Monday, April 28, 2014

Making Sense of Learning

School is supposed to be about how learners are learning, but the conversations do not seem to be focused on “learning.”  The focus tends to be on instruction and performance. Chris Watkins participates in the Campaign for Learning’s ‘Learning to Learn’ project and wrote “Learning: a sense-makers guide”, a publication commissioned by ATL, the union for education professionals across the UK. The idea of starting with the learner is all about learning about learning and noticing how we learn.

Learning can make sense and is similar to how we make sense of other things. We do it gradually through experiences and building knowledge as we go. Talking, thinking, and reflecting about learning are the key factors to understanding. In the sense-makers guide, Watkins writes that there are four teaching practices that can help learners make sense of their learning:

  1. Notice learning
    Getting in the flow is when learners are engaged in the process. You can see them motivated and immersed in the learning. This is a great time to stop the flow. Really! Ask your learners to step back and notice what happened, what we did to make it happen, what the effects were, how it felt, what helped, how learners were persistent in making it happen, and what might they do with the learning. You might even pick up some new language by noticing the learning that just happened.
  2. Have conversations about learning
    Listen to the conversations. You can ask learners to pair or work in groups of three or four and discuss what they noticed in their learning. You can prompt them to reflect on why were doing something that maybe thing might not even know or take for granted. Some questions you can prompt them to ask could be:

    Why we did _____   yesterday?
    Did we find out anything new?
    How can we find out more?
  3. Reflect on your learning
    Reflection is personal and can be in a personal journal or shared in a blog. Reflection helps you notice your learning because you think about it when you write. When you are writing your reflections, new ideas may come to you or you may notice more about your learning you never knew before.
  4. Make learning an object of learning
    You can learn about learning while you are learning about something else. When you have your learners read and experiment to learn something, you can have them notice and reflect on what they learned and how they learned. You could have them reflect on how they handled their feelings during the learning or how they engaged with others as they learned. This is called the cycle of learning.

When you see learners noticing and reflecting on their learning during their learning, that is the Wow of learning. This is the higher-order thinking skills we want our children to adopt: learning about learning and thinking about learning. This makes learning visible. This is what shakes up the classroom dynamics, because when the teacher is lecturing, learners are supposed to be listening. Are they? When you shake up the learning so learning is visible and learners are talking about their learning, the classroom environment is different. This change is the culture shift, the change that learners want now.

Changing culture is big. Now is the time.

Chris Watkins is a researcher at The Institute of Education, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Faculty Member. Chris has been involved in projects with a range of schools on learning about learning, effective learning, classroom learning, teachers' learn and school learning. This work culminates in the idea of classrooms as learning communities. Since 2005, Chris has been an independent consultant and project leader with a range of schools, mainly in the London area, but also way beyond London.  We highly recommend visiting Chris' Academia.u site where he uploads his work.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What do you mean by Personalization?

Guest Post: Elliot Washor, Ed. D. is co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning, the co-founder of The Met Center in Providence, RI, and co-author of Leaving to Learn. 
Personalization and Student Engagement Webinar 4/22/14

This is a cross-post of Elliot's blog post "Are you with me now?" on 2/24/14.

The way educators and business people are now using the terms personalized learning or personalization is really baffling me. There have been loads of articles and books written about how Big Picture Learning (BPL) continues to be at the forefront of innovation because of how well we strive to know our students. In a recent book. Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe by the Innovation Unit a Team of Global Education Leaders' Program (GELP), we are featured as a non-profit organization “providing students with a personalized learning experience driven by their passions and anchored in internships out in the community.”

All week I have been in schools and with organizations that want to work with us because they want to get better at personalizing their schools and knowing their students better but what do people mean by personalization? A recent article in the New Yorker on Amazon by George Packer pointed out that to Amazon personalization means collecting data analytics and statistical probability. 

A group called the Personalization team (P13N) comprised of engineers at Amazon employ algorithms that use customers’ histories to recommend future purchases and in the near future Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon reported that "our packages from Amazonia will soon be delivered by drones." 

So with all of this technology, where is the person and the personal in personalization? I got curious about this question and found out that when Bezos was asked: 
What's the ultimate in personalization? He responded, when “you go into a bar and sit down, and the bartender puts a whiskey in front of you without having to ask what you want." 
For me, this begs the simple question, what if you changed your mind and want something else? How would the bartender know? What a waste of a drink!
"When the information network promises to eliminate any reason to travel or to touch something palpable other than a keyboard or a mouse, we search all the more intensely for the personal and the tactile." Ralph Caplan

The digital technology world, including many in education technology, wants personalization to mean that technologies anticipate what you need next and digitally deliver it on a massive scale to each and every student. As Packer points out, to Amazon engineers all content is mockingly referred to verbage, like garbage. It just doesn’t matter what the content is because to them it is all the same.

