‘Meeting Students Where They’re At’ easier said than done

As a new schooling year gets underway, a new mantra is rolling across education: to better serve their learning needs, we must ‘meet students where they’re at’. No more ‘sage on the stage’ in the classroom, it’s the ‘guide on the side’ who’s calling the shots now.

It’s a meme that’s grounded in good intentions by educators who also recognize that learners are influenced by numerous, significant variables in their learning lives, and that learning is much more multi-faceted than previously thought. Ergo, given these insights and thanks to 24 x 7 learning opportunities on the internet – factory-style schooling has exceeded its utility.

Some influences on ‘Personalized Learning’ – about which there is some understanding and less agreement – in the education community

These educators are also eager to turn a page and embrace more personalized learning in its various forms. I count myself among this crowd, and I believe I’ve accumulated ample evidence over my career that this is a more effective way of nurturing learning than sticking it to students with coercive, test-driven curricula. (nb – for the record, I’ve always supported a role for utilitarian schooling for plumbing, flying [and landing] airplanes, and the like, but the ‘pointy-stick’ method of teaching is no way to kindle a love of learning or foster creative, innovative thinking – something I perceive our society needs now more than ever.)

Despite the enthusiasm to turn the page on conventional teaching, I think it’s critical to widen conversations on a number of subjects about personalizing learning, because there are few agreements among educators about what is really implied by this action.

First, there is an implied recognition of a ‘person’ in this act and, while we have many choices on what constitutes a person, we haven’t yet reached any agreement about this. Is this person to be defined as someone who has a soul, or believes in spirits, or is governed by her genetic endowments, or his competencies in certain domains such as numeracy or literacy? Should a ‘person’ be constituted on legal or moral grounds, or all of the above?

You can see this line of inquiry opens quite a can of worms, but I’ve really only begun the process.

So, too, do we need to consider the kinds of perceptual biases we educators bring to the process of evaluating ‘personhood’, and consider how we account for such biases.

And next, in widening our base of consideration, we must strive for some agreement about the kinds of ‘learning’ that conjoin with ‘personalization’ to constitute personalized learning. But that begs the question, should this learning reflect westernized, modernistic learning standards – established by the ancient Greeks – or features of learning long-acknowledged in, say, indigenous cultures that prioritize experiences over factual knowledge? And what might we agree on about how learning, in any form, might be authentically assessed?

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us because, to restate, we lack agreements or much shared understanding about many of these questions.

I believe the most important first steps we can take are to observe and listen, deeply, to our students and strive to discern, and then support, the kinds of learning they are urging us to recognize. In some instances their learning will be beyond ours, or deeply different in nature, and we need to be honest about acknowledging and accepting this without prejudice. And we need to be honest about where we are experiencing challenges in perceiving learning, and be open to our own need to join with them in being learners, too. Lifelong.


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