I was recently at my first ISTE Conference, and more than any session that I attended, what I really loved was connecting face-to-face with amazing educators that I only ever get to connect with online. These are amazing people! Some I’ve met once or twice before, but others, like Kathleen McClaskey, Barbara Bray and Shelly Sanchez Terrell, were people I’ve known for years, but have never been in the same city at the same time with, much less the same room! And when you connect with these ‘digital friends’ for the first time, it is amazing how first of all, you already ‘know’ them, and secondly how you continue your connection and conversations like you are revisiting an old friend, not like meeting someone you’ve never physically met before!

One person that I have known for a decade online, and never met before this event was Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. Sheryl asked me about Inquiry Hub Secondary and what makes the learning we do there ‘Personalized’. For the next 5 minutes I was ‘grilled’ in the best possible way. Every answer I gave invited a clarifying question. I wish that I recorded the conversation! This form of critical questioning is very powerful because it helps to clarify our own thinking.

I left that conversation and found myself looking at our poster board presentation that we were doing the following day, and asking myself, “Am I sharing a session about personalized learning or about providing students greater choice?”

Inquiry Hub - Personalized Learning

from Dave Truss with Patricia Gartland and Stephen Whiffin)

As it turns out, the projects I shared are very much about personalized learning. However, the conversation left me realizing that a fair bit of what we do at our school is less about personalization and more about giving students choice in what their day and their assignments look like. This isn’t a bad thing. We are on the right path, as eloquently shared by Barbara and Kathleen (and Sylvia Duckworth) in these wonderful images on Student Choice and Student Voice:

Continuum of Choice - Bray and McClaskey image

(Also see their Continuum of Ownership.)

However we still have a ways to go in providing greater learner agency at our school. That said, I think this is a process we have to work through. I know a good 1/3 of our students would flounder if they had more freedom of choice, and perhaps an overlapping, but slightly different 1/3 of our students would struggle to provide greater voice in their own learning. And we struggle with how to give those that need scaffolding and support what they need, while removing the same scaffolding from our students that don’t need it. We have become much better over the past 4 years, and we are looking to continually improve this.

Which brings me back to the conversation with Sheryl. Her questions pushed me to think. They challenged me to define the words that I use to describe what we do at our school. They made me reflect and led me to writing this blog post. And they reminded me of how important it is to critically question my practice in a way that we should all question ourselves more regularly.

Others have done this to me before and each time I’ve left the conversations feeling challenged in a way that stimulates my thinking, (David Jakes at Educon in Philadelphia, and Michelle Cordy at IntegratED in Portland are both examples of this happening to me the first time I met a digital friend). But our current world view confuses discourse with argument, it blurs the line between a learning conversation and a disagreement. This is sad to me. I thrive on the views of people who think differently and challenge my world view. I am excited by intellectual discourse that differs from petty disagreements and logical fallacies that seem to dominate public conversations today… Where personal attacks are the scapegoat to a harder but more rewarding dialogue.

We live in a world where people prefer to avoid going to hard places, rather than realizing we are all on a learning journey and that the hard conversations often lead us to better places. But that said, there was nothing hard about my conversation with Sheryl, (or David, or Michelle). They weren’t hard, they were invigorating! We should all invite critical questioning into our practice, in the same way that we encourage our students to do the same.

One more idea I’d like to share came from Pernille Ripp. She said in her session, “Teaching is messy, and time consuming and exhausting, if we are doing it right!” Personalizing learning isn’t easy. It isn’t a silver bullet solution to what ails the modern classroom. What personalized learning is, is empowering learners to lead their own learning and to find passion in what they do at school. If this was easy, it would be happening everywhere. It isn’t. But when a student takes a task that they have chosen, and then far exceeds your expectations of what’s possible, and when they have learned so much beyond what you thought they could… That’s when the payoff happens for the hard work that you do. And to get there we have to critically challenge and question what they are doing… And what we are doing!

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