Re-Imagining the PLP: A Systems Approach to Increasing Student Ownership

At last week’s Standards-Based Learning Symposium at St. Michael’s college, I orchestrated a workshop that shared this blog’s title. Not having any particular expertise with PLPs (but committed to making our schools more learner-centered and brain-friendly), I sent out an email to a swath of colleagues whom I knew had the PLP expertise I lacked. I asked them if they would help me prepare for this PLP workshop by answering these questions:

1. As you look out over the Vermont learning landscape regarding PLP, what are some of the bright spots--successes worth celebrating and emulating--you've encountered?
2. What are some of the most pressing questions educators and their learners are posing (or should be posing) about PLP?
3. What resources--texts, conferences, websites, human, other--do you recommend to educators looking to make PLP more robust and meaningful for their learners?
4. What other ideas / tips do you have that might help me become wiser about the ways--real and hoped for--of PLP?

I edited / organized the responses I received into a google doc (Our Collective Wisdom about PLP), and I invited participants in last week’s workshop to add to this document. (I’m sharing it here with editing rights in hopes that you, Dear Reader, might also add ideas / resources that contribute to our understanding of PLP.)

Here are the slides from the workshop, which I annotate here in hopes that they might be of help to others.

Slides 1 - 4

As participants arrived they were greeted by Bob Dylan’s 
Gotta Serve Somebody, which forecasted the workshop’s organizing question: Whom do we serve, and how might PLP help?

Slides 5-10
I then posed the obvious-yet-often-missed point about personalizing instruction: When we know and understand our learners, it’s a whole lot easier to personalize learning. I then shared a few photos and anecdotes about a few young people that I know well, making the point that when we really know and understand others, personalizing instruction becomes a natural response to their ways of making sense of the world. Participants then identified a young person they know and understand well, and they partnered to introduce those young people to each other, making sure to describe the young person’s distinct personality / nature.
The takeaway of this set of slides: the depth and quality of a PLP depends on the depth and quality of our relationship with, and commitment to, our learners.

Slides 11- 13
We then pivoted to the field of cognitive science, exploring the central thesis of Thomas Armstrong’s The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. Armstrong argues that schools, in a well-intended effort to manage the challenges that adolescents pose, inadvertently create conditions that suppress the miraculous learning powers of the adolescent brain. Adolescents need learning experiences that tack with the stormy-yet-predictable winds of their adolescent brains and bodies, working with their biological pull for risk taking, sensation seeking, peer to peer meaning making, and reward seeking. How might PLP rooted in the reality of who our students are be part of a systemic effort to create conditions that tack with the winds of the adolescent brain and body, rather than creating seemingly-safer, but stultifying, harbors?
We also explored a central idea from Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Pink shows how humans are motivated by conditions that feed our need for mastery (getting really good at something), autonomy (owning what & how one gets good at something), and purpose (feeling the personal relevance and importance of the work). How might PLP help more students experience greater mastery, autonomy, and purpose?

Slides 14-20
We then  looked at a short excerpt from a NYT article, How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers, which quotes a “towering figure in the field of quality measurement”,  Avedis Donabedian, who pronounced, “The secret to quality is love.” And then to the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and assign tasks, but rather teacher them to long for the sea.” 

But how can this work in schools where students are taking 5-8 disconnected classes? How can students be expected to long for so many different and seemingly-separate seas? And how can teachers be expected to elicit longing for their disciplines when they don't have time and space to really know and understand their learners? We then reminded ourselves of what great teachers do, and how PLP could do what great teachers do.

Slides 21-22
We then did a Think, Pair, Share in response to this prompt: When you’re asked “Why are we doing PLP?” what are the reasons you give? After pairing / sharing, we considered the question: Did anyone write down, “Because our mission makes it clear that we must”? No one had. We then studied a document, which showcased the mission statements from all of the attending participants’ schools / school systems. We paused to read through these mission statements, considering the question: What do these have to say about the need, or not, for PLP?
We considered how leaders and educators have messaged the PLP, and whether there’s been proper attention to the why, before settling into the what and how. We also returned to the question posed by Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody: Whom and what are we here to serve?
We also considered the brain truisms, Practice predicts performance and We become what we do over time. Are students practicing, or just preparing for, what these mission statements describe? How might PLP be a way to get students engaged in practicing what these mission statements describe, so when students graduate, they are skilled at the performance that lies before them?

