What Personalized Learning Is Not

Personalized Learning

What Personalized Learning Is Not

By Kenya Ransey     Sep 1, 2017

What Personalized Learning Is Not

This article is part of the guide: The Personalized Learning Toolkit.

“I really want to personalize learning for my students, but I just don’t see how it’s possible—there’s no way I can create individual lesson plans for all of my students everyday!”

“I really like what you’ve shared with us today, but I can’t personalize my students’ learning because I don’t have enough devices for all of my students.”

These are just two of the statements I hear from teachers about the challenges of facilitating personalized learning. As an instructional technology coach for a large district in the metropolitan Atlanta area, I serve several schools. Working closely with over 300 teachers on a consistent basis means that I talk one-on-one with teachers a lot. Teachers openly share their legitimate concerns about implementing personalized learning, and unfortunately, the sentiments above are not uncommon. I feel it’s my responsibility to help teachers understand that both of the statements above are misconceptions.

Attempts to clearly define personalized learning are commonplace in education now more than ever—and the more conversations we have, the more apparent it becomes that many of us (educators) are unsure of how to define the term, or recognize what it takes to bring it to life. The term is robust, because it has the potential to be different for every learner; so, instead of trying to define it, perhaps it would be more beneficial to take a look at some of the misconceptions running wild amongst the education community, and consider what personalized learning is NOT.

Personalized learning is not:

1. Having each student select a different online game, app or online learning module to use independently each day during class

A core component of personalized learning that most people can agree on is that student interests and learning preferences should play a role in learning. All learners are more engaged when their involvement is rooted in personal interest than in mandated compliance.

However, having all students select an online game, app, or learning module from a pre-determined list is not really student choice—after all, someone else curated the list. While it’s a step in the right direction, allowing students time to explore and make choices for themselves bears a stronger connection to personalization. It will undoubtedly take more time, and not all of that time will be spent acquiring hard knowledge and collecting facts; but rest assured learning is occurring. Having students reflect in a digital or traditional journal about their experiences with open exploration may help capture the intangible learning evidence.

2. Teachers generating individual learning plans for each of their students

Hopefully teachers everywhere just breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Making the teacher solely responsible for all of the learning that occurs in a classroom is a practice of the industrial age, in which one person possesses the authority to make the decisions, and everyone else complies.

In a personalized learning environment, the responsibility is shared between the teacher and student—all participants in the learning process have an important role and must work collaboratively. This approach requires a paradigm shift for educators teaching in traditional school models, because information acquired and learned is not limited to the scope, perspective, or knowledge level of one individual (the teacher.)

This environment also allows students to take an active role in their learning, and utilizes learners’ innate interests to fuel the processes of investigation and discovery, which relieves teachers of unrealistic goals and expectations. In personalized learning, the roles of teacher and learner are not mutually exclusive—both parties teach and learn at different stages of the process. If this sounds busy, that’s because it is.

3. Something that can only occur with technology

When it comes to personalized learning, sometimes technology can simplify things. Logistically, a 1:1 device-to-student ratio makes it is easier for students to engage in unique learning experiences, work at their own pace, and pursue their own interests. Technology can also give access to a wider range of content and resources that are not readily available in a learner’s physical location.

Yet, although technology can support personalized learning in a number of ways, it does not lie at the core of the concept.

Learning is the primary focus, and technology can be along for the ride—or not. What does it look like when technology is not at the center of a personalized learning experience? In a first grade classroom that I've observed, the teacher and students were working on a unit about plants. This teacher believed wholeheartedly in Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences and used it to guide her unit design. Students explored their topics through various mediums—through children’s texts, music, outdoor discovery in nature, and yes—technology. In this classroom, students were encouraged to access both digital and analog tools on their quest for knowledge. I believe technology enhanced the student’s learning potential in unique ways; however, this unit could have existed without technology.

4. Something that can “fit” into a neat textbook definition (because then it’s standardized, and no longer personal)

It is natural for humans to crave some level of organization and structure, especially teachers. Given that many of us work in schools and districts that have personalized learning initiatives, it makes sense that we’re all looking for a standard definition of personalized learning—we want to know what we’re being asked to do, and have some guidance in how to do it effectively. But it’s critical that we realize that once we all consolidate around a standardized definition, it will no longer be personal.

Every individual student, classroom and school community is different, so how we tailor instruction to meet student’s needs varies within each classroom, school, district and even state. Most teachers are already working tirelessly to meet their students’ needs as best as possible.

Changing one’s mindset is no easy feat. But shifting one’s view of personalization from overwhelming and cumbersome, to an opportunity which allows and encourages students to take a more active role in their learning and partner with us in addressing their own learning needs, can feel like a breath of fresh air.

Kenya Ransey is an Edtech Integration Specialist in Atlanta, Georgia.

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