EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices, Teaching

The 21st Century Personalizing Teacher

Personalized, learner-centered pedagogy is all the rage these days. There is a great deal good about that when it works but it scares me to think about what it could mean when it is done poorly. Inquiry learning can be powerful, but if it is taken to just mean doing projects it is probably little more than busy work. However, it also might be educational malpractice. Uncritical enthusiasm for thinly conceived and shallowly implemented versions of potentially empowering practices could take us back to the worst abuses of Whole Language – another excellent idea when done well and a mess when done poorly.

 In the good old days, the teacher knew and the students needed to know. The process was pretty simply. Teacher talks. Students listen. Teacher tests. Grade and move on. That’s how it was when I went to school and its still quite common. Of course, nobody wants to admit to such a caricature of transmissive teaching, and there are plenty of examples of much more sophisticated practice, but teaching as telling followed by summative assessment is still, in broad strokes, the underlying conception in many classrooms.

 As we move towards more student-centered practices in which the teacher shares responsibility for the learning with students, and becomes a co-learner (partly in terms of the discipline being taught but primarily in terms of understanding his/her particular students’ learning and the profession of teaching) it is important to do so with equal measure of ingenuity and skepticism. Good is the enemy of great and the good of the past is not sufficient for the future so we have to get better, but as we change we have to be sure we also improve and that we don’t lose anyone in the transition. How can we be sure of that? Standing pat with traditional methods is not the answer, so how do we learn our way into superior practices?

 In Visible Learning professor John Hattie of New Zealand reports on his survey of 8500 meta-analyses of educational research related to student achievement. Many have seen his book as another list of “what works” but Hattie warns specifically against cherry-picking research results and presents an entirely different message about teaching and learning – it needs to be more visible.

 He says, “It is critical that the teaching and learning is visible … The teacher must know when learning is correct or incorrect; learn when to experiment and learn from the experience; learn to monitor, seek and give feedback; and know to try alternative learning strategies when others do not work. What is important is that teaching is visible to the student, and that the learning is visible to the teacher. The more the student becomes the teacher and the more the teacher becomes the learner, then the more successful are the outcomes.” (p. 25)

 To make teaching and learning visible there has to be lots of formative assessment and feedback in both directions. Learning to build such ongoing assessment and reflection into the teaching-learning process is essential if we are to personalize learning in order to generate the deeper engagement that will enable achievement of the transformational goals of 21st Century Learning. You can’t just try something and hope for the best. Every innovation must include an ongoing assessment strategy that provides continuous feedback to both students and teachers. Trying things out and looking at the results after a year is not professionally responsible. Quality control and adjustment has to be continuous.

 The superior instructional practices and school organizational patterns that will be required to better prepare students for an increasingly complex and dynamic world cannot be copied from Finland or Australia or anywhere else. They have to be developed through innovative practice right here at home, and as they are developed we also have to make sure that what is happening within our innovation is made visible so that we can actually learn from it and avoid any harm in the process.

 The 21st Century Personalizing Teacher has to be, above all, a self-regulating learner, not just a follower. To adapt a well-worn phrase, you have to be the change you want to see in your students.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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