The Secretary Reports

October 1, 2010
Gordon Thomas

Keeping Personalized Learning Personal

In his 44-year career as a teacher, my late father, Fred Thomas, did not pursue opportunities in school administration or at central office. He certainly could have—he was a highly respected mathematics teacher. 

For most of his career, he was stationed at the Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. His early experiences in school administration immediately after his return from the war taught him that he wanted to work with students, not with teachers and other adults, and it was to students that he dedicated his professional life.

The new math curriculum was a challenge, but he was determined to find ways to make new and challenging mathematics concepts real for students. While I was in high school (oh the joy of being a student in the same school where your father is a teacher!), I remember Dad labouring with the new math. One day he headed off to school with my Tinkertoy set. He was quite enthusiastic (certainly more enthusiastic than I was—I liked my Tinkertoy set and really didn’t want to lose it) as he used the various wheels and rods to piece together models that could help him teach the new math unit on vectors and matrices. This was what Dad called “hard stuff,” but even so, the students loved it, and this unusual teaching tool was a great success (not so successful was the teasing I had to endure after everybody in the school found out that it was my Tinkertoy).

In my own senior high social studies classes, I always enjoyed the challenge of finding exciting ways to teach. Some social studies lessons were just right for role-playing; some economics concepts were perfect for simulation gaming. I remember one game in particular in which the rich just kept getting richer and the poor just kept getting poorer—it led students to draw some powerful conclusions. And some lessons could never be prepared for. I had a piano in my classroom (for musical theatre) that needed tuning. After much persistence on my part, the director of facilities finally agreed to get the thing tuned. One day, near the end of my Social Studies 30 class, an elderly man knocked on my classroom door and said that he was there to tune the piano. He agreed to make no noise while I finished my lesson on Nazi Germany. As he quietly took the piano apart at the back of the classroom, he became more focused on my lesson, finally interrupting me and asking in a thick German accent if I’d like to know what it was really like to live in Nazi Germany. I said yes. He dusted off his rumpled suit and came to the front of the class and for the next hour we were all riveted to our seats for a vivid account of social history. The noon-hour bell sounded but no one moved. We could have listened to him all day. (Unfortunately, the piano tuner the board produced the next time was a young guy with a music degree.)

Whether through Tinkertoy or simulation or personal histories, teachers work hard to diagnose student learning needs and deliver instruction to meet those needs. The journey for many teachers—and their students—is personal; good teaching invariably involves a connection between teacher and student that facilitates and inspires learning. This is the heart of successful professional practice. One of the most worrisome trends for teachers these days is the increased personalization of teaching, which, paradoxically, can make teaching less personal. With more students on IPPs, more integration and a growing push to personalize programs for every student, teaching becomes less personal and more institutional. Tinkertoy doesn’t fit with the program. Without the classroom resources to do the job, a teacher’s work is akin to a band conductor with no arrangements and no instruments. There’s much flailing about, but not much music.

Important professional practice questions need to be addressed before we get too far down the road of personalization of learning. What is good practice? What resources do teachers need to be successful? What are the essential conditions of practice? These are important questions, and the answers have implications for teacher preparation programs, ongoing PD and the structure and nature of teacher’s work.

The train is leaving the station, and we’re onboard—it’s important for the profession to decide where the train is going, how it’s going to get to its destination and how to control it. To quote the underappreciated philosopher Pogo the Possum—“if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re liable to end up somewhere else.”