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Learning at its Best

4 Stages of Personalization (Music Metaphors Included)

Why doesn’t my supermarket have a live mariachi band? I’m stuck with Carol King. Anticipation? I’m anticipating a day when I can get some corridos live in the produce aisle.


I’m standing in the grocery store aisle, trying to cost-compare in my monumental struggle to find the greatest bargain on black beans. “I hear the earth move from under my feet, I feel the sky tumbling down . . .” Carol King is beckoning me back to the shag carpet of my childhood, where I would listen to soft rock on vinyl. It’s decent music, not too offensive, if a little boring. It fits with the fluorescent lighting and rows of processed products.

When I leave the store, I flip through the stations, each one geared toward a specific demographic group. Somehow, I don’t fit. None of the stations will play the artists I like. I can’t imagine the rock station choosing Sufjan Stevens or Damien Rice. So I settle for NPR and listen to Garrison Keiller tell me the news from Lake Wobegon.

At home, I turn to Pandora, where I can customize the station to fit my own tastes. It’s not exactly an iPod. I am unable to instantly access any song I prefer. Instead, I get to provide my thumbs up or thumbs down and over time, the station will expose me to artists that I had never known (like Ben Harper or the Neutral Milk Hotel).

And yet . . . I’m looking forward to the jam session. Andrew is playing at the Roosevelt Tavern. He’ll be taking requests. Less choice for sure, but the music will be real.

These four musical models represent my own journey in shifting toward a more authentic, personalized approach.

Stage One: Standardization
Metaphor: Muzak
Goal: Reach the entire class
Focus Questions: What does my class need? How can I motivate this group?
Description: At the beginning of student teaching, I followed the corporate, data-driven methods of the textbook companies. I started with the history book, bland like grocery store music and absence of anything offensive. My students listened to the fluff under our classroom fluorescent lights and I grew resentful of students who despised the grocery store atmosphere.
Pros: A teacher can plan great lessons and get the “middle group” really interested. It’s also easier to plan.
Cons: Students get bored and become disengaged.

Stage Two: Differentiation
Goal: Reach different levels within the class
Focus Questions: What does each small group need? How can I differentiate my instruction?
Metaphor: Broadcasting / Multiple Stations
Description: When I had a class of my own, I created several lessons based upon the notion of differentiated instruction. I leveled my class on ability and on performance and on learning style. I had my Top 40 style and my hip hop style and my oldies group. The class didn’t have to play the same tune. Students could choose a station that fit their own style.
Pros: I’m providing intervention and enrichment
Cons: It can be time consuming and the layers of differentiation can get confusing

Stage Three: Customization
Goal: Provide individual choice so that students can own their learning
Focus Questions: What does each student need? How can I get to know students well enough to customize instruction? How can I plan projects so that students can customize on their own?
Metaphor: Pandora
Description: If Muzak uses data to get a broad, bland scope and Clear Channel data to create stations, a Pandora approach uses data to help provide suggestions and support for individuals. Here, the students can choose things that are quirky and odd, their own indie and mainstream fare that fits their personal preference.
Pros: Students get exactly what they need and they find it based upon teacher recommendation.
Cons: It can turn too individualistic and it can mirror a consumeristic mentality. Choice menus have a place, but there is a danger in relying on the menu instead of forging one’s own path. Also, it requires quality teacher-student relationship and creative planning.

Stage Four: Personalization
Goal: Students are free, empowered and ready to make learning personal
Focus Questions: What does each student need? How do students express these needs? How can I shift from a catechism to an ongoing dialogue? How do I shift from “providing choices” to facilitating a democratic process?
Metaphor: A jam session where each voice matters, where there is a balance between solos and shared harmonies
Description: The shift here is from choice to freedom, where the power is more horizontal. It’s a chance to develop loose lessons with a greater sense of student autonomy. It’s real. It’s personal. It’s respectful of autonomy and identity.
Pros: Students become independent, self-directed learners who own their learning process. And unlike customization, it’s sustainable.
Cons: It can be difficult for students who aren’t used to the autonomy. And unlike the customized approach, there are times when the will of the group will supersede the right of the individual. There’s a tension here that’s difficult both for teachers and students.

photo credit

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “4 Stages of Personalization (Music Metaphors Included)

  1. Love this, John. Given that Kidzmet is all about giving parents & teachers the tools to provide a more Pandora-like learning experience to kids, I just posted it for our FB fans. I’m sure they’ll resonate with it, too.

