If you have been in education for any time at all, you know that with education comes change. There is always some new training, some new initiative, some new program, and some teacher that is simply sick of it. It is no wonder that when you talk to a veteran teacher, they are somewhat jaded by the new latest and greatest solution because they have seen it all already. I recall being at an educator conference and attending two sessions back to back that claimed to have “the answer” for solving America’s education woes. Both sessions had convincing speakers, both sessions offered something valuable but I left feeling confused and amused that two speakers could be so vehement about their approach. So what is a new teacher, or veteran teacher supposed to buy into?
If I sat here and told you that I have “the answer” to our education woes, would you think me a hypocrite? Well rest assured, I don’t have “the answer”. If I did, I would be very rich sitting on my boat somewhere in the Caribbean. I do, however, have an approach that has reinvigorated my love of teaching. This has kept the profession of teaching challenging, exciting and rewarding for me. I wonder if more teachers utilized this approach there might not be so many burnt out teachers. The Learning Policy Institute reports that every year across the United States about 8 percent of the teacher workforce packs up their desk and move onto other career options. While there is a myriad of reasons why this happens, it happens at a high rate and this is bad for students. It would be a lie if I said there was never a time when the simplicity of a 9-5 job didn’t tempt me to leave teaching (especially after a hard day with that student).
How do we make each day valuable for the educator and student? How do we end teacher burn out? My answer is Mass Customized Learning.
Perhaps you have heard of Mass Customized Learning. Perhaps that’s why you visited this post, but I have found that it is fairly unheard of in the teacher world outside of certain parts of the country. Well, if you bear with me I will do my best to give a brief summary of the Mass Customized Learning approach. I could not continue without mentioning the creators of this approach, Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey. They wrote the book Inevitable in 2002 and have since been traveling the nation sharing their vision with educators. The main crux of the book is that our approach to education is extremely dated.
The assembly line structure to churning out graduates for an industrial nation doesn’t function anymore because we are not an industrial nation. Our students are challenged with a changing economy and need to be prepared to find jobs that haven’t even been created yet. As educators, how do we ensure that our students are prepared for this world? Because honestly, simply teaching from the book ain’t going to cut it. Our students need the ability to discover information for themselves. Teachers are no longer the keeper of knowledge, Google is. How do we make sure students can utilize the web and resources around them to become their best self?
Teachers are no longer the keeper of knowledge, Google is.
Mass Customized Learning has many components but there are certain ones that strike me as particularly important to my practice. According to TIE, Mass Customized Learning (MCL) is described in this scenario: “What if every day, every learner came to school and was met with customized learning activities at his or her precise developmental and achievement level, was learning in his or her most effective learning style with content of interest, was challenged, was successful, and left school eager to come back tomorrow?” While this is a lofty goal, imagine a world where this happened. It would be learning customized to the learner, rather than stuffing the learner in a box that is convenient for educators (i.e. be at this spot of the book, at this point of the year).
Below is a list of the most important aspects of Mass Customized Learning to me. This list is not comprehensive to every aspect of Mass Customized Learning, just the aspects that are most influential to my practice right now.
Meeting learners where they are at in their learning. – This is huge for me. How can we expect students to balance equations if they don’t understand what atoms are? How can we expect students to write a five-paragraph essay if they know how to write a thesis statement? And yet we do this all the time, and this results in some students moving forward while others are flattened into the ground with a train of new content. They can never sit up from running train because new content keeps coming. How sad for the learner who never understands because they have missed the most important parts of the foundation. It doesn’t have to be like this if we simply meet the learner where they are at they can build themselves up. Will they have the same amount of knowledge as those who already have that foundation? Maybe, maybe not. Will they have more knowledge and confidence than they had when they started? Yes! Regardless, of this, we as educators need to do what is BEST for our STUDENTS, not what is BEST for testing companies and politicians. And this is scary… really scary because so much rides on test scores, but I look at like this – a student is going to fare better on a test, with a good foundation rather than a weak understanding of content that is “grade appropriate”. Be brave and do what is best for your students. You will thank yourself when you lay your head down at night.
On the flip side of that, Mass Customized Learning is great for the advanced learner. How often do the advanced learners receive extension by “teaching” other students? This is a great way to extend, but not always fair to an advanced learner. Imagine an educational setting that allowed for advanced learners to speed up their learning, or pause and delve deeper into a topic. If students were not confined the traditional time limits of a course, what could an advanced student do? I’ll tell you! Independent studies, internships, community outreach, dual credit… the list is endless!
Provide different avenues to learning and assessment. – Think differentiation to the maximum level. We as educators need to engage learners with content that fits their learning style. Some kids need to see the information, others need to listen, others need to get their hands dirty and figure things out through trial and error. They need to hear information from different sources. I can be a great resource, but maybe there is a catchy video on Youtube that teaches a concept in a way I didn’t think of or speaks to a student in a way I never could. And guess what, that’s okay. As much as I might like to think it, I’m not God’s gift to teaching and there are a lot of resources that just can do things better than I can. Am I too proud to admit that? No. Let’s get real and find resources that best reach our students’ styles. Also, why do assessments always have to be a test? Maybe it could be a project, or speech, or lesson taught to other students. There are many ways to show mastery and guess what, while tests are important to enter into certain programs, it is rarely what students will do in “real life”. But speeches on the other hand, who couldn’t benefit from the advantages of being a practiced public speaker? Or what about organizing a group to accomplish a common goal? These are the skills that set kids up for success in the future.
Give students voice and choice. – Invest students by giving some choice in their learning. Does it really matter if students read To Kill a Mockingbird versus Of Mice and Men, as long as they are practicing required skills? (Yes, my fingers are stinging as I type this. Of course, everyone should read To Kill a Mockingbird… but then again, I am sure people feel the same way about Mice and Men.) By giving students choice, they are empowered and more likely to engage in the material.
Grades are not a punishment. – Students may need multiple opportunities to show mastery of a skill. In fact, they should show mastery of a skill several times, because really who hasn’t crammed for a test and forgot everything the next day. I would argue that’s not the best type of knowledge. While we’re at it, why are we grading on a 100-point scale that is totally skewed against students to begin with? We should assess each standard, and when students are done let them move on. No need to repeatedly teach certain topics and ignore others altogether.
I could carry on about each of these subjects and more, and I intend to on this blog. Please subscribe or check in to see what’s happening in my class or my thoughts on Mass Customized Learning. Also, feel free to leave a comment. I will get back to you. I think there needs to be more voices heard on the subject, because like anything new in education the loudest voices are the angry ones. We all know how well Common Core Standards were received by the public…
No need to be angry. It’s just good teaching.