Personalization and belonging

SMUS-Views-Bob

One of the fears of the personalization trend in education is that in the personalized school, with students following their own individual paths, they will be more like ships passing in the night than classmates, team mates, and even soulmates. Every year on Alumni weekend, it is clear that alums return because of the friendships they formed, often in challenging circumstances, doing things that required them to depend on each other. They have a strong sense of belonging. In the world at large, this sense of belonging is viewed as one of the most important sources of fulfillment in life, and one of the most significant deficiencies where it doesn’t exist.

A personalized school, therefore, needs also to be a communal school. In trying to picture how SMUS will adapt to suit the personal quest for fulfillment, we recognize that some of the most important experiences at SMUS are those that are shared: sports teams, orchestras, musical productions, service trips. In each of these a student can be pursuing a personal passion, perhaps even one that can only be pursued with a group. As you think this through, you realize that the picture we will draw of the future SMUS will probably resemble very much the one we see today. Students will be attending class on a schedule – although probably more classes will take place in the evening or on weekends. Sports teams, communal gatherings like Chapel and Assembly will still take place, the orchestra will still perform, and we will still mount theatrical and musical productions. The invisible difference will be that whole classes will not be doing the same thing at the same time – the mix in each class or each gathering will be populated by students following more varied timetables than they follow now.

This is hard to describe in detail, and the only evidence will probably be the comparison of one student’s weekly schedule with another’s. The individual student who is in the musical or going to volleyball practice or sitting in Assembly will find himself or herself in classes and groups of other students whose educational plans are more mixed than they are now. Students will be taking more terms off, they will be doing more project-based work out of class, they will be spending officially recognized time pursuing an independent passion such as figure skating, painting, or robotics. Most students might take advantage of this flexibility only once or twice during their educational career, some will do it more, but the communal experiences will still be important in the life of the School.

This description makes the coming trend of personalization seem like a less radical departure from our existing world than we might fear. If it works well, personalization will provide students with more flexibility, more success, and an education that is both more suited to their individual strengths and equally communal in its sense of belonging. “If it works well” is the operative phrase, which is why we need to think about it now – before we are in the midst of it, looking for our compass – or more likely – our GPS.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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