Making Education Personal


As a rising senior at Burlington High, I have begun the nostalgic act of reflecting over my years in school. From an early age I have invested myself firmly into my education, taking responsibility for my courses and my academic achievement, as well as curiously observing and noting periods of great academic success and struggle. What informed my successes or struggles, I discovered, was relative to the classroom environment I was in. I quote John Dewey, the late educational reformer who pioneered work in progressive education, as he so accurately asserts, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Dewey vitalizes the gravity of education in the context of life. He develops the idea that education is more than assessments and acquisition of knowledge, yet is active inquiry and participation, realization of potential, and personal development. Education is active and dynamic. I ask, then, why are we teaching so statically?

Learning is a largely intimate endeavor. While it requires both community and self, learning is an enterprise which affects the student on a personal level, ultimately requiring an individual experience for holistic development. The educational environments in which I flourished fostered creativity, adventure, and passion, while inspiring development, personal triumph, and diversity. I was encouraged to construct, to actively interact with my curriculum within the context of the given subject matter. I was perpetuated to question, to discover, to challenge, and to satisfy my innermost queries. I later learned this is called personalized learning. It was here, in these classrooms, in these “personal laboratories”, that I learned efficiently, that I learned proactively, and that I learned genuinely.

Timmy TEDxIt was not only these personal laboratories that afforded to my genuine learning, yet it was my teachers, more properly titled “academic coaches”, who invested themselves in me, in my classmates, and into the philosophies of Dewey. These coaches did not segregate the classroom into teacher and student, content deliverer and content receiver, yet they permeated that rigid construct and developed relationships with the students. They demonstrated authentic interest in the individual’s personal learning goals, which was then reciprocated by the student as authentic interest in his learning. They made the classroom symbiotic because they were not afraid to learn and to question with their students. And, chiefly, they provided personalized feedback.

Feedback does, notably, have the greatest affect on student learning. This assertion is both documented in John Hattie’s meta-analysis of student learning, as well as confirmed by myself, a current student aware of his intellectual developmental needs. This feedback, like the classroom environment, must be personalized to the student. Much of the personalized learning scenario described above depends on personalized feedback from the teacher. When students are specifically informed of what was understood and misunderstood, as well as advised in which direction to progress, and to further their work, they will retain the information and improve. It is essential that students further the work post-feedback. Assessments do not inform students on content, nor how to improve, when they are employed as the end result. Yet, assessments used throughout, or as a learning process, yield the greatest development.

As I reflect, I am fondly reminded of my personal laboratories, my academic coaches, and my personalized feedback. I can recall with great detail the lessons, the incredible men and women, and the personal and academic advice they extended. I remember all of this because it was personal. It was designed by educational innovators determined for students’ success. It was the teachers, the coaches, who allowed me, who perpetuated me, to challenge and to explore. It was their advice, their words, their individual work with me. And as I continue on past high school, I will always credit those laboratories, those people, and that advice, to contributing to a successful education- to a successful life.


Timmy Sullivan, a senior at Burlington High School, eagerly promotes personalized learning and student agency cultures through his work as a freelance blogger and public speaker. He enjoys foreign language, vinyl records, and student agency in education.