Small Decisions Personalise Teaching
“Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” ~ Gandalf (from the Hobbit movie)
What is teaching if it is not continuous small acts of kindness, instruction, advice, and encouragement in a context of support, where it is OK to make mistakes and reveal weaknesses?
Personalised learning is not so much about the big decisions that we make in the classroom, as it is about what is achieved in the small everyday questions and decisions that teachers make daily. When I started teaching, and even today, teachers are encouraged to plan for the term ahead. Yet, there’s usually no advice given on how to manage the next 5 minutes of a lesson, or how to make the next conversation with a student as effective and productive as it could possibly be. Long term planning is still necessary to add structure to our classes, but it is the small decisions that guide the next 5 minutes—that allow us to personalise learning and make us effective teachers.
So what are these small everyday decisions that will allow us to personalise our teaching? On a daily basis, teachers need to make decisions about flow of their lessons. To what extent does each student understand the concepts of the lesson? Which students ‘get it’ and which should continue consolidating? What is the next question to ask, and to whom should I ask it? Is this lesson meeting the needs of the girls in my class, or the boys, gifted students, students with learning difficulties, those from non-English speaking backgrounds, and more?
It is possible to continue to go on categorising different demographics, but you realise that they all end up narrowing down to the ultimate demographic—the individual. To fully personalise our lessons teachers need to be able to decide with a high degree of accuracy—in the next few minutes of a class—what is the best support, instruction, or question to provide to students—and to which individual students it is most productive, or urgent to speak to first? These questions are important; they are the right questions, because they are aimed precisely at future action that is designed to progress learning of individual students.
If we can make each 5 minutes in class as effective as they can possibly be, then just how effective will our lessons be, our week be, or our year be? It certainly puts into perspective the decisions such as whether we should move the class from fractions to decimals in 4th or 5th weeks into the term.
However the astute reader will notice a problem. We have no reliable data to inform the next 5 minutes of the class. The student who gets the next support, instruction, or question could possibly be the loudest, or most boisterous. Hardly the precise decision making that we hope for. This situation does reinforce the problem raised in my previous article (…Focus on Decisions) –if we look first at the data, and then decide how best to act given the data we have, we may miss the most important teaching decisions. However, if we define the important questions first, we are then in a position to define and collect the data that we need.
In my recent Connect Learning Today posts, I have defined the important questions. In the next post I will share how to collect the data we need in order to answer these questions—to make each and every 5 minutes in a lesson as productive as they can be—to personalise our classrooms.
I will end by re-phrasing Gandalf into a personalised learning context:
“Many believe it is only Big Data combined with standardised assessment tools that can enable personalised learning, but that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small, everyday decisions of teachers that enable the learning of individual students. A continuous collection of teachers with small deeds of support, instruction and questioning.”
Perhaps this is why the Hobbit is about wizards and dragons and not about teachers…. ~Peter
About the Author:
Peter Kent is Head of Strategy and Operations – ANZ at Promethean, Canberra Australia. Kent’s education career included primary school principal and vice principal positions. He is the author of numerous education texts and articles. Peter was awarded The Australian Government Endeavour Award in 2010, an International Competitive Merit Based Award that seeks to recognize individuals that provide significant international leadership within their chosen field. The award was conferred based on his significant contribution and leadership with regards to the use of technology to enhance education. In that year, he was the only recipient from the field of Education. Peter is a regular contributor to Connect Learning Today.