Personal Not Personalized: Inspiration and Self-Assessment in Middle School

portrait sample Sidney

As I prepared for our return to school this week, and found myself looking for inspiration to ward off the inevitable post-vacation blues, I was energized by how we are teaching students to work on one of the hardest skills in all of school: how to make learning personal. This has particular meaning for me because there is so much talk within educational leadership today about two similar but contrasting objectives: personalizing a student’s education and making an education personal. I found the inspiration I needed by thinking about how we seek to make education personal, not personalized, and here’s why.

There is so much momentum behind personalizing education today, such as through data-driven statistics (i.e. testing) or the individualized dashboard of learning goals that are ubiquitous once students log into their sophisticated web tools for drilling and practicing (Duolingo, e.g.) that it distracts from a much more important goal: making education personal, which is based on each student finding personal connections with what he or she is learning.

When we take the two ideas into the classroom, where actual students and teachers live every day, the two ideas become profoundly different. To borrow directly from Will Richardson, who has written about this difference with eloquence for many years, particularly in the closing to his essay “Preparing Students To Learn Without Us”, personalizing a student’s education leads to a practical reality where teachers use testing data and perceived student interests to teach different material to different students. While this has a useful but limited place in a properly differentiated classroom, to elevate personalizing each student’s education to a priority for teachers means taking away some essential elements of excellent schools, where great teachers make careful decisions about what knowledge is important for everyone to know.

The practice of personalizing also makes a dangerous trade-off in how we are motivating students. Too often, when found in the real world of classrooms, efforts to personalize a student’s education favor short-term motivation with completion tasks to reach the next goal, too often for the sake of the goal itself (often shortened to simply “leveling up”) instead of long-term inspiration found when students connect new knowledge to previous knowledge and learn how, through hard work, to find intellectual joy in discovery and exploration of new ideas. This second practice, the act of connecting with the material in class, is what happens when we focus on making education personal.

In reality, great teachers and great classrooms have been helping, and even demanding, that students make their learning personal for generations. When teachers ask students to think first about what they have already learned about a science topic or a theme in literature before they start the lecture or demonstration, they are teaching students how to personally connect with the material by emphasizing that their own thoughts about the material make a difference. Research about the brain has also revealed to us that this is an essential way that we create memories about new material. It turns out that having a personal context for every idea makes remembering it later on the test, or in the real world, much easier!

portrait sample Ariana

A more complex and powerful example of making learning personal is when teachers design activities that give students a directed choice within assessments. Among many examples, one that all students will experience this month in our Middle School is completing their self-assessment of who they are as learners. This is an activity they will complete with their advisor in preparation for student-led conferences in four weeks.

They start by reading a collection of blog posts they wrote last month and pulling out key observations about what has been working well for them this year and where they think they can grow the most. Each advisor gives the student a blank “self-portrait of a learner” sheet, which they use as a graphic organizer to summarize the most important ideas from their previous writing. Each student starts with the same exact blank template, and the same set of reflection questions from their faculty. In the end, however, no two self-portraits look alike. You can see the examples we give students pictured above. The faculty has written an identical set of questions for all students in the grade that will lead each one to unique, and personal, answers. This practice helps students to connect personally with the curriculum.

To come back to motivation, which we know is a key ingredient for success, one of the blogging questions we ask all students is “what inspires you?” We think it is so important that we ask them each of their three years in Middle School, knowing that their answers will evolve and change as they mature. By making students aware of their own motivations, and leading them to think about what inspires them in life and in school, we are attempting to teach each student the skill of how to inspire himself or herself. This is how we inspire ourselves, not only to return from two weeks of vacation, but to reach new heights or to pick ourselves up and try again for ambitious goals. In the end, what could be more important?