If ever there were an education buzzword these days, it would be “personalization.” Everybody wants to personalize the education experience for students. I think that is a good thing. Yet while we all might say it, we don’t often stop to really define our terms and describe what we mean. Often, personalization is associated with particular pedagogies or instructional practices that we deem worthy of the title of personalization. We might call these “personalization pedagogies.” Things like design thinking, student adaptive content delivery, personal goal-setting and reflection come to mind as just a few of these so-called personalization pedagogies.
Another way we often think about personalization is with terms like “student ownership” or “student voice.” This is the idea that education has historically been something we do to young people, as opposed to an experience that students design and shape themselves. In essence, formal education is the “take your medicine because it is good for you and stop complaining” approach to learning. If you went through the public school system, you may identify with this arguably negative perception of schools and classrooms. In any case, our educational institutions are not renknowned for deliberately handing over autonomy and independence to young people.
For me, the true foundation of personalization is neither predominately about instructional strategies or even the degree of student ownership of the learning. At its core, personalization is about relationships. It is about students’ sense that the adults, mentors, and teachers in his or her life have a deep, authentic, and abiding belief in their ability as students to learn, grow towards their potential, and find purpose and fulfillment in life. Students must know that they are loved. Students must know that we believe in them.
As a principal in San Francisco, I led a high school that held student-teacher relationships at a premium. Some teachers went by first names with students. Most teachers shared cell phone information and encouraged students to reach out when they were either stuck with a homework problem or needed support navigating a personal crisis. I know – most schools would discourage this type of interaction simply out of liability’s sake. While I myself found some of these practices a little strange at first, over time I became convinced that teachers as a whole make themselves too inaccesible to their students. In essence, our teachers embraced their role as advisors and life coaches for our kids – informal roles that our best teachers often take but that are rarely formalized or acknowledged as part of our profession.
Personalization was our institutional value that allowed our school to feel less like an institution. Yes, we insisted on rigor and strong academic content – but it came on a foundation of genuine connection and care. We held student “defenses” – individualized 60-90 minute presentations with question & answer periods at the end of the year, where each student would share and defend their growth and learning. If ever there were a “personalizing pedagogy,” our student defenses would fit the bill. In the ramp up to our student defenses, there was a lot of emotional release. There were lots of tears and anxiety in the face of what often seemed a daunting academic requirement. I often said that whereas most schools tend to wind down at the end of the school year, our school was just heating up. The last 2-3 weeks of school were intense for everyone on campus. But graduate after graduate would say that it was the combination of the academic rigor of the process with the intense human support and care, that instilled students with the fortitude and persistence to confront and overcome similarly intense hurdles later in college and in life.
Even the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) acknowledges the student/teacher relationship as core to the professional practice of high quality teaching. The very first Core Proposition for NBPTS suggests that teachers must demonstrate a real and tangible commitment to their students and their learning. In their own words, teachers must “adjust their practice based on observation and understanding of their students’ interests, abilities, skills, knowledge, language, family circumstances, and peer relationships.” Whatever those observations and understandings may be, it is done on a foundation of an abiding belief that “all students can learn and meet high expectations.”