Unlike a lot of teachers, I didn’t always want to be one. I spent most of my freshman year of college exploring different avenues before realizing that this was what I wanted to do. However, my goal as a teacher hasn’t changed all that much since I first made that choice in Curtin Hall: Help students see that THEY can make an impact.
Now that I have a few years of “real” teaching under my belt I’ve come to the realization that that’s a lot easier said that done. It is a constant challenge to meet all of the standards you need to be and at the same time make learning meaningful. It isn’t impossible by any means, but it requires time and effort.
In my opinion, having leadership that shares the same vision is the most important of the 10 Key Components of Customized Learning. You can have as many brilliant ideas for your classroom as you want, but if you have someone telling you that you can’t take the risk then its all for naught. I’m thankful that I have that.
What Can We Control?
Among the 10 key components, 5 of these are considered to be teacher-affected. These 5 are our ability to create a culture of student voice and choice, instruction to low order thinking, instruction to higher order thinking, formative feedback, and multiple pathways. Each of these 5 can greatly impact our students’ learning.
- Climate of Student Voice and Choice – It’s imperative for us as teachers to help our students feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. For a true customized learning experience, students need to be able to make choices on their work and feel like their opinion matters. These can be small choices or big choices. Either way, by putting the responsibility on our students they’ll take more ownership and be more engaged with their work.
- Instruction of Low Order Thinking – Low order thinking is the most basic form of our instruction. Basic isn’t a bad thing. This is how our students recall information that they’ve learned. This can be accomplished by using strategies like flash cards, anchor charts, and graphic organizers. To move into higher order, thinking students need to first be able to remember and recall the basic concepts.
- Instruction of Higher Order Thinking – Higher order thinking comes after low order thinking and it is certainly not easy to achieve. It’s what our students do with the facts. The University of Connecticut does a nice job of explaining the importance of critical thinking for our students here. Higher order thinking is more reflective and requires us having our students think more critically about problems that they may face. It is far more open-ended than low order thinking and may not actually have one correct answer. The important thing here is that your students are thinking on their own.
- Formative Feedback – Students stress a lot about how they are doing. Like anyone else, they don’t want to get to the end and realize they made a mistake. By setting aside time to meet with your students you can have really strong authentic conversations. You can get to know what your students are thinking and help clear up any misconceptions. Another great way of providing feedback is using rubrics to give clear expectations. Always let students know exactly what you are going to be grading for!
- Multiple Pathways – It’s not a big secret and it’s bordering on cliché to say that all students learn in different ways. However, learning isn’t one size fits all so we need to keep that in mind. As the teacher, we can share several different strategies to solve one problem and then emphasize the fact that we ended up at the same place. It’s good for students to see that their preferred routes and strategies aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re just different. Some may benefit from small-group settings instead of whole-group settings, projects instead of lectures, or hands on internships instead of reading textbooks. Addressing these various needs can be difficult, but to optimize student learning we must consider these multiple pathways!
This past school year, I worked with a colleague to integrate stronger roots of PBL in our classrooms. She wrote two really nice reflections on our experiences here and here. Ultimately, our goal was to provide our students more opportunities to share their learning in ways that fit them. It provided plenty of anxiety, but with some encouragement from our administration we dove into it. Our superintendent and assistant superintendent shared this article from the Bucks Institute for Education that helped put a lot of our fears into perspective.
I also had an opportunity last year where my guided reading room students wanted to build a Little Free Library for our community, They had just finished reading a book with one of our reading specialist and it resonated with them so strongly that they had to act. As teachers, when a student comes up to you with an obvious desire to do something impactful the best thing we can say in response is, “Let’s look into it.” Give them the platform they need to share their voice.
With all of these projects, one of the difficult questions we had to answer was how can we use our resources to enhance our learning. For any of these given projects my students had access to 8-16 iPads and a computer lab. Now it is one thing to be able to use those resources, it’s another thing to use them the right way. I like how the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning describes this as fighting the temptation to focus on the “stuff.” My students were able to push past just using the technology we had because it was available, but instead used the technology we had to tap into higher-order thinking.
The “I’m Still Working On”
I’ll be the first to admit I still have plenty of room to grow before I have fully customized learning for my students. I’m not the best when it comes to providing formative feedback or learning progress management. That’s not to say I haven’t attempted. A lot of my feedback is reflective. Unfortunately, a lot of reflection happens too late in the process to make changes when they would be most effective. In the future, I need to do better at setting aside specific meeting times as my students work through the early stages of new projects to be sure that, even if they are at different points, they are making appropriate progress. I had several moments during our aquatic animal PBL unit this past year where I found some students so far behind that I really had to push them along. I still don’t know the best way to push without taking over? One new technique I’m going to use next year is electronic journals with the Apple Pages app. I’m hoping by keeping these electronically I’ll do a better job of checking in more frequently because of the convenience of being able to take them with me anywhere.
Whatever customized learning may look like in your classroom, the overriding principles and components need to stay at the forefront. Our students’ lives are constantly changing and so is the way they are learning with each other. As their teachers, it is our responsibility to adapt and provide the platforms they need to succeed and make an impact.