building Outside the Blocks uses personalizing projects to helps students build skill, autonomy, community and connection in minimal class time.
Personalizing means that the framework for each Building Outside the Blocks project includes an invitation for learners to bring who they are and what they love into the project as well as to determine and own what they share, when and how they share it. That sense of agency is a skill that is key in the personalization of learning, yet the onus here is two fold. One is for the teacher to build it, and one for the learner to come. It reminds me of something I once read but cannot yet locate: A poet writes the poem but a reader finishes it. Most often, students do come to the scenario bringing their whole selves into the equation and making each project a special window into the individual. The ideas and information shared by the learners can then be utilized in other scenarios as the class builds a sense of culture based on who is in the room and the students begin to see themselves as part of the learning.
In a world where isolation is pervasive, ways to see and bring learners into the process and experience of learning helps to empower them, gives them ways to voice their voices, and creates meaningful learning experiences. Authentic learning doesn’t have to mean the outside world. Connecting a person to themselves and to each other through cool projects help build a lot of skills, especially those essential personal ones like self awareness and self esteem. Learning content and skill also involves emotions and a sense of identity, and these projects help students explore all of those aspects as they prepare to their products and presentations. When you create ways for students to explore and grapple with who they are, what they love and how they want to share that with their classroom community, everyone benefits.
The personal inquiry that is required when teachers use personalizing projects is profound. So many students have shared the amount of deep thinking and the power of the learning journey they undertake when the work is personalizing. Besides being purposeful, it’s often a way to help learners uncover things about themselves that they may not have known or ever articulated. In sharing their work, students are also sharing a piece of who they are. In a classroom that uses the Building Outside the Blocks Approach, the community is open, caring and fosters the risk taking needed to make the sharing component of BOBs both inviting and liberating. Even those who struggle with presenting to an audience grow more comfortable in their own skin because the sharing is scaffolded over time, and students can experience many BOB projects over a school year. This gives learners the time and space to find and share themselves with their class community, building skills, autonomy and connection.
On the road to personalized learning, giving students personalizing projects entices and encourages learning, one student at a time. A personalized learning model helps students become “self directed expert learners who monitor progress and reflect on learning based on mastery of content and skills,” (From Personalized Learning Chart v3 from Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey). Through personalizing projects, students get to explore who they are, discover different mediums and edtech tools, develop their communication skills and acquire a deep sense of self. Unlike the world where personalization ranges from marketing to gifts, personalizing projects don’t deliver to the individual. Instead, they are an outstretched arm encouraging the recipient to accept the invitation and take it from there. The famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams is, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s amazing how offering a framework like this entices people to build from there.
To learn more about how to personalize learning, refer to How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper by Bray and McClaskey (2016)