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Why Personalize?? August 29, 2012

Posted by R. Falk Wiebe, PhD in Personalizing education.
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So, I have to confess that some things take me awhile. I’ve been talking and teaching about personalizing learning for a few years now, but it wasn’t until this summer that I caught a glimpse of its power. And that took experience…not on the giving end, but on the receiving. I think, finally, I’m beginning to get it: I know what it feels like when someone chooses to make an experience personal for me.

This spring, my dad’s ophthalmologist picked up on a bulge on his retina—not necessarily anything to worry about, but it had potential to be malignant. Now, our family has been through cancer before: we have known the dehumanizing impact of protracted examinations, staggered visits to multiple specialists, long waits for results, and miasmic diagnoses and treatment plans. Our family is much too familiar with the medical community’s traditional methods of doing good.

Which is why this recent experience stands out as completely different. And why I took note of it as an educator.

Our day began with the ocular oncologist. She sat on her swivel stool facing Dad, engaging him in conversation about his life before retirement, his habits and health since, his hopes for the future: it turns out that, at age 87, his regimen of 4 kms and 2 Sudokus per day are part of a larger set of goals for life beyond 2025. The doctor listened, probed, paraphrased. In education, we’d call it formative assessment: I’m guessing her notes recorded something about his cognitive organization, his memory, his characteristic optimism. Then she turned her chair, flipped a switch and began teaching us about the scans that had been sent to her. She pointed out blood vessels, retina, eye wall, and the ominous bulge. Throughout this lesson, she probed our comprehension, made room for our questions, and connected things Dad had just told her. Her summary included possible explanations for the bulge, including the suspicion that it was a retinal melanoma. Finally, she articulated the questions she still had.

In response to those questions, she offered more tests. I braced myself for the usual list of future appointments and anticipated the many drives from the suburbs to the city. It was tempting to decline the offer and hope for the best (easy for me to say as it’s not my bulge!). “My guess is, given your future goals, you’ll want to be aggressive with this. But let me fill you in on what’s ahead.

“You’ll go downstairs for a few hours,” she continued, “for some scans and field of vision tests. Then you’ll come back to me and we’ll talk about the results. After that, there may be more tests, but we’ll decide that later. By the end of the day, you’ll have a diagnosis, and then we’ll work together to decide our course of action. So, before you go home today, if you want to work with us, we’ll have a treatment plan.”


Dad, Mom, and I looked at each other. Dad thought his failing hearing actually had failed: “By the end of today?” I heard him clear his throat.

That is exactly how the day went. We engaged in many conversations with technicians and specialists, hearing their explanations, expressing opinions, making life-impacting decisions. By 7:15pm, we had received the promised diagnosis, had participated in choosing a treatment plan, and had three dates for surgery and follow-up. Furthermore, we had the name and personal phone number of someone in the office we could call if we had questions or concerns. Throughout the day, the people we encountered were our coaches, teaching us about the results they were seeing, and developing our understanding of options and consequences. We walked out of the Centre feeling like experts in charge of Dad’s illness.

The three of us pulled off the freeway for dinner on our way home. Walking from the car to the restaurant, Dad sighed, “What a lovely day!” How many people can say that of they day on which they were diagnosed with cancer?

I want to create those kinds of days for kids. Lovely days. Days they feel like experts regarding their learning, knowledgeably making informed and timely choices about next steps. In charge. That’s what personalization feels like. Thank you, Dr. Katherine Paton, for teaching me.


Five Strong Messages from “Changing Results for Young Readers: Seeding Success” August 28, 2012

Posted by R. Falk Wiebe, PhD in Literacy acquisition.
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More than 100 of us have gathered in Richmond, BC, for the provincial Early Reading Symposium. We are setting the foundation for province-wide, year-long teacher inquiry into classroom practices that support young children in literacy learning. Yesterday, at least five strong messages came from the speakers, including our provincial Ministry of Education leaders. How encouraging and exciting to hear:

1. Aboriginal education is important for ALL learners in BC. Hurrah, Trish Rosborough, for bringing us these words as we work to break down barriers, build understanding, and shape the emergence of a resilient Canadian society.
2. Teacher professional judgment in learner assessment is trustworthy (and trusted!).
3. No published program can match informed teacher decision-making in impacting literacy acquisition (cf. Richard Allington as well as “What Works Clearinghouse” for analysis of program effectiveness—thanks, Faye for summarizing the research).
4. Teacher inquiry drives systemic change in education.
5. BC primary teachers, as a group, are among the three most effective groups of educators in the world in supporting young children toward literacy (Linda Kaser cited the research on this).

Refreshing! Inspiring!