The Best Tool for Personalization Might Be Sitting Right Next to You

February 16, 2017
Alliance for Excellent Education

The following blog post was written by Drew Schrader, director of assessment for New Tech Network (NTN). The opinions expressed in this blog post are Drew’s and should not be taken to represent the Alliance for Excellent Education.

We often assume an awful lot about the 20 percent of students that fall into the highest performing group in conventional instruction and an awful lot more about those that never do. What if a majority of students’ ability to learn at high levels has nothing to do with those assumptions but could be determined at an instructional design level?

When most of us think about Benjamin Bloom, we are likely to default to his taxonomy for thinking tasks in the classroom. But it might be his work on solving the “two-sigma problem” that should really drive our efforts to improve. Simply stated, the two-sigma problem is the challenge to recreate the kind of successful learning that happens through tutoring in more conventional settings.

One potentially elegant approach is to recognize that, in a class of 30, I have 29 other human beings who are potential tutors for me. While we can’t expect students to provide the same level of expert tutoring found in Bloom’s experiments, we should not ignore the potential that resides in leveraging student-to-student interactions around their learning.

As experts, we often suffer from “the curse of knowledge,” the difficulty in remembering what it was like to not know something, which can make our explanations harder for new learners to access.  A classmate who has recently figured something out, or who is on the edge of figuring it out, will be much closer to their fellow classmate in their learning journey and can serve as a useful translator. Their journeying, of course, requires wise guidance of the actual teacher – we wouldn’t just let them journey off on their own – but when it comes to working through the smaller obstacles between waypoints, they can likely do a lot to bring each other along.

One of key aspects of this design is the overall context in which the learning takes place. I continue to believe that project based learning creates the set of conditions in which tremendous personalization can take place; that it is a pedagogy for personalization. Armed with the inspiring potential of tutoring and the resource opportunity of peers as personalizers, here are a handful of ways PBL might leverage peers as a personalizing killer app:

  • Culture is king. This is a never-ending refrain in deeper learning schools and for good reason. Building a culture among students and staff where people feel safe to try, to try and fail, to ask for help, and to care about their work and each other creates fertile ground for students to become supporters and advocates for each other.
  • Work that matters. Right up there with culture is engaging learners in tasks that have real meaning for them and meaning for their futures. This involves the design of authentic forms of inquiry into real problems with real consequences. It also requires thoughtfully prioritizing what content is important to explore deeply for strong conceptual understanding and not getting lost in a myriad of “nice-to-know” facts that clutter rather than clarify what is important about a topic or discipline. If we want students to help their peers, it will be a lot easier if the task is worthy of their attention.
  • Bound to Better. Collaborative project teams are a common feature in good PBL, but too often the main lesson students learn is how to divide work and hold each other accountable. While these are useful, real-world skills and experiences, they become exponentially more impactful when students feel a healthy responsibility to help their peers learn and understand challenging material. The more we normalize the need for struggle in learning, the more students can be open about moments when they are in need and when they can help. Additionally, the stronger the relationships we can create among students as fellow learners, the more we can move beyond cooperative learning being motivated by shared interest (grades) and towards shared concern for each others growth and learning that is more typical in other counties.
  • Model, model, model. While it is unrealistic to expect peers to operate at the same level as expert tutors, it is not unrealistic to expect them to mimic the kinds of interactions they are regularly engaged in. The more teachers can make use of good questioning and coaching techniques in small-group workshops, the more students can use those same tools in their small group interactions. I have been in plenty of classrooms where strong teacher modeling lead to plenty of students supporting their peers through thoughtful questioning and co-exploration rather than merely “telling each other the answers.”

How do you see PBL, or other types of instructional design, as a lever for personalization? Share your ideas with meand let’s keep working on that 2-sigma problem!

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