Finding Your Happy Place Along the Problematic ‘Personalized Learning’...

Project-Based Learning

Finding Your Happy Place Along the Problematic ‘Personalized Learning’ Continuum

By Jennie Magiera     Jul 19, 2017

Finding Your Happy Place Along the Problematic ‘Personalized Learning’ Continuum

This article is part of the collection: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

Recently I was asked, “What do you think about personalized learning?” I think my exact response was, “Blargh.” This wasn’t because I dislike what this phrase could mean, but because I am disappointed with what it has become. Personalized learning seems to be one of the buzziest of the buzzwords in the edu-jargon grab bag and yet its exact definition is rather elusive. It seems to mean different things to different people. Oftentimes I find that the definition falls somewhere along a continuum. Here’s what I mean:

At one end of this spectrum, we have “siloed differentiation,” a version of personalized learning where the focus is using digital platforms to facilitate an automated (ie: NOT teacher-driven) assessment to differentiated instruction. At the other end lies “authentic inquiry-based learning,” that student-centered ideal many of us aim for. Let’s take a closer look at both extremes and see if we can find the sweet spot.

Personalized Learning as Siloed Differentiation

When defined in this way, personalized learning is interpreted as using adaptive formative assessment platforms (think DreamBox, Achieve3000) coupled with digital instruction programs to automate differentiated instruction for students. For example, students might walk into a classroom, see a display with their individualized schedule and proceed to work through a playlist of canned video lessons and virtual worksheets or quizzes throughout the period.

This version of personalized learning concerns me. If used incorrectly, these methods can lead to a mentality of teacher-proofing our classrooms. I’ve been in pitches for models like these where the “selling point” is something along the lines of: There aren’t enough high quality teachers out there, so we have created this method to allow a class of students high quality education with a mediocre instructor. The teacher is relegated to the role of proctor, making sure students log on, get started and stay on task.

I believe a teacher’s role holds much more value than this and is much more central to our students’ growth and learning. Teachers should be working directly with students to build complex skills, provide guidance and cultivate social emotional growth. While we are evolving in our role from sage on stage to guide on the side, this doesn’t need to be accomplished by promoting a screen to sage status. Ultimately, my hope for technology is that they enhance our students’ connection to each other—digital learning silos are antithetical to that goal.

Personalized Learning as Authentic Passion-Based Learning

In this version of personalized learning, students are given free reign to spend their time in the classroom exploring their curiosities and passions. They are given the agency to determine their own schedule based on their needs and direct the course of the learning based on current interests. Teachers act as coaches, guides and facilitators along the way, but the student is the main protagonist in their journey.

Learning in this model is highly complex and inquiry-based. A group of students may work collaboratively on an interdisciplinary project to determine how best to purify a local water source while another group might decide to put on a poetry slam for their community. Technology acts as a tool or vehicle to facilitate this learning and allow students to express their thinking rather than the delivery system for information.

There are powerful examples of this model of personalized learning throughout the world. In the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” stories from High Tech High in San Diego are shared to show the power of a truly personalized curriculum. Many educators—myself included—strive to create learning environments that value and emphasize this type of educational experience.

Finding your Personalized Learning

Certainly elements of the siloed differentiation version of personalized learning could be used for good. I myself created short differentiated videos for my students to aid in differentiation. However, the key is that I created or curated the content myself, and most importantly, I continued to actively engage with my students throughout the period—facilitating their engagement with me and each other.

Student-centered inquiry-based learning also presents complications. While I have embraced it, some aspects of this version of digital learning could present challenges some students aren’t ready for—or need additional scaffolding to achieve. In “Most Likely to Succeed” there was an intriguing segment where students expressed their frustration with the passion-based model of learning and shared a desire for more structure. They were so used to clear-cut pathways to school success and didn’t want the rules to change—even if it meant more freedom for them to pursue their passions. One student even went as far as to say that the purpose of K-12 is to get into a good college—and then that is the time to follow your passion.

While many educators may disagree with this statement—or hope to create a school environment where students feel comfortable pursuing passions earlier in life—it is important that we acknowledge potential student discomfort as we begin to shift paradigms.

So where does that leave us on the topic of personalized learning? I would argue that we leave the buzzwords to the buzzards, and move on to truly personalize our students’ learning. Instead of trying to promote or institute a specific model or concept in its entirety, let’s take a look at each individual classroom or school’s needs and ask ourselves: What do we value here, what do hope to accomplish and most importantly what’s the best for our students? If we can do this at the local level, and then share our learning with one another without buzzwords or pretense, then we can truly hope to achieve personalized learning—with a little p, a little l, and a big impact.

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