Everyone is a Storyteller

Personalize learning by empowering every learner to tell their story

by Kathleen McClaskey

As we embark on a new era where we plan to transform education by creating learner-centered environments and have learners take ownership of their learning, we need to first empower all learners to tell their story and how they learn. Where do you begin?

Personalized Learning Always Starts with the Learner

It is the beginning of the school year and you have been handed a list of your learners along with a set of numerical data that has been collected based upon their standardized tests over the last few years. What does this data tell you? It probably contains information about the strengths and weaknesses the learner has in literacy and numeracy and it may include how they are performing at grade levels. In some cases, you may be able to locate in your school’s data system the specific competencies your learner has mastered. But does all this information tell you how this learner actually learns? Consider the personal learning data: the strengths, challenges, preferences and needs in learning, the social and emotional side to learning, the affective side of learning.

Would you like to know...

  • what they see their strengths are?
  • what they understand their challenges are in their learning?
  • how they prefer or need to access information?
  • how they prefer or need to engage with content?
  • how they prefer or need to express what they know and understand?
  • what they are interested in?
  • what they are passionate  about?
  • how they would describe themselves?
  • how they may want to make a difference?

 “Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests.” - Sir Ken Robinson

Learners Tell Their Story Using the UDL Lens (Not Learning Styles)

The first question you may have is why use the UDL (Universal Design for Learning®) Lens for learners to share and understand how they learn?  UDL is grounded in neuroscience and provides an understanding about the what, how and why of learning and tells us that there is variability in how each learner learns. The three UDL principles are multiple means of representation, multiple means of engagement and multiple means of action and expression, and serve as a framework to personalize learning. For a more practical application, the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express™ was developed so that learners could use it first to tell their story; their strengths, challenges, preferences and needs in how:

  • to access and process information
  • to engage with content
  • to express what we know and understand

The next question you may be asking is why would you have learners use the UDL Lens instead of learning styles to share how they learn. The fact is that learning styles have no basis in research. For almost four decades the notion that teaching methods should match a learner’s particular learning style has had a powerful influence in education. However, a study published in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest challenged the concept of learning styles and their affect on performance. Four prominent cognitive psychologists found no evidence for validating educational applications of learning styles into general education practice. This was their conclusion: “Research conducted over 40 years has failed to show that individual attributes can be used to guide effective teaching practice. Rather than being a harmless fad, learning styles often perpetuates stereotyping and harmful teaching practices it is suppose to fight.” (Pashler et al, 2009).

Let’s take a closer look at the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express™ and how a learner can share how they learn by using a Learner Profile (LP) that also includes their interests, talents, passions, aspirations and the words that would describe them.

Words about me:  curious, imaginative, artistic, friendly

Interests: soccer, baseball, history

Talents: storytelling, drawing, connecting the dots, mental math

Passionate about: fishing, having a business one day

Aspirations: forest ranger, comic book illustrator

The  information in the Learner Profile (LP) helps each learner tell his story and how he learns with the teacher. This is the foundation from which conversations, relationships and partnerships in learning are built. What are the possible messages and outcomes from a learner using the Learner Profile?

  • It helps validate the learner and how they learn.
  • It tells the learner that you care about who they are.
  • It creates a community of learners based on trust and respect.

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” - Dr. James Comer

Building Partnerships in Learning

As the partnership between teacher and learner grows, a collaboration evolves to design a Personal Learning Backpack (PLB) of tools and resources to help this learner develop the skills to support his own learning. From the Learner Profile (LP) described above, it is decided to work on an Access challenge this learner has around reading. It is decided that that the Voice Dream Reader app is a tool that can help this learner become more independent and support comprehension in his reading. The teacher and this learner also discuss a similar tool for reading online, the text Help Read & Write Google Chrome™ app. They collaborate in writing an Access learning goal that the learner can include in his Personal Learning Plan (PLP):

“I want to learn how to use text-to-speech apps to support my reading and comprehension of materials and texts.”

In the PLP learners establish learning goals and action steps along with a way to measure their own progress. Goal setting, action steps and progress monitoring is not usually intuitive for every learner so there needs to be instruction and modeling for learners to acquire these skills. The learning goals are designed for the learner to gain the skills and strategies they need to become more independent and self-directed in their learning, in other words, a learner with agency. As the learner monitors their own progress, they will reflect on their goals and set new ones based on regular review of the Learner Profile and Personal Learning Backpack. When new goals are set, teacher and learner can discuss, define, and plan skills and learning strategies together.

During this three-step process of reviewing the Learner Profile, deciding on the tools, apps, resources and skills in the Personal Learning Backpack and then indicating what learning goals to include in the Personal Learning Plan, the learner gains the skills that will develop agency. As the learner gains new skills and strategies, challenges may turn into strengths and the partnership with the teacher grows stronger. When this happens, the learner is on the path to becoming a self-directed learner with agency who can advocate for their own learning.

“A Learner with agency is a learner that is Future Ready!” - Kathleen McClaskey

Access, Engage and Express is a trademark of Kathleen McClaskey (kathleenmcclaskey.com). Universal Design for Learning is a registered trademark of CAST (www.cast.org).  Read & Write for Google Chrome is a trademark of Texthelp Ltd.. Voice Dream Reader is copyrighted by Voice Dream, LLC (http://www.voicedream.com/) .

To learn more about how to personalize learning and the three-step process of the Learner Profile, Personal Learning backpack and Personal Learning Plan, refer to How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper by Bray and McClaskey (2016)

Reference: Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. (2010). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119.

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