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Stop Trying to Define Personalized Learning

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WE NEED TO DEFINE PERSONALIZED LEARNING!

No. No we don’t.

While personalized learning (PL) may be a “thing,” it is not a thing.

As of today, PL is a set of loosely-related (sometimes completely unrelated) hypotheses. Educators, families and funders are testing to see if we can do better than the traditional classroom model of putting 20-30 similarly-aged students in a room with one adult for about an hour.

Defining personalized learning gives the illusion that we know what works. But we don’t. There are no classic recipes to use yet—just breadcrumbs to follow, and we are not even sure where they all lead.

Defining personalize learning can also harm creativity. There are so many approaches and permutations that have yet to be explored, but overly ambitious definitions can nudge people to treat school design like ordering food off a menu: “Can I please have an order of competency-based learning with a side of station-rotation? And can we supersize it?” These definitions can limit creativity by suggesting there is not much left to be figured out—only boxes to check.

If you hear a school say, “Just tell me what to do,” run for the hills.

Instead of parsing definitions, I find it useful to think about personalized learning in terms of the big problems schools are trying to solve. If one approach fails, a school can try another, undeterred from pursuing its ultimate goal. We need “learning engineers” and teachers, unconstrained by conventional wisdom, leading thousands of experiments, creating new proofpoints.

For example...

Hypothesis: Adults can provide more individualized attention to students. 

Let’s assume a class has 1 teacher, 24 students and 60 minutes before the bell rings. There is a basic tradeoff here between time with an adult and individual attention.

  1. A teacher can spend all 60 minutes talking to the whole group of 24 students. Everyone gets teacher time, but the time is not terribly intimate.
  2. The teacher can spend 30 minutes each with groups of 12 students. It’s more intimate, but the 12 students that aren’t with the teacher need to find something productive to do on their own.
  3. The teacher could work with 6 students at a time and rotate every 15 minutes. We often call this guided instruction or workshop. Now, 18 students have to find something useful to do.
  4. Or, every student could get one-on-one time with the teacher for exactly 2.5 minutes.

There are two main levers schools can pull here: 1) lower student-to-adult ratios, which could could mean fewer students or more adults; or 2) students spend more time working independently so adults are freed to work more intimately with smaller groups of kids.

There are a staggering number of efforts—many of which fall under the personalized learning umbrella—to find elegant approaches to this issue, both by schools and companies. Some varied approaches to this challenge:

  1. Some schools, like Montessori For All and Summit Public Schools, have long independent work blocks, and teachers use this time to conference one-on-one or with small groups of students for extended periods.
  2. Zeal is an online tutoring company where live tutors conference with students using video chat and digital whiteboarding. The just-in-time tutoring effectively increases the number of adults “in the room.”
  3. Intrinsic Schools in Chicago uses flexible space to have three adults support 60 students.
  4. Other schools are using online learning stations to keep kids productive while teachers work with small groups of students.

This array of approaches incorporates independent learning, flexible space, online learning, virtual tutors and live, small-group instruction. On the one hand, each of these seemingly unrelated concepts can confuse what we mean by personalized learning, but here, they are different ways of approaching the same common challenge.

Hypothesis: We can customize education for individual students. 

Organizations take multiple approaches to help students control the pace of learning, serve up content in optimal ways, and offer different modalities of learning.

Some varied approaches to this challenge:

  1. Schools like Summit Public Schools, AltSchool, Brooklyn Lab and Matchbook Learning use playlists to customize pathways and learning resources for each student.
  2. Match Beyond offers in-person tutors, a proficiency-based online curriculum and career preparation for students who need more flexibility (and support) than they might find in a traditional college program.
  3. Valor Collegiate has individual social-emotional learning plans that students work on over seven years to develop their “inner compass.”
  4. High-functioning special education programs such as the CHIME Institute’s charter school offer personalized education plans for each student.
  5. EnLearn created an adaptive learning algorithm that can take exemplary problems and generate new content items based on individual student needs.

Each of these schools can claim the mantle of personalized learning—but picking winners and arguing who truly represents PL is kind of a waste of time. Instead of attempting to define personalized learning, here are a number of worthwhile challenges pushing the personalized learning scrum:

Can we effectively incorporate more progressive education practices in our schools like project-based learning, genius hours and other signature education experiences?

Are we measuring the right things for our students, or are there other important factors more closely linked to long-term success?

What student information and decision-making support do educators need to make effective clinical diagnoses?

When any one of these questions gains traction among educators, it causes a flurry of activity… and more confusion about what PL means. But I’ll take the squishiness of personalized learning any day. All that matter are the great schools, programs and experiences that move us ever closer to these ideals.

Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools. Charter School Growth Fund provides philanthropic support to Brooklyn Lab Charter School, Intrinsic Schools, Montessori For All, Summit Public Schools and Valor Collegiate Academies. Alex is also an official EdSurge columnist.

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