The Case for Expanding the Definition of 'Personalization' to Meet the...

Personalized Learning

The Case for Expanding the Definition of 'Personalization' to Meet the Needs of the Whole Child

from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

By K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, Ph.D.     Sep 23, 2018

The Case for Expanding the Definition of 'Personalization' to Meet the Needs of the Whole Child

Decades of research on child and adolescent development has shed powerful light on how we can best support student development. But here's what we should all find unacceptable: We have yet to widely reflect that learning in how we educate students in our schools. Personalized learning for the whole learner, EdSurge Fusion 2018’s theme, is how we can begin to educate through the science of learning and development.

The term personalization is too often defined through a limited lens, watered down to the image of a student working alone on a laptop. Technology plays a critical role in this process; not just in how students experience learning, but also in how educators access and use tools and information to leverage and enrich the time they have with their students. The content associated with a personalized experience is also often limited to a narrow set of academic areas like math or literacy.

However, if we define personalization as deeply understanding each individual’s unique experience, passions, strengths and areas for growth and then tailoring learning experiences based on that knowledge, then it requires an approach that meets the needs of the whole child. This definition is a reflection of what great educators have always done.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is committed to a whole child approach that is grounded in the science of human learning and development. Our definition of whole child centers on 6 key domains that matter deeply for every individual’s development and success: academic development, social emotional development, identity development, physical health and mental health.

Whole Child Approach to Personalized Learning
Source: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Academic development is represented by the content areas required on the path toward a high school diploma (e.g., math, literacy, science, social studies, foreign language, art).

Social emotional development includes interpersonal skills, mindsets like self-efficacy and resilience (coping through and recovering from challenge or adversity). Just like math or literacy, social emotional skills and mindsets build toward more complex skills - like self-direction, curiosity and purpose - as students develop. Such a developmental trajectory is proposed in the Building Blocks for Learning, which I developed for Turnaround for Children.

Cognitive development includes skills like those involved in memory and processing information.

Identity development involves sense of purpose (what excites and drives us), values and how elements like cultural and the specific communities to which we belong shape us.

The two final domains are connected to health, both physical health (e.g., sleep, nutrition, vision) and mental health - including how we cope with normal stresses of life and connect to ourselves and our surroundings.

Whole child and personalization are inextricably linked in four key ways.

1. Personalization requires deep understanding of the student across the 6 whole child domains.

For example, foundational health needs must be in place for engagement in learning, so attention to health factors like vision or sleep are critical. In a personalized environment this knowledge of the child is prioritized and structures exist for the educators to connect the child to necessary resources. In addition, the context in which a child or adolescent develops directly impacts brain and physiological development. Exposure to abuse, neglect, or instability affect areas of the brain responsible for memory and attention. Learning cannot happen without these functions in place, but interventions are available. To connect students to the right interventions, knowledge of conditions that could be impacting a student’s development is critical. This knowledge comes through personalization.

2. The human brain and body do not tease any of these domains apart during the learning process, so why do we?

All six whole child domains are deeply integrated in the process of learning. Take personal values and emotional state for example - these are drivers of motivation acting as either accelerants of or barriers to learning. In addition, learning is a social process that relies on key social emotional skills like active listening and awareness of others’ perspectives. As educators, if we do not seek to understand and leverage these areas in connection to academic instruction, we lose the opportunity to maximize engagement and rigor within a learning environment.

3. Each whole child domain requires a personalized approach to development.

Take a skill like self-regulation. This includes the ability to regulate or calm one’s self down from a state of anger, frustration or anxiety. Adults can play a powerful role in avoiding such escalation in the first place if they know what might trigger a child to react. For example, a student might react to sudden transitions in activity or noisy settings. A teacher knowledgeable of this can establish routines and structures that can reduce the risk of those triggers. Should student’s emotions escalate, a personalized approach will involve identifying the right strategy to support self-regulation. Effective strategies vary from re-evaluating the emotions that drove the reaction, to mindful breathing, or even physical activity and what works for one student might not work for the next. A personalized environment recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any area of development.

4. Whole child development is the outcome that a personalized approach serves.

The evidence is clear that non-academic skills, mindsets, and conditions are critical to academic success. But, these are also outcomes, in their own right, instrumental to success in work and life. As much as any individual reading this relies on academic competencies relevant to their personal and professional roles in life, success also relies on competencies like navigating and resolving conflict, resilience in times of challenge, and drivers of healthy functioning like sleep.

Throughout the learning process, whole child development and personalization are deeply connected on the path toward achievement and success. Until we stop isolating these conversations and efforts, and start to focus on the deep integration that reflects how students learn and develop as human beings, we will fall short of the educational and life outcomes that all students need and deserve.

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