6 Strategies to Truly Personalize PBL

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

In the past, I wrote about how, along with other teachers, I’ve ventured into truly personalized project-based learning. I discussed the challenges we face as well as what it looks like in the classroom. Many of us may be personalizing PBL without even knowing it.

Teachers have always had students pursue their own research projects on their own questions. Students around the globe are engaged in genius hour activities about their passions and are given voice and choice in how they show their learning. These are just some aspects of personalized PBL, and we can improve the model further still when we adopt more tenets of personalization into the already-existing PBL framework. In addition, many teachers are claiming that they’re personalizing learning for students when in fact they are not. However, PBL and personalized learning make an excellent match that creates engagement for students through authentic, personal work on content and skills that they want and need. Here are six strategies that you can try.

1. Know the Whole Child
If you don’t know your students, it will be impossible to personalize learning for them. Assessment (not grades) is key here. Pre-assessments and ongoing formative assessments can provide excellent information on how students are doing, what they need, and what we can do as educators to empower them in the learning process. Schools can use ASCD’s School Improvement Tool to assess for the whole child and set goals for improvement.

2. Scaffold Questioning
Our students are naturally curious, but they may need further support to articulate those questions and ask even deeper and more targeted questions. As students start to identify their interests and passions, we should be giving them tools like question stems, models of asking great questions, examples of leveled questions, graphic organizers, and the like to help them ask about what they want and need to know. Protocols like the Question Formulation Technique or the 5 Whys can also be great tools for scaffolding questions. If we want students to learn, we should encourage all types of questioning that lead to deeper learning. The best part is that, through this scaffolding, students ultimately own the questions and can personalize their project from the answers. Students are the true creators of PBL driving questions. In this Teaching Channel video, a teacher helps students learned leveled questioning.

3. Know and Align the Standards or Outcomes
There may come a time when learning will be so open that students will be able to learn whatever they want. However, in this day and age, we are accountable to learning standards and outcomes. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be flexible in how we help students reach these learning objectives. And personalized PBL can help us find that flexibility. As students generate their questions, project ideas, and products for learning, teachers must align their work to standards and outcomes, which means that teachers need to know their standards deeply in order to serve as translators of students’ personalized projects to the standards. Teachers can create checklists of the standards, sub-standards, and outcomes to work through the “weeds” of hitting the standards through personalized projects, and they can use these checklists with students to co-create project ideas and assessments. See Edutopia’s Building Rigorous Projects That Are Core to Learning for ideas.

4. Build the Infrastructure
Although there is more openness and flexibility in personalized PBL, we do need some processes, protocols, and procedures to make sure that students can self-manage and complete projects with reasonable timelines. Student planning forms such as calendars, task lists, and the like can help students create deadlines and benchmarks for peer feedback, teacher feedback, and reflections. Technology tools can also support an infrastructure in which students have control over the scope of the project. The Teaching Channel offers a video about group contracts for collaborative work.

5. Assess Often
Ongoing assessment is an additional part of a good infrastructure for personalized PBL. Teachers and students should assess the work often to align the resources and instruction needed for success. These ongoing formative assessments can allow students to set goals while allowing teachers to give students “just in time” instruction in a variety of ways. These assessments should not be graded, allowing students the opportunity and safety to improve toward a summative final product. Teachers in this Edutopia video on multifaceted assessment explain how they assess along the way.

6. Get Out of the Way
One major challenge for any PBL teacher, and especially with personalized PBL, is getting out of the way. Although a teacher needs to be present, he or she also needs to relinquish control to the students, allowing them to explore their passions in learning. However, through letting go, teachers can move strategically from student to student as they all engage in different personalized PBL projects. Aviation High School’s Scott McComb not only lets his students pick their teams, he also has them set norms, make mistakes, and adjust goals accordingly.

I truly believe that we can make personalized PBL happen and would love to hear your stories about how it has worked with your students or how you plan to try it out. Since we all know that students are engaged when they receive the learning and instruction that they want and need, why shouldn’t personalized PBL be that learning model?

Personalizing Assessments with Time In Mind


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

We already know about best practices in assessment. We know that we should use formative assessment to look for patterns in errors and adjust instruction. We also know that we need to have clear learning targets to assess, and that these assessments can be common. We know a lot. One area we don’t yet know as much about is how time factors into assessment.

Time is always an issue for educators. We never have enough, and we often feel we must rush through the material. Great educators try not to let time get in the way of good instruction. But even then, time can get in the way of better use of assessment. We use some sort of formative assessment exercise to check for understanding at the end of the day’s lesson; we give end-of-unit assessments; and our districts and states often take a specific week to give an end-of-course exam or grade-level assessment. What’s interesting here is that time is still the inflexible piece.

Why do we always assess students at the same time and let that be the governing factor for student achievement? We know that students each learn at their own pace. Some take longer; some take a shorter amount of time. We have the same high expectations for our students, but we also know students take different amounts of time to get to those high expectations. One critical element of personalization is that time is no longer the driving factor. Instead of relying on the Carnegie unit, students show mastery and are assessed when they are ready. Granted, so many outside forces are demanding our time, but how might we move past them to meet students were they are in the assessment process?

