Consortium staffers host breakout discussion at Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network (PLPgh) conference

Consortium Program Directors Aaron Altemus and Sarah Brooks led a breakout discussion about Project-Based Learning as part of a June conference that the Pittsburgh Personalized Learning Network (PLPgh) organized around aligning classroom learning with real-world expectations.

The Consortium’s breakout session stimulated discussion of Project-Based Learning

More than 180 educators attended the conference held at Montour High School. The event featured two keynote addresses as well as other speakers and the breakouts. All dealt in one way or another with personalizing the learning experience.

Chris Sweeney, who is leading PLPGH said the fledgling network and the conference are both intended to help “bring pockets of innovation” in classrooms across our region “to scale.”

Although Sweeney and other speakers at the Conference all talked about the need to change classroom learning to prepare kids for a fast-changing, technology-driven economy, all also emphasized that personalized learning shouldn’t be confused with technology—that’s not what it is.

Nor is it merely a program, said Bena Kallick, PhD, a nationally known school consultant, author and co-founder of the Institute for Habits of Mind. Although there are “six million different definitions” thought-leaders in education generally agree that personalized learning has certain fundamental characteristics, she said.  Among others, it enables students to “deeply engage in meaningful, authentic and rigorous challenges,” Kallick added, citing work done by Allison Zmuda and others who have written about the subject. Because of that, classrooms become “progressively more student driven” as educators redesign their practices, she said.

Both Kallick and Ann Chavez, PhD, who gave the morning keynote, said that personalized learning also emphasizes different goals than traditional classroom teaching, which many educators lament has been aimed at emphasizing only subject matter that’s covered on standardized tests. Chavez, an author and co-founder and Chief Academic Officer of Modern Teacher, said that schools should be preparing students for a world that’s been turned upside down by technology in less than a decade. She said employers increasingly are prioritizing transferrable, non-academic skills when they recruit. Chief among these is “problem solving,” she said.

Education Consultant Bena Kallick, PhD gives afternoon keynote on personalized learning

Agreed Kallick: “Kids need practice in this world that is so very volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. They need practice to gain comfort and confidence to navigate what’s ahead.” Citing educator and author Jay McTighe, she said the aim of classroom education should be “long-term transfer goals” needed across disciplines. McTighe has said, for example, that math competency isn’t merely finding solutions to equations, but being able to create the equations needed to solve real world problems.

In their breakout session, Altemus and Brooks said real-world learning and problem solving are the kinds of skills the Consortium’s Student Powered Solutions program aims to support through its Project-Based Learning experiences. The program pairs classrooms with businesses and other community partners willing to offer students real-world challenges to solve. As the students tackle them, teachers take on the role of coach.

Educators at the conference all expressed enthusiasm about finding ways to personalize learning. But they also discussed obstacles to innovation. Among others, there can be resistance to change and there also is the reality of needing to meet state standards associated with subject matter, some of which may not be addressed when students drive the learning.

Consultant Wayne A. Jones, who had been a Program Director as well as Director of Organizational Learning and Staff Development for The Heinz Endowments, gave a breakout session emphasizing that culture change can help make way for the innovations needed to personalize learning. He said schools need to “create safe space” for experimentation and the inevitable failures that come with it.