    All the best,

    Posted by Kidzmet (@kidzmet) | November 22, 2011, 2:44 pm
  2. As a music teacher and student of human nature, I am blown away by the wisdom and creativity in this post. I spent thirty years trying to individualize/differentiate the teaching of music, without losing the beauty and power of making music together, the foundational concept/goal I was aiming to teach.

    I know what happens when music teachers bring competition, standardization and commercialism into their classrooms. And I know how difficult it is to teach kids who have spent their lives (and built their academic reputations) on compliance and competition.

    You have brilliantly outlined the road ahead. I hope.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | November 22, 2011, 3:56 pm
  3. John,

    Like most of your posts, I love this one. Muzak (or education) for the masses — just acceptable enough to not simulaneously raise the ire of a significant number of people. For some reason, Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years” pops into mind, particularly the line, “The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.”

    Your listing of Pros & Cons certainly seems spot-on!

    Posted by Brent Snavely | November 22, 2011, 4:28 pm
  4. very cool. which black beans did you buy?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 22, 2011, 5:41 pm
  5. Hey John,

    I love this as far as it goes. But what about stage 5?

    Stage Five: Holism and Transformation
    Goal: Students are fully connected with themselves and the cosmos
    Focus Question: Who are you? What is our real purpose?
    Metaphor: Vast Silence – in which all is one
    Description: This is a move through relationship and community, but ultimately towards the interiority to a deep exploration of self through which the universal is revealed. It is education for wholeness, for peace – it results in REAL freedom, beyond the partial freedom and the illusion of freedom that libertarian education sometimes affords (no offense y’all.)
    Pros: Adopted broadly and taken seriously this vision of holistic education is the foundation for peace and health, both within each individual and for humanity as a whole.
    Cons: Aspirants to Stage Five will be dismissed as idealistic and utopian. It is a hard thing to define, particularly in a tweet or even a blog post-length piece.

    Lately I’ve been re-reading some of my touchstone authors and I am reminded through the work of Ron Miller, Douglas Sloan, William Doll, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Parker Palmer, John P Miller, and the Co-op’s own, Ba Luvmour, et al, that I want to keep my eyes on the prize and re-focus my pedagogy on this vision of wholeness.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | November 22, 2011, 11:29 pm
  6. I agree with the reflection and analysis here. I know how thoughtful your writing is and I know this is about your personal journey as a teacher and I am grateful. At the same time (and perhaps this would be the subject of future posts or maybe you have already written about this) I think the categorical labels we give ourselves (teacher/student/admin/classroom/text) get in the way of the effortless moment when we transcend them and merge with mastery. The road to mastery has all of your stages all the time. Stage Four was present even as you were surviving in Stage One. I don’t think you have to go through them to get to some place. Can’t the endless noodling of jam bands and bebopsters can be just as annoying as the pap of Muzak?

    I suppose what I am going on about is that our teaching journey has as much to do with who we are at heart and where we are as we teach as it does about how we teach. There is a core of our teacherly self that is comes without effort and is full of ease at every stage of the path. Maybe we could do as well to explore that core learning/sharing self that does not change, the one that I assert drives the surface we normally see and reflect upon. I think I want to know what hasn’t changed in your teaching. I think that deserves a good ‘explore’, too.

    We are all doing that. We are looking for the kind of effortless earliest learning that language represents, that learning to walk represents, but schools drive that passion into hiding. Instead, an avatar, some strategic student persona, takes that learner’s place as the master of the one ring of learning.  We put the ‘childishness’ of effortless learning aside.  So sad because the childlike learning so common to our early development is always ready to step forward.  For example, Spotify is a nearly effortless way to learn about music.  You find music that you like and the program shows you related music you might like and it also shows you biographies and further information you might want to look at–but the key word is that it is your choice.  A click has almost no friction so the tendency is to ‘learn’. Combined with our seeming biological need to know (we get nice chemical jolts when we make connections in the brain) and you get the effortless learning that hearkens to how we learn language and standing on our hind legs.

    So I am advocating the obvious–part of becoming a teacher is becoming a better learner ourselves but a larger part is also empathizing so thoroughly with our co-learners (read students) so thoroughly that we can jam with them but that we can also hold onto the simple melodic line that inspired the jam. We need to be both master and child.

    Posted by tellio | November 29, 2011, 9:36 am


  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Personalisering van leerprogramma’s - November 24, 2011

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