Toward Personalization


Most parents and alumni who read School material, and this blog, will know that the theme of personalization has been a steady, increasingly visible blip on the School’s radar. Since we first started using the word about five years ago, it has also been increasingly visible in most comment on important currents in education.

In the School’s prior strategic plan (in other words, before the current plan of 2012) we started exploring the possibilities, framing the conversation around this reality: brain research has taught us much more than we knew before about how students learn, and pedagogy has responded to that research, while at the same time technology is now clearly becoming educationally useful. Therefore, more and more learning is going to be focused on students’ strengths and passions, more and more it will be experiential, and more and more it will be an unfolding of the conversation among student, teacher and parent – with the student asked to lead the way.

To say that learning will be more focused on strengths and passions, does that mean students will just do what they like, and avoid what they find dull and uninteresting? Not quite. Certain competencies will be necessary, and certain communal experiences will provide the learning that only communal experiences can provide: a sense of belonging, a sense of community, the virtues of teamwork and collaboration, the lessons of competition.

In early grades, students hardly know what their strengths and passions are; therefore opportunity and breadth – shaped by a healthy dose of choice, and the habit of self-direction – will be the reality of elementary education. This environment will gradually give way to a program in the Senior years whose horizon is higher learning after SMUS. You are going to hear the word “pathway” increasingly, as each student navigates by his or her own stars.

To say that learning will be experiential, does that mean it will all take place outside the classroom? It’s easy to see that the challenge of the outdoors is the cradle of experiential education, but in reality there are many examples of experiential education in spheres more intellectual – mathematics, music, history, literature – going back for centuries. We have known for some time that students learn more by doing than by reading the theory of doing, in a textbook.

A larger, more useful characterization of experiential education is a constant effort to make an explicit intersection between learning and the world beyond school, so that eventually the boundaries between the two are blurred.

SMUS-SS-K-Math-RunninggSome might ask how one can make these deliberate connections in all divisions – elementary, Middle School and high school: this morning I saw a Junior School class doing something exciting (and puzzling to me) on the field in front of School House. They were noisy, active, and engaged.

It won’t escape everyone’s comprehension too much longer that the Reggio Emilia-inspired Junior School program, the project-based shape of Middle School, and the explicit experiential practices of the Senior School curriculum are in fact an experiential continuum – different facets of the same coherent gem that is the SMUS education.

In May, we will be gathering our personalization team together with a number of other staff to put our description of personalization into digestible, communicable and workable form. These reflections are just stepping stones to that day.


  1. Indeed, today’s cross campus initiative involving the Junior School Kindergarten students and Senior School Grade 9 Mathematics students was an excellent example of the merging of different facets of that gem that is a SMUS education. The culmination of an Kindergarten inquiry into measurement and Grade 9 integration of mathematical concepts led to a cross campus partnership that demonstrated the essence of new directions in education: authentic experiences that evoked making ‘real world connections’ through problem – based learning in a hands-on, experiential, and engaging format. Furthermore, the core competencies ( those 21st century skills so often profiled) were in full demonstration mode: students with varying degrees of knowledge communicating, collaborating and thinking, both critically and creatively together. Both leaders and learners demonstrated personal and social responsibility in ways that can simply not be communicated through a ‘report card’. Learning was very alive and dynamic for over 40 SMUS students today… the goal is to continue to replicate such rich experiences. Today was an awesome day to be a teacher.