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The Teacher’s Long Tail

by | Oct 26, 2017 | Reflection

We’re in the first week of a 2 week nano-challenge, and some hard truths are setting in.

Students at the Center

At the core of personalized learning is the idea that students need to be at the center, not just of the learning activities we engage in, but of the design process that determines those learning activities, not to mention the big ideas and essential questions that frame those activities.

This is the purpose of our focus on the Challenge Based Learning Framework (CBLF). By equipping kids with this framework for learning, they’ll be much more capable of taking on the responsibility that comes with being at the center of their learning. By teaching them how to learn, they’ll have the skills they need when they come upon a “what to learn” that really motivates them (and they’ll be better able to identify those ‘whats’ as well).


We’re starting with a nano-challenge in order to ease students into this process. To help them begin to get familiar with the CBLF without having to jump in and do everything all at once.

As the lead learner, I provide them with the Engage phase – The Big Idea, the Essential Question, and the Challenge – as well as some of the Guiding Questions, Resources and Activities for the Investigate phase.

Their primary job is to access those resources and activities in order to answer those GQs…in pursuit of the understanding and skills needed to complete their challenge (which is the beginning of the Act phase).

In other words, a nano-challenge is a baby step. It’s a very well-structured learning endeavor that provides tons of supports and guidance, while still allowing a fair amount of choice around how students internalize the challenge and what they end up producing to show evidence of their learning.

The Long Tail

Though we’re only on day 3 of this nano-challenge, the early feedback amounts to what I think is the biggest challenge we face in our move to personalized learning. Students have been so well trained to seek out clear, simple directions so they can produce a bland, underwhelming product that represents what they think the teacher wants, that the whole purpose – the meaningful learning – is secondary at best (and, more likely, not part of their focus/calculation at all).

I’ve seen plenty of elementary age students excited by the thrill of learning. But by the time they reach high school, the thrill is often gone. The critical question, then, is how do we get high school kids excited about the possibilities that a student-centered approach offers? How do we get them to see the opportunities rather than the risks? So that school becomes less of a ‘have-to’ and more of a ‘get-to’.

Maybe it’s just a matter of time. Giving them enough opportunities to practice in this new role. Time will tell, I guess. But one thing is for sure. The tail of teacher-centered learning is long indeed.


The Student Project Plan (the document guiding this Challenge) can be found here. And the (usually) daily posts that present/describe our learning plans can be found on our classroom website (The Narrows).

Jeb Dickerson

Jeb Dickerson


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