Personalization Step 1: Why make a change if nothing is broken?

From my previous post, I have shared that my goal is to create a personalized classroom. One where the students self-assess, set personal goals, work at their own pace and explore the infinite resources available to them both online and in the community at our school and the outside community. This shift comes after reading about the various school districts both in Canada and abroad that are seeking a way to excite students who are finding current methods un-engaging and lacking the platform for them to practice their 21st century skills.  Solutions are varied depending on the needs of the students. Systems have been put in place in the UK in the form of the Studio Schools , British Columbia’s Personalized Learning campaign and others discussed in a recent Forbes article. Each of these organizations have identified the need for a change in current teaching methods and each have selected the method that will work best for their population.

But why am I seeking a change? What have I tried already to know that this will work for me?

As a math teacher, I have always had the challenge of working with a group of students who are all are various levels of understanding based on their abilities but also their past experiences. Some students come into the class with a strong ability to perform calculations but are unable to creatively design an equation for a problem and vice versa. Ensuring that all students are engaged, challenged and moving forward at the right pace is a tough balancing act demanding continuous check-ins with students and ensuring that no one is falling between the cracks.

To do this I have implemented a differentiated approach to each lesson. As students enter the class, the goal of the day is written on the board as well as the schedule. Each day will have a mini lesson or activity that introduces the students to the concept that we will be exploring. After this 15 to 20 minute intro, students take a moment to self-reflect on how comfortable they felt with this new concept asking themselves the following questions:

  • Did they feel they understood the examples?
  • Did they depend on the teacher for the ‘do it on your own’ final example?
  • Is this similar to things learned in the past?

At this point we move into our Challenge by Choice (CBC) levels. Based on a ski hill, students will decide if they want to move into a green, blue or black level of challenge for that specific concept. They will pair up with someone also on their hill and collect the associated work. Those on the Green level will begin with the teacher, providing some more examples and structure that are also reflected on their worksheets. After a period of 10 minutes, the teacher leaves the Green and checks in with the Blue group to see if they have any questions. These students understand that they have each other to work through problems and that they have selected a more independent and challenging level. The black level is even more challenging and there for students who have already mastered the concept. After 5 minutes of work, students of all levels are asked to self-assess their comfort where they are and determine if they need to switch hills for the rest of the period. Each level has different questions that reflect the goal of the day and also the challenge level they are on. Students move down to green or blue or up to black at their own will. At the end of the period, everyone meets at the “chalet” at the bottom of the hills to complete a check out. This quick completion of 2-3 questions ensures that everyone, no matter what hill they took understand the goal for that day.

What are the benefits?

By having the students select their own challenge level after a short lesson, they are also indicating what extra help they need. Those students who need more time are given it, but those that are all ready to move on can do so. Those students on Green will have the opportunity to work through a problem and provide an answer when before they would have let one of the other students do so. Those on the Black level become engaged and challenged to work through something that is different. By the end of the period, students have spent the time being engaged and working with material that they can have success with. Each student has the opportunity to feel success, if by being the one to offer an answer to the group or come up with a creative solution. Each student will be able to do so since they are working at the pace and place that is right for them. At the end of the unit, the final assessment is at a Green level where all students know that they can be prepared and ready to the task.

What are the challenges?

Creating 3 different activities for each lesson is a challenge for me as the teacher. Going to various sources to find questions and challenges that are appropriate for each level takes time. We are still moving through goals each day, meaning that if a student missed a day or didn’t get the concept fully the class is moving on and they will need to attend extra help. Also, even though I have made a black level there are students who are even above that. They are ready to move on and think of creative and current applications of these concepts.

How will Personalization keep the good and help with the challenges?

I am hoping that by giving my students the opportunity to identify what they know, what they need to work on and the resources to do this at their own pace will continue to engage all students and ensure that everyone is attaining the course expectations. I don’t want to loose the ability for the students to select their own challenge levels and have the assistance they need when they are learning each concept. I also want my students to leave my class with the skills to identify what they understand, what they need to improve on, what support they need to ensure their understanding. They will begin to see that I am not the only source of information and challenge, but that there is infinite options online and also how to collaborate with peers in our school and those outside its walls. 

Next Steps:

How is this going to work? That is my goal for the next month is to figure that out. I have some ideas in place, but I hope that you will help me along the way by providing me with suggestions to any dilemmas I may have.

At the end of the day, the system I have in place isn’t broken but it isn’t allowing those who need more time to have it and for those that want to extend and explore an interesting topic to do so. It also isn’t allowing students to see the multitude of resources available to them and determine how they learn best by exploring different methods out there that might not get presented in class. Even though the system isn’t broken, it can always go for a tune up!


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2 Responses to Personalization Step 1: Why make a change if nothing is broken?

  1. Hi Ruth,
    The system that you have in your classroom is far from broken – it sounds like a dynamic and exciting class. This post, itself, offers a wealth of ideas and inspiration for teachers of math, and beyond! Congrats!

    In terms of moving forward with next steps, I suggest this article about leveraging technology to help you personalize your classroom:

    But you have identified one of the key elements to personalizing the classroom: front-end loading of material and activities. It requires a lot of work, and I like that you’ve already got a start in creating these static mini-lectures of core knowledge. These most likely won’t change over time, so you can create a different media for presenting these lectures.

    In terms of students that miss the class, a personalized approach could mean that they could access the core knowledge and key ideas elsewhere. In fact, they could access the material BEFORE the class, not just afterwards.

    As a teacher VERY interested in personalized learning, I really appreciate this post and the insights, inspiration and inquiry!


  2. Ruth,

    This post really highlights your commitment to differentiating your classroom and ensuring that all students meet the challenges they need to thrive. I would love to come and observe you teaching sometime to see it in action!

    Our students in the Junior School set goals for themselves (two big academic goals and one big social goal that they are supposed to work on through the whole year) and I have found it challenging to know whether the goal a student is choosing for themselves is at the appropriate level of difficult for that child.

    How do we ensure that when students are choosing “what they need to work on”, whether it is at the start of the year or at the start of the lesson, that they are working in their “zone of proximal development”?

    I wonder if this is more of a challenge with younger students who are still developing their ability to be self aware or if there are strategies to ensure that students are self-monitoring effectively.

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