Source: ASCD, Jan 2012
By pairing personalized learning and technology, a teacher can help students learn what they need to learn through the topics that interest them most.
In this era of access, personalizing learning means allowing students to choose their own paths through the curriculum. For schools and teachers, it means connecting our expectations to students’ passions and interests as learners.
The ability to learn what we want, when we want, with whomever we want as long as we have access creates a huge push against a system of education steeped in time-and-place learning.
are we preparing students to learn without us? How can we shift curriculum and pedagogy to more effectively help students form and answer their own questions, develop patience with uncertainty and ambiguity, appreciate and learn from failure, and develop the ability to go deeply into the subjects about which they have a passion to learn?
Charting Their Own Course
At some schools, that shift is beginning to happen. Teachers at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey have been moving to a more inquiry-based, personalized approach to learning for the last three years. Instead of working through a one-size-fits-all curriculum, students are allowed to chart their own course to meeting school and state expectations. For English teacher Cathy Stutzman, that means encouraging students to take ownership of their own learning and guiding them to course outcomes in individualized ways.
That’s the new dance that teachers have to learn in order to guide students to success—letting each student create his or her own learning experience yet still meet the expectations of the class, the school, the state, and now, perhaps, the nation. At Hunterdon Central, that starts with students creating their own personalized learning plans with the help of the teacher. Those plans clarify the destination in terms of what objectives the students want to achieve, but the route each student takes to meet those objectives differs. Students may select different books to read, use different media to reflect on their progress, and create a variety of artifacts that bring their learning to life.
“It requires a totally different skill set on the teacher’s part,” Stutzman says. “We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because we don’t know the exact direction that a class will go when we walk in. Depending on student questions, reflections, or activities, our plans could quickly morph into something we never dreamed would happen at the outset.”
In other words, it’s risk and reward. “It’s scary not to know exactly where your students will go if their curriculums are potentially different, and it requires a lot of adjusting,” Stutzman explains. “But the benefit is that students get to see our genuine reactions to new discoveries as well as to challenges, and they see us model the learning process together.” Students understand that there is no one “right” answer that the teacher expects, that there are many answers, and that the teacher and students will likely discover many of these together.
Personalized vs. Personal
Despite the promise of personalizing learning and some teachers’ best efforts to give their students more agency in the education process, many educators wonder whether the concept goes far enough in preparing students for the wide array of learning opportunities outside the classroom.
Many educators cite an important difference between “personalized” learning and “personal” learning—the latter connotes a deeper degree of autonomy for the learner. Some, like Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada and a longtime education blogger, see that as an important distinction. “Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us,” Downes (2011) tweeted last fall.
In other words, the truly personal, self-directed learning that we can now pursue in online networks and communities differs substantially from the “personalized” opportunities that some schools are opening up to students. Although it might be an important first step in putting students on a path to a more self-directed, passionate, relevant learning life, it may not bring about the true transformation that many see as the potential of this moment.
It’s a potential summed up nicely in the white paper The Right to Learn (Anytime Anywhere Learning Foundation, 2011). The authors write,
We need to shift our thinking from a goal that focuses on the delivery of something—a primary education—to a goal that is about empowering our young people to leverage their innate and natural curiosity to learn whatever and whenever they need to.