Sam Chaltain, a DC-based writer and education activist, is scheduled to be the keynote presenter at our 4th Annual Fall Convening on November 5, 2013, so we have been following his work and writings. Sam has a regular blog on EdWeek and I recently came across a post that has several connections to the work underway as part of the Personalized Learning Initiative. In it, he summarizes the 10 part video series, A Year at Mission Hill, which he narrated. If you haven’t watched the video series, I encourage you to do so.
In the post, Sam talks about an analogy that Calhoun School’s Steve Nelson uses to illustrate the purpose of education. Children, says Nelson, should be thought of as unmarked wildflowers rather than a formal, pruned garden containing just one type of flower. We agree – learning is a process in which we can plant seeds, but we cannot and should not control every aspect of their growth. We can nurture, encourage, support and guide, but real learning resides in the learner, not the teacher or the curriculum. We can make sure there is plenty of sun and water and even provide a lattice of skills and challenges to build strength and comprehensiveness to the experience, but we should never forget that students must create and own their learning.
Sam also talked about the issue of scaling innovation in education. He advocates for scaling across rather than scaling up. He describes scaling up as similar to McDonald’s — where the experience is meant to be the same no matter which one you walk into in the world. Scaling across he likens to farmer’s markets, all are a little different, but share common design principles. This really struck a chord since our scaling strategy for personalized learning is all about scaling across. We have design principles that we use with districts who attend our design sessions. Things like making learning the focus rather than instruction, and designing instructional practices that foster learning independence. Districts use these principles to make sure they keep the learner at the center of any project they develop, but they are never given a binder with all the answers. The work we are doing will succeed because of meaning, purpose and impact, not from enforcing a rigid sameness and “cookie cutter” replication. Each project is different, each school and each district takes a different path toward personalizing the learning for their students, but they all share a common meaning of personalized learning and a shared focus on learning that is student-centered.