Slides 24-25
We then turned to a list of Principles and Practices for designing and implementing PLP in ways that can leverage the power and potential of our learners. All of these principles and practices, though, are rooted in the questions: What would happen if we flipped the notion that “students come to school to study” to “students come to school to be studied”? Rather than seeing school as a place to prepare students for their future lives, what if, as John Dewey continues to urge us, education became about life itself?

Slides 26-28
We read through and discussed Cecil W. Morris’ poem, Teaching Dreams, a great poem that raises many questions about teaching and learning, in particular, the way the human brain often learns best the unintended lessons schools and educators impart. Our brains, outside of our conscious awareness, pick up on implicit messages that our environments send us. How might we be more intentional about the implicit messages our schools send students, creating conditions that invite learners to describe matters to them and what they really are learning throughout their years of school, rather than “covering” the learning?

Slides 29-30
I then described my own experience in the last few years, as part of a team that designs and orchestrates What’s the Story? (WtS), a credit-earning, flexible pathway that personalizes a proficiency-based experience for middle and high school students. This blended learning environment, as well as I’ve ever seen, brings out the best in adolescent learners because the designers, instructors, and mentors tack with the winds of who their learners are, while leaning on the rudder of proficiencies to target transferable skills. Recently our current cohort of students wrote blog posts about what WtS is and means to them so that prospective students can hear it from the students themselves. Here’s a link to one of those blog posts, and here’s where you can access the rest. Just listen to these voices! Are they cooped up in a harbor, or out sailing the seas they long for?

Slides 31-34
To wrap things up, we read this excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s Stepping Backwards,

So I come back to saying this good-by,
A sort of ceremony of my own,
This stepping backward for another glance.
Perhaps you’ll say we need no ceremony,
Because we know each other, crack and flaw,
Like two irregular stones that fit together.
Yet still good-by, because we live by inches
And only sometimes see the full dimension.

A re-imagined, systemic approach to PLP might help end the fragmentation and disconnectedness that mark our current students’ experience as they make their way through our school systems, and help replace it with a coherent and connected system whose mission is to help each of our learners realize and bring their very best selves to each other and our world.
I then shared some mind-boggling photos from an incredible book Overview, which Amazon’s describes this way.

Inspired by the "Overview Effect"--a sensation that astronauts experience when given the opportunity to look down and view the Earth as a whole--the breathtaking, high definition satellite photographs in OVERVIEW offer a new way to look at the landscape that we have shaped. More than 200 images of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature highlight incredible patterns while also revealing a deeper story about human impact. This extraordinary photographic journey around our planet captures the sense of wonder gained from a new, aerial vantage point and creates a perspective of Earth as it has never been seen before.

How might a systemic approach to PLP provide an “overview effect” that helps educators diminish our learners living by inches (experiencing separate, discipline-centered approaches and disconnected grade levels) and enable our learners to experience the full dimension of themselves, others, and the world they live in?

Slide  35
One of my favorite slides, conveying the latin derivations for the word education.

Summary of the Entire Workshop
The health and vitality of PLP depends on our school systems’ unstated-but-practiced missions. In school systems committed to the traditional factory model of discipline-centered learning, PLP will be marginalized and become an irritation to most educators and students. In school systems committed to creating a 21st century model of student-centered learning, PLP, will, over time, thrive.

Finally, a big thank you to all of you who responded to my initial call for help, and a huge thank you, in particular, to Don Taylor (Main Street Middle School, Montpelier), Chris Palmer (BFA, Fairfax), and Life LeGeros & Susan Hennessey (Tarrant Institute for Innovation in Education), who provided information and resources that made this workshop work.