How to Personalize Learning: New Book Available

I am excited to announce that my friends Barbara Bray and Kathleen MacClaskey’s book How to Personalize Learning, from Corwin Press, is finally out and available for purchase.  I was honored when Barbara and Kathleen asked me to write the foreword for this book, and I am sharing that foreword below. I highly recommend getting the book, which will guide you step by step through the process of creating a more learner-driven environment. 

Dr. David Rose, one of the originators of Universal Design for Learning, often says that “teaching is emotional work.” By that I take him to mean that teaching is not just a purely technocratic endeavor. It is more than just delivering the right content at the right time, though that is important for sure. It is also more than just assessing how well students have mastered said content, though again that is important as well. Rather, at the heart of teaching is the relationships we remember from our best learning experiences. If you were to close your eyes right now and think back to a time when you were most engaged with learning, you will probably see a teacher who was invested in your success, who encouraged you and helped you gain confidence in your abilities, and who balanced the right mix of support with freedom and trust. In short, you were in the presence of someone who, perhaps without realizing it, already understood what it means to be an expert learner, one who driven by his or her passion can then take ownership of learning and do the hard work that is needed for success. What if you could be that teacher for every learner who walks into your classroom?

Helping all of our learners develop their learning expertise is the focus of this book. It is also the ultimate goal of Universal Design for Learning, the framework the authors have chosen to frame their discussion of learning. Notice that I am using the term learners instead of students. This change in my thinking and vocabulary has been influenced by my reading of Barbara and Kathleen’s work. As they state, students are passive recipients of content and have little choice in how they participate in education. Learners are empowered, and as a result take on a more active role in the design of their education. If as some people suggest, language shapes our actions, then right away with chapter one of this book you will be on your way to reshaping your teaching practice. Starting with the language you use, you will be challenged to rethink the traditional teacher-student role in order to close the emotional distance it creates and develop a more equitable relationship with your learners. Thus, right from the start of this book, you will be engaged in the “emotional work” of teaching as you seek to build a different kind of learning environment, one where strong relationships based on trust and shared responsibility are the norm.

With a common language, vision and understanding of what personalization really means as a strong foundation, the rest of the book seeks to translate the latest research about learning into actionable strategies you can immediately implement in your classroom. In this way, the more abstract concept of “the learner” is translated into the more concrete one of “your learners.” This is accomplished through a number of activities (creating a Learner Profile and a Personal Learning Plan as just two examples) that help you get to know who your learners really are, what drives and motivates them, and what they need to do their best work and reach their full potential. I have a feeling that as you help your learners with their Learner Profiles, Personal Learning Backpacks and Personal Learning Plans you yourself will rediscover who you are as a learner. In doing so, you will also rediscover your own passion for teaching and the values that caused you to go into this profession in the first place. At the end of the book, you will be asked to create a 60 second pitch that will serve as a reminder of your core values and hopefully become your compass as you seek to align your practice with those values.

While I agree with Dr. Rose that “teaching is emotional work,” I would add that it is also “civic work.” As educators, we can play a role in ensuring that everyone can enjoy life in a fair and equitable society, but only to the extent that we dedicate ourselves to developing citizens who are actively engaged in the life of their communities.  This requires a commitment to providing all citizens with the skills they will need to be active participants in conversations about the future, including the ability to be critical thinkers and to appreciate and value diversity. We can do this work in each one of our classrooms as we develop each learner’s agency and ability to live a self-determined life, which is a major focus of this book starting in chapter 3.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, is that “all politics is local.” Similarly, all “learning is local” in the sense that it is not removed from the life of the community where a school is located and the issues that impact the lives of individual learners. In this way, learning is once again more than a technocratic exercise of delivering content and information. It is also about helping learners make connections: not only connections between the topics and ideas discussed in the classroom, but more importantly between those topics and ideas and the learners themselves. This is what “deeper learning” as discussed in chapter 8 is all about: going beyond the surface, and isolated facts that have little relevance to learners, to focus on the big ideas that move and inspire them to be the innovative thinkers and agents for change we will need to solve the complex problems of our shared future.

If you have picked up this book, you probably agree with me that the technocratic approach to education has not worked, and you are looking for a new direction. If that is the case, then I invite you to not just read this book, but use it as a blueprint for rethinking every aspect of your approach to teaching, from the questions that guide your lessons to the tools you use to engage learners and make education more accessible to them. This book asks a lot of you, but it gives you even more in return. By that I mean that it asks you to consider some of the tough questions that are often glossed over in most education books: what does it mean to be a teacher, and more importantly, what does it mean to be a learner? However, as you ask those tough questions, you will also be provided with the tools you need to formulate some good responses and take meaningful action. The many activities and resources found in each chapter will be an invaluable resource as you rethink your role and begin to engage in the “emotional” and “civic” work of teaching needed to create a better society for future generations.