Sunday, January 13, 2013

Helping students find their way in the dark - Personalized Learning Reflection

As I have stated in my previous posts, I am beginning the process to create a personalized learning environment in my classroom. I felt that over the holidays I would think about how I was going to do this, but unfortunately food, family and the amazing outdoors were too good to pass over and I started into my first week back with the same ideas and challenges that were infront of me in December.

Luckily for me that week back was filled with the ISOMA math conference and a two day math department PD session working with Carmel Schettino. Even though neither of these days were focused on personalized learning classrooms, they did allow me to reflect and consider the benefits of a problem based learning classroom and how this pedagogy  could be integrated into the structure that I am hoping to put in place.

An "Ah-Ha" moment came when Carmel showed us a video clip (shown below) of Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem.

As you watch the video, Mr. Wiles describes the challenge of working through this great problem as if walking around a mansion in the dark. When hearing this I pictured my students and their experience with math as a similar process. It is no wonder that they prefer a structured classroom where they can identify what they are learning and have the teacher do direct instruction so that they can never feel lost in the dark. However, with current research and the goal for 21st century learning skills in the classroom, direct instruction is no longer wanted. This change to a personalized classroom is encouraging students to gain the skills of perseverance, collaboration and intrinsic motivation. However these skills are not natural to all students and this transition can prove to be more challenging for some than others.

One of the other teachers in the group stated that Andrew Wiles is being paid and is choosing to move through the dark while our students don't have that choice nor the skills to do so. This was my lightbulb moment and generated a question that may direct my work over the next few months. That question is "What tools do my students need to be able to begin to move through the dark on their own and how do I give them those tools without guding their way?".

I have now started to look at providing my students with various reflective graphic organizers and suggested maps to help them identify their needs, strengths and what first steps they need to do when faced with a dark room. I have decided to continue to use the Green, Blue and Black levels in my class so that students have the ability to self-select the level of speed and scaffolding they will require to move through the dark. As a class we have already begun creating lists of various online resources that they are able to use to help become more independent learners as well as identify the specific skills and math concepts they have learned so far this year that are now in their toolbox.

By taking the time to ensure that my students understand themselves, their point in understanding and showing them where they can go for clarification other than the teacher, I am hoping that the transition to a personalized classroom will be more like walking through a dark mansion with each of them having a small candle to help them make the choice in which direction to take their next step. candle

My next step is to find an online tool that will work well for my students to start creating a map of their skills and concepts. By showing how they are connected to each other, I feel that they will be able to see math as the interconnected web that is necessary to see when working through problems. I am hoping that this tool will allow them to show concept connections, imbed links to websites of interest as well as examples of problems that make the connections between concepts.

If you have any mind mapping software that is free and have some or all of the characteristics above it would be great to hear your suggestions.


  1. Hi Ruth,

    I love the analogy of walking through the dark here, and I think that your question you've proposed as a guiding question is an excellent one! I'll be posting soon about personalized learning, and hopefully that will give you some further food for thought; however, I wanted to go back to a previous post that you've written, and challenge you on what you think personalized learning looks like, sounds like and feels like. By keeping this in the forefront of your thinking, it will help you stay focused on student success.

    In terms of mind-mapping, I did a little research and found this article on mind-mapping from 2003. It starts at the basic level of what is mind-mapping, and then builds to how it can be used effectively in mathematics; in it, the authors argue that mind-mapping can improve a students' understanding that math is not a set of isolated rules and theory, but rather a "network of ideas" that are highly interconnected. (

    I also know that Sue Armstrong had some great resources being shared last F2F meeting. She posted about concept maps ( so that might be a good place to start, or engage Sue via Twitter @Su11armstrong and get that conversation going.

    I hope this helps,

  2. Thanks again Garth for the post!

    I did check out Sue's website with ideas and have had a few kids playing around on the Ipads with the Inspriation Maps application which has been working fairly well. It is great to have a few students working away on something I needed test driven. As for what I see a personalized classroom to look like, I am developing that throughout this process. As I try new things I am seeing if it fits into my model. My goal is to determine what that Middle School Math Personalized class is, and how I am going to work in it.

    I hope that my next post will clarify this process and my goals.

    Thanks again!