What a week. By the end of an emotionally-draining, anxiety-ridden election week, many find themselves struggling to breathe, smothering under the weight of an insecure future. Each breath as shallow as the destructive rhetoric of intolerance forcing American voters to choose a side—a blade that cuts deeper than partisan politics. With respect to our right to have a voice in the democratic process, what message did adults express to a generation of impressionable children?
Rather than answer that question, I ended the week in the most comforting place I know—with my family. As the father of two compassionate, open-minded, respectful children, I maintain hope for the future. While I cannot protect them from all the realities they will encounter, I will continue to model empathy, encourage dialogue about their questions, and equip them with knowledge and courage to overcome ignorance.
Raising children to become critical thinkers and selfless citizens feels overwhelming at times, but parents are not alone. They have a support system and powerful ally in education. Together, we send a message of hope built on trust, protected by knowledge, and secured by an understanding that all lives matter.
Before closing the week by spending a quiet Friday night watching movies with my family, I attended a two-day conference: The 7th Annual National Convening on Personalized Learning. This year, The Institute for Personalized Learning focused on Preparing Learners for the Future, “to produce learners that work independently, are able to drive their own learning, and want to learn out of curiosity.” From one presenter to the next, all conversations challenged traditional thinking about the way we do school. In fact, every speaker inspired an audience of educators to rethink their vision of school. Breakout sessions shared models of success and struggle to personalize learning, while reinforcing the fact that personalization is not a pre-packaged educational program, initiative, or buzzword. It is a culture-shifting philosophy that puts learning at the center of all decisions, leverages student voice and choice, and empowers every student, every day.
Here are my notes and greatest takeaways from two days of rich dialogue, challenging thoughts, and memorable conversations with passionate educators…
The conference opened with a challenge from Dr. Ryan Krohn (@pullED_Learning), Director of The Institute for Personalized Learning. He asked the audience, “Are we thinking to affirm or inform our thinking?” The question set the tone for over 500 participants to listen, reframe ideas, and filter our thoughts through a lens of learning.
Dr. Krohn then introduced keynote speaker, John Spencer, author of Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student. While already impressed with Spencer’s work, I was captured by his storytelling and sense of humor. He playfully weaved pop culture references and childhood experiences (I too am a member of Generation Ice: Ice Cube, Ice T, and Vanilla Ice) into his message about learning, creativity, empathy, celebration, risk-taking, making, sharing, and fun.
His “look, listen, launch” cycle begins with words of inspiration, “Never forget to embrace wonder.”
- Learning: In education, “One size fits all is great for socks, but lousy for minds.”
- Empathy: Start with this in mind, “Our students have the ability to make things with empathy.”
- Risk-taking: “Ask tons of questions. Students should question the answers as much as they answer the questions…Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is ask a question.” (I love that line!)
- Making: Have students create, not simply consume in school. Ask learners, “Are you consuming or are you creating with your devices?” and “What did you make today?”
- Creating: “Sometimes you make art; sometimes you make a difference.”
- Celebrating and sharing: “When you launch, you are saying, ‘I am not afraid to share with the world.'” And remember, “When you don’t share your voice, you rob the world of your creativity.”
As we inject purpose, innovation, and fun into our thinking about school, Spencer reminds all learners, “It’s not about the work you do, it’s the way the work changes your thinking.”
Friday’s keynote speaker Stephan Turnipseed echoed the importance of the creative process and play as keys to improve the educational experience. Playful learning fosters creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Remember, “Communication is more about listening than talking.” He stressed the importance of dispositions built on empathy, social emotional development, and perspective of failure. As a result, “Helping children develop positive habits of thought is critical to how they see the future” with empathy, tolerance, and respect.
Turnipseed shared this wisdom while urging educators to “Liberate the classroom!”
The enthusiasm of both keynote speakers was captured by the work of Mike Mohammad (@Mo_physics), a high school science teacher and respected member of my local PLN in the Milwaukee area. Mike surrounded himself by a diverse group of learners—former students eager to share how personalized learning impacted their experience. He then got out of the way, allowing them to showcase their work and celebrate their voices. They presented individual learning preferences, acknowledged their strengths and struggles, and validated the efforts of their proud teacher (whom they obviously love and respect). Not surprisingly, I stopped taking notes and simply listened. The voices of learners resonated with the audience, communicating a message far more powerful than any expert could teach. Kudos to you, Mr. Mo! Your students know themselves and own their learning.
The Annual Convening would not be possible without the work of many leaders passionate about personalized learning. Although humble and quick to credit the efforts of others, James Rickabaugh, author of Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning, deserves appreciation and recognition as a founding visionary of The Institute for Personalized Learning. Atop my list of highlights from the conference was engaging in conversations with Dr. Rickabaugh. True to his genuine character, he thanked me for leading a breakout session Assess Yourself Before You Stress Yourself.
His book talk was memorable. For those wondering where to begin, personalized learning starts with voice and choice. Then, coach learners to set goals, co-design paths, and create evidence. After recognizing the “greatest lever in learning is the experience of the learner,” Rickabaugh added, “Things that matter most cost the least and are most difficult to do. We must nurture powerful learners.” In school, educators tend to ask, “Did you learn what we taught?” What we should ask is, “What did you learn that you were not taught? What are you doing with what you learned?”
If we tap into the power of personalized learning, celebrate with youthful enthusiasm, learn to overcome failure, create, and play with others, we maintain hope for the future.