Saturday, November 13, 2010

Are the students not suited for the learning environment or is the learning environment not suited for the students? How are you personalizing learning?

Consider this scenario...
A young teenage boy is walking through the hallways of a busy high school, textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator in hand.  He momentarily pulls the headphones from his ears in order to talk with a couple of close friends.  They are discussing what time they will meet online tonight to play video games with each other.  After the short conversation, the student puts his earphones back in his ears and pulls his smart phone from his pocket to check how much time remains before the bell will ring to start class.  He notices he has received a text message from a friend so he continues to read the message as he begins walking to class.  As he reaches the entrance to the classroom he is typing a message back.  
The bell rings as he drops his textbook, binder, pencil case and calculator on his desk.  He sits down on his chair, wedging himself into the small seat that is attached to his desk.  He checks to make sure his phone is on 'vibrate' and quickly shoves it into his pocket.  He yanks the earphones from his ears, allowing them to dangle from the collar of his shirt and then reaches into the pocket of his hoodie to switch off his MP3 player.  He turns to see what the excitement is that's coming from the crowd of students sitting in the rows of desks at the other end of the room.  They are watching a classmate post a comment on another student's Facebook wall.  

The teacher approaches the front of the classroom and the room becomes quiet as students focus on the teacher. Today's class is similar to most other days with the teacher providing instruction using a combination of a whiteboard and overhead projector.  Following this, students begin working on an assignment, periodically reading sections of information from their textbook and using their calculators to answer specific questions.  At multiple points during the 80 minute class, students' concentration levels dip and their attention shifts. They converse with classmates, turn to listen to a fellow classmate, daydream about what they will do after school and occasionally they leave the classroom to walk down the hallway to the bathroom.

Recently I had a conversation with a teacher about some students who he was concerned about.  He described them as restless, fidgety, easily distracted, occasionally disruptive and generally disinterested in their learning.  He explained that he is frequently forced to redirect these students to their seats to do their work and even when he does so, the students do not accomplish nearly what they are capable of.  Finally, he said "I just don't think these kids are suited for this environment, sitting in desks, listening to a teacher and working on pen and paper tasks."

As much as I agree that these students are not particularly well suited for their learning environment as it currently exists, I believe the better questions to ask are:  Is the learning environment suitable for these students? And, what changes need to be made to the learning environment and the learning opportunities to make them more suitable for these students?

This has made me reflect on the importance of meeting our students where they are, differentiating our instruction for all learners and personalizing the learning for our students.  There are pockets of innovation occurring in many schools that are personalizing the learning experience for students.  Unfortunately, many of these innovations are tied to specific teachers and quite often these ideas are not shared with the larger educational community.

So, if you are involved in or have witnessed an innovation that is personalizing learning for students, I encourage you to share it with others by commenting on this blog.  Thanks.


  1. Another great post, Aaron!

    The world has changed considerably since the time many of us entered the teaching profession. While students still have some of the same basic needs (relationships with caring adults, safety, challenge), the scenario you describe illustrates how the world where today’s students live is vastly different than the one we started teaching in.

    The call for a more personalized learning is gaining traction. Daniel Pink’s RSA animate – Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us ( points to autonomy (self-direction), mastery (the urge to get better at stuff), and purpose (relevance) leading to better performance and increased engagement in the workplace. Can the same principles be applied to secondary schooling to achieve similar gains in performance and engagement?

    I believe that one “pocket of innovation” is the First Responders Program at Delta Secondary. Upon completion of a rigorous certification program, First Responders use their learning to provide a valuable service to the school community. These students are among the most focused and purposely engaged in the school as they respond to any number health related situations and crisis that can occur over the course of the day. Armed with a cell phone (or pager), first responders are given the “green light” to leave classes, should and when the need arise. They collaborate to build a schedule and meet regularly with their teacher to debrief incidents and for supplemental training. In this program, learning occurs outside the traditional constructs (space and time) of the classroom, and achievement is measured against performance standards - demonstrating what can be accomplished when students are motivated beyond “carrots and sticks.”

    I think it’s a tremendously motivating time to be an educator and I look forward to a growing urgency for changes to traditional models that are not adequately meeting the needs of our current learners. And like you, I’m encouraged by the many examples of excellence in the educational community. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  2. Hi, Grant Frend from Garibaldi Secondary in Maple Ridge here. I think partnership programs and academies are fantastic ways to personalize learning and engage students. At GSS we have an Arts Academy, BCIT Electrician and BCIT Auto Program. All 3 engage students and help keep them motivated to complete academic requirements for graduation. Can I contact someone at DSS about the First Responders Program?