Taking personalised and differentiated learning to the next level


I had my second child recently. Being a parent is one of the steepest learning curves. Learning to be a parent of  newborn again has made me reflect on myself as a learner. How do I learn best? I find myself different to many other parents. I don’t like people coming over to visit and “help”. I like to be left alone to try things for myself. The support I find most effective is to be allowed to work it out for myself. If I wanted help I would seek it out myself. I don’t need people to give me hints and advice if I haven’t asked for it. Even as a school student, I would prefer to find the information I need, try it myself first multiple times and then seek help from my teachers after multiple attempts. I hated it when I was forced to listen to the teacher’s ways of doing things step by step.

This got me thinking about personalised and differentiated learning. How can we as teachers design learning experiences to cater to the needs of individual students? A lot of the times personalised and differentiated learning translates to modified learning activities such as assessments, different levels of scaffolding, letting students choose how to present their learning (eg. choosing whether to do a presentation or a poster), allowing students to learn at different paces and creating individual student learning plans. These strategies are necessary and are often very effective but can we push personalised and differentiated learning to another level? Can we allow students to choose HOW they learn?

As teachers, we often force the same way of learning to all of our students, whether it is flipped learning, inquiry learning, traditional teaching, project based learning, etc, etc. In any class there will be some who love whatever strategy the teacher chooses, some who will adapt to any strategy and some who absolute hate the strategy. Also, students can prefer different strategies in different circumstances. Reflecting on my own school experiences, I like to be left to my own devices to work things out in science and maths,  but I preferred very structured, teacher-led instruction in art, English and physical education. Talking to students, they have expressed the same views. Some really like the very structured, teacher-led, sage-on-the-stage teaching style of one teacher and others don’t find they learn that way. So is there a way to differentiate and personalise pedagogy for each student?

The answer is probably no (if we are looking at the current schooling model). It will be impractical for one teacher to design a project based learning experience for some students and something else for the rest. However, if we break down the one-teacher-per-thirty-students model, then maybe it can work. If we got rid of the idea of classes and instead took a whole cohort of students (eg. all of year 10) and they had a teaching team (say 6 teachers), then pedagogy can be personalised and differentiated for groups of students. One teacher can lead project based learning experiences for a group. Another can lead a group who like to learn independently. Another can lead a group who like to learn in small groups. The different options can be tailored to the needs of the cohort of students. Students can choose which teacher they would like their learning to be led by based on the pedagogy the teacher will use. This way, teachers can teach to the strategy they are best at and students can learn in the way they prefer.

I haven’t tried this strategy myself or seen it in action. I’d be interested to find out if there are schools who allow students to choose their teachers based on who they think they learn best from based on their teaching strategies.

Can you see the thousands of dollars?

My year 7 has had laptops now for a few weeks. The class received 12 laptops, which is a costly investment. A colleague once wisely said if that much money was spent you should be able to walk into a classroom/school and notice a difference. You should be able to visibly see that investment’s impact on student learning. So I asked myself exactly that question – Is the learning different in my classroom now? Is the learning better in my classroom now?

I’d like to say yes, and here’s my evidence:
-Students now use their laptops in small groups to demonstrate their understanding, often with higher order thinking skills. Today we explored the properties of magnets. Instead of doing the prac activity from the textbook and writing a prac report, students made a photo story to explain to other year 7s the magnetic properties they have discovered. This took 2 hours. Minimal editing was involved as I wanted the students to focus on the explanation of science, not on fancy video transitions.

-Laptops are used to differentiate learning. Year 7s have been learning about area of composite shapes and expressing area and perimeter through algebraic expressions. Students had to self assess whether they needed more practice in composite shapes or were ready to move onto algebra. Students who selected to refine their skills in composite shapes worked on a self-marking quiz on the laptops while the rest had small group instruction on algebra.

These are just 2 activities where laptops have enhanced learning. When you walk into my classroom, you can see, hear and feel those thousands of dollars making an impact.

Are your thousands of dollars of investments visibly making a difference?



Should our classrooms be like Mario Kart?

Mario Kart is one of my favourite racing games. And recently it has made me think about the implications of what’s happening in my classroom.

To succeed in Mario Kart, not only do you have to drive fast and stay ahead of the pack, you also need to know how to use power-ups. Power-ups are picked up by driving into the power-up blocks. When you drive over one of these blocks, the game will assign you with a power-up. However, Mario Kart likes to work on a handicap system. mario kart power-upsBasically the further you are ahead in the race, the power-ups you get never boost your speed. So if you’re coming first, you are only ever given banana peels and turtle shells as power-ups. You leave banana peels on the track so others slip on them or you throw the turtle shell at whoever gets in front of you. You are not given power-ups to get you further ahead. If you’re further behind in the race, the game will give you a range of power-ups like:

-star (gives you a huge speed boost and you’ll take out anyone you touch)

-thunderbolt (zaps everyone else in the race and makes them small so you can run over them)

And if you’re really behind, you get Bullet Bill, Bullet Bill turns you into a bullet and you rip through the track at super fast speed, blasting everyone that gets in your way. Bullet Bill is designed to give anyone coming last with a fighting chance at the race. Basically the power-ups gives everyone an even chance of winning all the way through the race.

So what does Mario Kart have to do with my classroom?

For anyone that has been following my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been implementing gamification with my year 10 science class. (Click here for more details) We wrapped up the first gamified unit of work recently. While I was evaluating the effectiveness of gamification, I noticed the leaderboard. The winning team had over 400 points and the last team had 30 points. (Points were awarded for completing and submitting class and homework tasks). So what happened to the team with 30 points? This team wasn’t doing nothing. They weren’t being lazy. I regularly helped them in class and saw them do their work. They just didn’t hand it in.

While I haven’t asked them why they haven’t handed it in (yet), if I was them I would say to myself ‘Why bother? It’s not like our team will ever catch up.’ It is like when you are so far behind in a car racing game that you re-start the race because there’s no point of continuing. In most classrooms, there’s some kids who are behind for some reason (went overseas for a lengthy period, have poor reading skills, etc). For many of these kids, it’s like being very behind in a racing game. Everyone is on their 5th lap while they’re still on their 1st lap. They want to re-start the race and have another go. But they can’t. How can schools and teachers give them power-ups like in Mario Kart. I want to give those kids Bullet Bill so they will still be engaged in the game. But how? And what about the kids who are always a few laps ahead of everyone else? Are teachers keeping the game challenging enough for them?