Returning to Base Camp: The Next Steps in Personalized Learning

Returning to Base Camp: The Next Steps in Personalized Learning

“What to ourselves in passion we propose
The passion ending,
doth the purpose lose”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

In 1953 Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the peak of Everest. They were the first to successfully climb the mountain and return. Almost 30 years earlier, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine perished near the top of that same peak, and controversy still swirls about if they reached the summit. It doesn’t really matter whether they did; climbing a mountain is all about making it back home.

As a teacher, this metaphor is powerful when considering my adventures this year with personalized learning. As one of Citybridge Foundation’s 2014 Education Innovation Fellows, I have been to California, Detroit and Washington, DC, in search of the best practices in personalized and blended learning. Over the last few weeks and months I have started to incorporate some of those practices into my teaching.

Personalized learning has given me the impetus to change my classroom. It has engaged my students in conversations about their own learning, and how they see their classrooms changing. Student enthusiasm and engagement has increased as a result. A short few months ago, I asked students what they were interested in learning. They responded by asking “what do you want me to learn?” Now the students are active in the process of shaping their learning.

Office 365 encourages student collaboration

Office 365 encourages student collaboration


Personalized learning allows us to use technology to better fulfill each students unique needs. For example, Tania was consistently a behavior issue in my classroom. She sought attention and validation by distracting peers. By using edmodo, a Facebook for education that encourages classroom conversation, Tania was able to communicate with me by private message. I could offer her assistance without the need for to raise her hand. By providing for her needs, her behavior was drastically improved.

However, for all the promise of personalized learning, I have found it hard to maintain enthusiasm. It requires a large amount of support and professional development. If schools don’t support teachers, then personalized learning will not succeed.

Along with concerns about sustainability, I also worry that in my classroom I found that some students raced through material. Their peers could not keep up and this left two disparate groups in my classroom. This had utility, several of the group needed to revisit concepts, but it only worked to increase the gap between students. How do we create a system that addresses student’s prior knowledge without creating a two-tiered system?

To me the answers lie in not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can learn much from new approaches, but we need to retain elements of teamwork, group solutions and project learning. We must recognize that our teaching practices already have many strengths related to empathy that cannot be replaced by an algorithm.

These questions and the formulation of a true pedagogy of personalized learning cannot be glossed over or rushed. In our moments of doubt, we learn more than in our fervor. We must realize that no mountain has been climbed till you return to base camp. We are making good progress in the climb, but have a way to go.

Written by James Howes

James Howes

James is a third through fifth grade Science teacher at Horace Mann Elementary School and a 2014 CityBridge-NewSchools Education Innovation Fellow

One comment

  1. An interesting study! I hope personalized learning is encouraged in other schools throughout the country. The disparity of learning between different students is difficult to resolve. I believe that this system of learning does offer a solution in that the faster or more competent student is encouraged to achieve more, while the slower or challenged student is also encouraged by the pace being moderated to his level. This will be beneficial to the student that needs the additional help at this time. That slower student will build confidence and may end up being a star student in the future.

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