From the Headmaster - October 2016

Personal, Not Personalized

One of the aspects I am enjoying most about getting to know Moravian Academy is seeing and hearing about the personal connections that students, faculty, and even parents are making with lessons taught in school. We know that learners who find personal meaning in what they are studying find it easier to make new memories, find connections between material, and create conclusions. Experience usually confirms that when learners are finding these personal connections, they also seem more motivated, more patient, more willing to overcome setbacks, and find learning more rewarding and enjoyable. This is what we call making learning personal.

We have seen over the past decade a gold rush of sorts in personalized or adaptive learning solutions. Aside from the proliferation of online student accounts for every site, a growing number of educational leaders have pointed out other dangers of our focus on personalizing learning. Will Richardson has offered thoughtful and constructive critiques of this movement for years, starting with his essay “Preparing Students to Learn Without Us” and his more recent follow-up posts (see a few blog posts here and here). He describes a profound difference between making learning personal and personalizing learning. The main difference is that personalized learning is done to students, not by students, and it delivers different content to each learner based on perceived preferences, readiness, and learning modalities. While it sounds promising, personalized learning weakens two values that great schools and great teachers are offering their students: the power of increasing autonomy and the importance of the behaviors, mindsets, and core knowledge that our society expects of all its citizens.

But what does personal, not personalized learning look like? Three experiences at Moravian Academy recently reminded me.

Contemporary Challenges
The Upper School spent last week working through a theme of understanding the outsider. Between Monday’s assembly and an experiential game in advisory, students and teachers shared personal stories, and their own vulnerabilities, to model how different perspectives can coexist and how, when not forced to assimilate, they lead to richer, more robust and more powerful solutions to problems. When Mr. Abbas Khalaf spoke in Chapel on Thursday, students were prepared to understand why he left his family in Syria and how he endured serious setbacks over six years of traveling through Egypt and Israel in order to start a new life and bring his family to America. Sharing personal stories and reflections earlier in the week served to deepen and make more lasting our students’ shared experience on Thursday.

New Ideas for the Classroom
On Friday, a group of faculty and administrators attended the biennial professional development conference hosted by our accrediting body, PAIS. The program was vast (and full of Moravian Academy presenters) and I picked several sessions, including one about teaching students to motivate themselves without grades. Three teachers described a two-day program they run in their middle school that aims to remind students of when learning was fun and seemed more effortless. There were about 20 other educators in the room when I walked in, and three of us were from Moravian Academy! The most excited person was a grade dean in our Middle School, who loved this idea of teaching students how to harness and tap into their intrinsic motivations. We were engaging in personal choice as learners, and we were working together to study how we can help students develop these habits of mind.

The Writing Process
Finally, when I think of personal not personalized learning, I am reminded of my visit to a Lower School classroom earlier this fall. The students were working through various stages of the writing process, using their journal binders. Some students were drafting, some were revising, and others were illustrating and preparing to publish. The variety of what they had written, and how they had chosen to approach the prompts, was striking. Some had taken great care in selecting and polishing their vocabulary choices, others had tried to capture and convey a particular point of view, and others had clearly honed in on creative storytelling. All of them, however, shared some common traits: hands were raised high in the air to share their stories with me, each student was personally connected to what he or she had written, and all of them were learning about the necessary stages of the writing process, from inception and drafting to sharing their writing. It was a fleeting and routine moment in a Moravian class, but it revealed the cornerstones of nuanced, personal learning: helping students connect their own ideas to what they are learning and igniting passions in the pursuit of a universal body of knowledge and skills.

If you have a story of learning made personal, not personalized, I would love to hear about it. Email me at

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Downtown Campus