When I talk to other teachers about personalized learning, I always share how difficult it was for me at the beginning (and sometimes it still is). There are always challenges with anything, especially when it’s new, and personalized learning is no different. This philosophy allows for a lot of student freedom, self-regulation, and choice, which can be difficult to plan for and intimidating to implement.
All those items, and more, make it quite an undertaking. But for me, the most difficult part of moving towards a personalized approach was letting go of control.
Those that know me well can tell you honestly: I’m a control freak. I plan for as much as I can, copy way in advance, make all my lunches for the week on Sundays… you get the point. So the idea of letting my students take the reins made me really, really uncomfortable.
It was quite a mental block that I had to get over. Truthfully, I sometimes still have to check myself. But getting past this mindset has yielded some incredible results in my classroom and for my kids.
To get past this fear of losing control, I had to consider a lot of different things. I had to reconsider the way I approached classroom management, reconfigure my culture, and begin teaching different skills so my students would even be successful in this format. I learned a lot along the way, failed a lot along the way, and have come out on the other end even more convinced that this philosophy works.
When you begin to make that shift, or if you’re considering it, here’s what I learned.
Structure vs. Control
This was, by far, the biggest lesson I learned as I transitioned to a student-directed classroom. I was convinced that losing control would be the downfall of learning, and that I would not be able to function (nor would my students) in an uncontrolled environment.
What I didn’t realize is that it wasn’t control I (and my kids) needed. It was structure.
Students (and teachers) crave structure and consistency. Which is an entirely different concept that control. In a controlled environment, the teacher holds all the cards and students have no freedom, no self-direction, no ability to question. There is little discussion, the purpose behind work isn’t shared, and it’s a “no questions asked” environment.
In a structured environment, there are routines and procedures in place that guarantee consistency and respect. Students are aware of what to do, how to do it, and why they are doing it in the first place. They know what is expected of them and are responsible for doing it. They are held accountable for their work and behavior, and there are previously discussed consequences when structure is abandoned.
I realized after some time that I was using structure and control interchangeably, but that they are entirely different terms with entirely different implementation. And in a personalized environment, structure is so necessary.
Students must be able to choose, but they must be clear on the expectations and goals for a lesson/activity. They must know how to be successful, where to go for help, and be responsible for themselves. All this exists in a structured environment, and it is vital to have that if students are to thrive in a personalized classroom.
You don’t need a fancy classroom management system. You just need to build relationships.
Yeah, this was a huge one. Cultivating my classroom culture alleviated a ton of stress for me when it came to classroom management with personalized learning.
I thought I would need a fancy system of tracking all kinds of different behaviors because if students could choose what they were doing, how they were doing it, where they were sitting, etc. etc. etc. I would never be able to maintain any kind of management.
What a misconception that was. Instead of creating an intense charting system or way of tracking every student’s every move and misstep, I focused on building a relationship with each of them AND with my classes as a whole. We talk about our days, our families, our likes and dislikes. We create class crests and homeroom chants. We build a culture of positivity, respect, and helpfulness.
That is by far the best way I’ve found to manage my classroom—love my kids.
Then, when they are acting like goons and getting nothing done (they’re middle schoolers, of course it happens), I give them a look and they know what’s up. We can have a conversation about being responsible for ourselves, about how they are owning their learning, and we can discuss better choices to make in the future.
It’s okay if they’re all over the place.
I mean this literally and figuratively.
Literally, if a student wants to sit underneath their desk and write an essay, let them. If they’re doing it to get attention and be irritating, when you tell them to move you’re just fueling the fire. If they’re doing it because they actually want to and they think it will help eliminate the distraction of their friend sitting next to them, then they’ve made a great choice.
Last year, sitting underneath the counter in the back of my room was the most popular place to be. Every kid wanted to be there, and I started to get worried they were going to crack their heads open on the giant metal beams holding the counter up.
Instead of outlawing the most exciting seat in the classroom, I bought a $.99 pool noodle, cut it up, and slid it over the metal pieces. I found big pillows on sale and got a bunch to put in the spot at the back. Because hey, if you can’t beat em, join em.
But really, why discourage a kid from choosing a workspace for themselves? We do that all the time. And if they make a poor choice, the natural consequences and a chat with you will help them learn this life skill for next time.
If you’re like me, the figurative meaning of this was much harder to overcome. The notion of my students all working on different skills at different times seemed impossible to accomplish. How would I teach them all if they were doing different things? How would I ensure they got what they needed? How could I manage it all?
Enter my weekly calendar. I use it for every unit now, and it helps me just as much as it helps my students. I plan out each week, listing the tasks students need to finish at the top. They figure out what they’ll do each day, and I ensure all of it is prepared for them. If I need to do a mini lesson with the entire group, I put it on the calendar for them.
In the early days, I would have mini lessons planned for the whole group every day. Then they’d go off and work on whatever they had planned. Now, I’ve gotten more comfortable, and I let the students plan the mini lessons, too. I will list them on the tasks for the week, and make sure I’m prepared to teach the ones I selected. When a group asks for a mini lesson, say on theme, I’ll do a quick check with the class and ask, “Does anyone else need the theme lesson now?”
It works, it’s much more manageable than I thought, and it’s all thanks to the simplest little weekly calendar.
They’re going to slack off and only do what they like.
I struggled with this one the longest. I have always prided myself on challenging my students, whether it be their beliefs or academically. I want to provide an education that pushes them, makes them better, and truly helps them grow.
In a personalized system, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to challenge students like I had in the past and that they’d only do the things they liked to do. And since I’ve had like one middle schooler who actually enjoyed writing, I thought I (and my content area) were totally doomed.
I was wrong again. With personalized learning, you aren’t ridding yourself of challenging content or skill learning. You’re shifting the lens for how you teach it. I still have high expectations and a challenging class. We still write. The difference is that students write about things that interest them.
And in that structure, students are more interested in what they are writing about. They care more about the words and the formatting because it is something they believe in or are passionate about. They invest the time and effort into learning the more difficult concepts because now, it is directly related to them and what they care about.
I didn’t have to lower my expectations at all. In fact, I teach more challenging content than I did before because my students are ready and want to learn it.
Personalized learning is a mindset shift just as much as it is a philosophical one. Letting go of control and allowing your students to take more ownership is intimidating, especially at first. There are struggles, as there are with anything of that nature. It will take work, time, and effort. But hopefully, you’ll see just as much of a positive change as I have. And hopefully, your practice can transform the way your students learn.