Create Rigorous Competencies

To start being more flexible with when to give assessments, you need to begin with the end in mind. Many schools that have become more flexible with when they give critical summative assessments create rigorous competencies from standards, including the Common Core. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey also advocate for this:

“Grade-level teams or departments usually specify course competencies and corresponding assignments. Competencies should reflect the state standards while offering students an array of ways to demonstrate mastery, not just paper-and-pencil tasks. The competency assessments should be numerous enough that students can adequately gauge their own progress at attaining competencies; generally 7 to 10 per academic year is best” (2009, p. 24).

Competencies are built from standards and include measurable and transferable learning objectives. When designing a competency, you keep both academic and 21st century skills in mind so that the competency moves toward applied learning of multiple learning objectives. When you cluster standards and objectives like this, you can be more comfortable designing flexible assessments to meet these synthesized objectives.

Be Flexible When You Summatively Assess

It is perfectly appropriate to formatively assess the whole class after giving a lesson, and often educators formatively assess students individually. Through the formative assessment process, we can differentiate, give feedback, and meet the needs of students. When we formatively assess, we know when students are ready or not ready for the next steps. This is where time often gets in the way of good intention. If students are not ready for the summative assessment, why should we make them do it? It may be appropriate to allow some students to take the summative assessment after other students have taken it. Again, this should be a rigorous performance assessment that demands construction and application of knowledge. Summative assessments should only been given when students are ready, and, therefore, we must personalize when we give them.

Allow for Late Work

This is probably one of the most challenging shifts for veteran teachers. On the one hand, we want to foster good work ethic, which means adhering to deadlines; on the other hand, we want to be flexible to meet the needs of all students. The key here is to know what are you are assessing. Are you assessing work ethic or content? Students should never be punished for not learning content in a specific amount of time, hence allowing work to be late. Some educators find it appropriate to assess the 21st century skill of work ethic, but they in turn do not let that affect their content learning grade. Once you allow for late work, you can have students complete assessments, mostly summative, at various times.

The movement toward flexible time for assessment is obviously challenging, but these steps can make the shift more manageable—even in the face of immovable educational demands on our time. If we begin with the end in mind when designing assessments, we can use personalization to keep time as a malleable component to meet the needs of all students. This is a move toward true personalization of assessment.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2009, November). Feed up, back, forward. Educational Leadership, 67(3), 20–25.

The Missing Piece of Personalization: Passion and Engagement


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Personalization is quickly becoming a buzzword in education, especially in terms of blended learning and educational technology. I joined a team of educators on a panel on the same subject on the Whole Child Podcast. We unpacked what it is and what it might look like in the classroom. We talked about its challenges and benefits and collaborated to explain its implications for education. Most importantly, we talked about the critical role of relationships. When you break down personalization, most of us would agree that there are great aspects. Take a look at this chart.

I think one of the most overlooked pieces for personalization currently is that the learner “connects learning with interests, talents, passions, and aspirations.” Those who know personalization believe it is a critical component, but in the implementation it can be lost or “put on the back burner.” There are couple reasons for this.

First, the language is key. Here the learner is in complete control, and it almost seems as if a teacher is not part of the picture. In fact, a teacher is still integral to personalization, not only in helping provide scaffolding and instruction, but most importantly the engagement. A pitfall is to look at this language around personalization and engagement to a point where teachers have no role in it. In fact, student engagement—whether in a model of personalization, differentiation, or individualization—is arguably the most important factor. If you ask teachers what their biggest concerns are for the classroom and education, student engagement is at or near the top of the list. We need to remember that this is still true in personalization. Relationships and the creation of engagement still remain a critical component of personalization.

Secondly, there is a danger with regard to personalization and technology. Much of personalization is done through blended or online learning. I, myself, am a big advocate for online learning. However I have major caveats and critiques. I have seen digital courses where students still receive the “sit and get” instruction, where they is no choice in what they learn or how they show their learning. The digital curriculum may have amazing tools, such as videos, games and more; but the model of learning is still grounded in traditional instruction. Yes, students may have control over time, place, and pace, but often the engaged tenet is not truly manifested in this model of personalization.

As we move forward with personalization, we need to make sure not to forget student engagement and its implications for truly personalizing learning, where student passion and interest are not only allowed, but a critical component of the model.

Personalized Learning Starts with Personal Relationships


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >



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How do we help each student succeed? One promising way is to personalize learning and put each student at the center of her learning experience. Broader than individualized or differentiated instruction, personalized learning is driven by the learner. Ensuring personalized learning for all students requires a shift in thinking about long-standing education practices, systems, and policies, as well as significant changes in the tools and resources. To address students’ abilities, interests, styles, and performance, schools need to rethink curricula, instruction, and technology tools to support giving learners choices and schools flexibility.

In our last episode of the Whole Child Podcast, we discussed personalized learning in the 21st century global marketplace with professor Yong Zhao, author of the ASCD book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. In this episode, we take a look at personalizing learning on the ground and in schools and the importance of relationships in activating students to take charge of their learning. You’ll hear from

Jennifer Eldredge, a Spanish teacher at Oconomowoc High School whose district is a member of the regional Cooperative Educational Service Agency #1, which is committed to establishing personalized learning as the prevailing approach in southeastern Wisconsin.
Andrew Miller, former classroom and online teacher and current educational consultant, ASCD Faculty member, National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education, and regular ASCD and Edutopia blogger.
Beth Sanders, a high school social studies teacher at Tarrant High School in Alabama who is also the cofounder and codirector of Youth Converts Culture and was named an Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2013 and 2013 Teacher of the Year for Tarrant City Schools.

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