A Fork in the Road – The Role of a Contemporary Teacher in an Era of Personalization

Guest post by Allison Zmuda

What is the future of the teaching profession in our brave new world of personalization? Personalized learning can go down one of two paths — one that marginalizes and one that embraces the role and expertise of the teacher.

The first path is an efficiency-based model where teachers increasingly rely on expertly designed lessons, assessments, videos, platforms in service to the broader topic or skill being taught. This first path is an industrialized model on hyper-drive; a customized “one-size-fits-all” model. The assignments are standardized, but the student can choose the pace, order, and format for learning. We can imagine a platform where students log into a device and engage in “playlists” full of video games, tutorials, and interactive learning spaces where students can use preferred mediums to develop and demonstrate achievement. From a design and delivery point of view, companies curate “super-teachers,” video producers, and gamers to produce engaging sources to teach and assess student learning. The role of the teacher becomes one of facilitator or manager. He or she works with student(s) to troubleshoot a particular problem to satisfy an assignment so the student can submit and receive feedback or move on to the next stage. Check out this powerfully intriguing (and alarming) article from The Atlantic (2015) to see one high school English teacher’s prediction.

The second path is a progressive one, honoring the timelessness of Aristotle and Dewey as well as the contemporaries of Tony Wagner, Sir Ken Robinson, and Seth Godin. Personalized learning in this space is grounded in four attributes: co-creation, voice, social construction, and self-discovery. Co-creation is the ability to develop the problem, idea, or challenge according to community needs, growth of skills, and focus on individual aspirations within the parameters of the standards. Voice honors the learner as essential to the learning process — being “heard” — feeling like what you say matters and is respected by the learning community feeds into the ownership of the co-created task. Social construction indicates that learning evolves based on the experts consulted, the deep thinking of the learner, and the dialogues engaged in to make sense of the information and ideas. Finally, self-discovery is what we learn about ourselves along the way and how that guides our next pursuit. The role of a teacher here becomes one of teaching thought-full dispositions (e.g., questioning and problem posing; creating, imagining, and innovating) to develop performances and products worthy of the pursuit. When students come upon situations of uncertainty within and beyond the classroom, those situations in which the answer is not immediately apparent, they need to be more considered in their thought processes. The habits of mind, a sub-set of dispositions drawn from considerable research, focus on building the habits for thinking when the resolution to a problem is not immediately apparent.  It is that very important space in which we shift from automaticity to mindfulness.

Bena Kallick and I are working together to integrate personalizing learning and Habits of Mind to envision a more holistic approach to performance.  IF we want our students to pursue aspirations, investigate problems, design solutions, chase curiosities, and create performances, THEN they need coaching from teachers in self-direction, problem posing, and other important habits. In this learning space, the teacher co-creates with the student, honors their prior knowledge and point of view, embraces dialogue as the student’s opportunity to build understanding, and prompting regular reflection along the journey. On this path, virtual spaces (e.g., online classes, video games, software platforms and playlists) are embraced as tools to a desired end; tools that equip students to take action on authentic challenges and inquiries. That requires the power of the teacher to inspire, to model, to listen, and to engage. This teacher as instructional coach is needed now more than ever.


As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible, and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, she has shared curriculum, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies for how to get started.

Allison will be the opening keynote speaker at our 2015 Personalized Learning Convening. Her presentation, The Brave New World of Teaching and Learning: Identity Shifts for Personalized Learning, will describe needed changes in teacher identity to create a learning partnership for teacher and student.