Since our beginnings, personalization has been at the core of our work. We strive for schools to be communities where every student is known through their interests, academics and how they are doing socially and emotionally in and outside of school. Here the twist is that the student is known well because, it is the student who tells and the teacher who listens and observes rather than adults who are only telling what they know or suggesting what you need to know.

In this real time environment, there are lots of variables to how, when, what and why a student learns. These variables change all the time and they are hard to measure and hard to predict. The good news is that this keeps all of us engaged and on our toes. Figuring out things is what we are good at as humans. It makes everyone a part of a community that listens. observes and communicates.

Structures in schools — like personalized learning plans that start with each student’s voice, choice and interests where parents, teachers and mentors are involved in understanding and developing the next steps, courses and projects a student will do ‑—need to be part of any learning environment and can become a great digital technology platform. Instead, what we get is a hijacking of words and terms that sound like education is personalized. Sadly, the real practice these words symbolize is missing from far too many schools and most digital platforms.

Much more than a prediction or some standardized pre-formatted lesson plan of what is next for a student, personalized learning is complex and variable where teachers, students, and mentors in the process pay attention to multiple measures and high standards coming from school and the world at-large. This is deeper learning that includes academics, social/emotional, and 21st century skills.

These dual meanings of personalization from the business and education worlds create lots of issues. Algorithms and school brands replace human relationships. Qualitative assessments are cast aside because they take longer to do and are deemed too expensive. But this is precisely what personalizing learning is.

International assessments report that if students are not challenged appropriately or do not have real choices they will become bored and disengaged. And although state and school assessments done appropriately are important, the most powerful forms of assessment are about what matters to the student from people who know them well and their own self-assessments. No algorithm can perform this way. 

We have to decide. Do you want Godfather style personalization? 

It's nothing personal. It's strictly business.

Personalize Learning Webinar Series 
at Classroom 2.0

Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School
Tuesday, November 12 at 5pm ET, 4pm CT, 3pm MT and 2pm PT
using Blackboard Collaborate in this room.
- See more at:
Listen and learn from John H. Clarke, Lauren Parren, Caroline Camara, and Josie Jordan who are the architects of the Pathways Program. Robin Kuhns is an eleventh grade learner at Mt. Abe who will share what personalized learning means to him and his pathways to graduation. - See more at:

Personalize Learning Webinar Series at Classroom 2.0

Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School
Tuesday, November 12 at 5pm ET, 4pm CT, 3pm MT and 2pm PT
using Blackboard Collaborate in this room.
- See more at:

Personalize Learning Webinar Series at Classroom 2.0

Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School
Tuesday, November 12 at 5pm ET, 4pm CT, 3pm MT and 2pm PT
using Blackboard Collaborate in this room.
- See more at:

Personalize Learning Webinar Series at Classroom 2.0

Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School
Tuesday, November 12 at 5pm ET, 4pm CT, 3pm MT and 2pm PT
using Blackboard Collaborate in this room.
- See more at:

Elliot Washor, Ed. D. is the co-founder and co-director of Big Picture Learning in Providence, Rhode Island. He is also the co-founder of The Met Center in Providence, RI.

Elliot has been involved in school reform for more than 35 years as a teacher, principal, administrator, superintendent, video producer, writer and speaker.  He has taught and is interested in all levels of school from kindergarten through college, in urban and rural settings, across all disciplines. His work has spanned across school design, learning environments, practice and authentic assessment.  He is supporting others doing similar work throughout the world.  Elliot’s interests lie in the field of how schools can connect with communities to understand tacit and disciplinary learning both in and outside of school.  

His professional development programs won an “Innovations in State and Local Government Award” from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has been selected has been selected as one of the Daring Dozen– The Twelve Most Daring Educators by the George Lucas Education Foundation.
His dissertation on Innovative Pedagogy and New Facilities won the merit award from DesignShare, the international forum for innovative schools.

His latest book co-written with Charles Mojkowski is Leaving To Learn: How to increase student engagement and reduce the dropout rate. Elliot will be presenting a free webinar in our Personalize Learning webinar series about Leaving to Learn and personalization. 

Elliot lives in sunny San Diego with his wife and dogs.