Post Cookie Cutter Education: The What & Why of Personalized Learning

What is personalized learning? Ask a dozen people and get a half dozen answers. We have several terms that many use interchangeably today; terms like individualized instruction, customized learning, differentiated instruction, learner-centerness, and personalized learning. While purists will argue for clear distinctions among these terms, we don’t always find that in the wild. People use the terms with different definitions in mind and, over time, we get several working definitions for each. With that said, I contend that personalized learning is among the broadest in the sense that it merges all the other terms. Personalized learning involves customizing what to learn, how to learn it, at what pace to learn it, where to learn, even why to learn something. It also includes opportunity for the learners to have significant input on each of these items. In other words, who is personalizing the learning is part of the personalization as well. Let’s go through each of these one at a time.

What is learned?

When we look at other terms like differentiated instruction, there is a personalization of how things are learned and how things are assessed. However, the outcomes or goals are usually the same for all learners in a given class. A fully personalized experience also  personalizes what to learned. One student might puruse a completely different learning goal from another.

The limitation here is that most schools decide that there are certain shared goals or outcomes, things that should be learned by all students.

How is it learned?

There is more than one way to learn something, and a personalized learning approach emphasizes this reality. As such, the “how” of learning might take into account a given learner’s background knowledge and experience, motivation, available resources and other elements.

While some use the personalized “how” to explore each student’s learning styles, I’m skeptical that this is a good use of time and energy, and the research doesn’t back up the hype about learning styles over the past couple of decades. At the same time, there seems to be support that certain strategies or methods work well to master certain skills. For example, while there might be some adjustments to the “how” of riding a bike, every “how” will involve some measure of practice on an actual bike. Within that general practice, there is still plenty of room for personalized approaches.

At what pace is it learned?

Most schools are notoriously bad at personalizing in this area. If someone doesn’t go at a “standard” pace or the pace determined by the teacher, school, or curriculum; then the student is “behind” or “ahead.” Yet, the pace at which someone proceeds toward mastery in a given domain varies widely from one person to another, and personalized pacing gets at this fact in a way that doesn’t penalize people for needing more or less time.

While many schools and educators aspire to personalize pace, and they are doing so with a myriad of strategies; traditional grade levels, semester schedules and other parts of many schools limit the extent to which pace can be personalized in those contexts. Even within some of those limitations, a growing number of teachers are embracing the opportunity to honor the differences among learners with regard to pace, and new adaptive learning software is helping people consider such possibilities.

Where is it learned?

This is not one that many focus upon when you read about personalized learning, but even the location of the learning can be personalized. In some cases, it is an extension of the personalized how. One might spend time in the library, while another conducts interviews or observations in the community, another is learning through a service learning activity, and yet another is learning through blended or online communities and experiences. The where of learning allows us to consider location limitations of a given learner but also locations or contexts that will best help a learner meet a given goal.

Why is it learned?

This is another one that isn’t talked about as much when we think of personalized learning, but motivation is such a critical part of effective learning. If a person has a compelling why for learning something then that is a huge step in the right direction, one large enough to overcome otherwise underwhelming learning contexts. As such, even more traditional contexts can invite or help students come up with a personalized why for what they are learning. The same why doesn’t work for everyone. For some, a good why is because the teacher said so. For another, it is about getting a certain grade. Far more compelling whys relate to how it will help one achieve a personal goal, how it resonates with a personal passion or interest, how it meets an important need in the world, or how it connects with one’s personal values, beliefs or convictions.

Who does the personalizing?

While there are contexts where the teacher does the personalizing to the learner, there is also the powerful possibility of engaging the learner in designing the learning experience. As such, the learner might collaborate with the teacher and others to decide what to learn, how to learn it, why to learn it, and where to learn it. In other settings, the learner is equipped and unleashed to direct much of this process with different measures of coaching or guidance from another.

Why personalized learning?

Given these descriptions of personalized learning, this leads us to also consider whether there is a compelling why. Why this shift in educational practice? Some argue that it is little more than a sign of an increasingly self-centered society. Others say it is yet another fad, soon to fade. Still others of us look at personalized learning differently. Personalized learning is an opportunity to recognize, honor, and take into account the distinct gifts, talents, abilities and passions of learners. It is an approach that invites the learner to take greater ownership in the learning process, to become independent and increasingly self-directed learners. Increased attention to this approach certainly has larger cultural influences, but it is also a natural development of new discoveries about how people learn. Just as personalized medicine is growing from new knowledge of human genetics, personalized learning comes from a growing recognition that there are countless distinct and unique elements to each person. As such, the why of personalized learning is connected to both scientific discoveries about human learning, as well as a growing post-industrial philosophy of education. Such a philosophy seeks to affirm and amplify the unique contributions of each person instead of creating an assembly line that produces a uniform end product.

When to Reform? When to Start from Scratch in Education?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller in Critical Path

I’ve had this conversation with dozens of people who are passionate about new possibilities for teaching and learning. Is it better to try to reform the school or learning organization where you find yourself, to find a place that is already a great fit for your values and beliefs about education, or to join the few, entrepreneurial ones who start something new? There is no definitive answer to such questions. So many factors come into that type of decision, not the least of which has to do with discerning one’s calling at a given time in life.

At the same time, I’ve witnessed enough learning organizations to see that massive, transformational changes in the way a community imagines education rarely come from reforming existing schools. Even when starting something new, it is common to be drawn gradually (or quickly) back into standard traditions and practices. That is because those running it have the imprint of past practice. Even when we don’t intend to do so, we easily revert back to what others have done and how they have done it. It is the collective school ecosystem that persistently pulls us toward the norm. What started as a truly alternative project-based learning high school gets pulled into traditional practices as high school students want to take more AP and dual credit classes to get a head start on college. Alternative school programs within a traditional school become restrained by shared resources, standard schedules, and other leaders who don’t fully embrace or understand the importance of autonomy. Well-meaning teachers over-plan and over-structure self-directed schooling out of self-doubt or fear that students really can’t or will not self-organize. The traditional nature of the next level of schooling begins to drive schools toward normalcy. If this happens with learning organization startups, how much more does it happen when one tries to reform an existing entity?

Then we have the Bucky Fuller quote, suggesting that fighting against the existing system is less likely to produce new and promising possibilities as much as independently pursuing those new possibilities. I read this to suggest that our energies are best focused on nurturing and actualizing promising possibilities more than fighting against existing realities, and this can happen in existing organization or by creating new ones. It happens when teachers, leaders or innovators opt not to be drawn into the drama or dysfunction around them (easier said than done, I know). It happens when an innovator embraces a promising practice and throws herself into making it a reality. Then she shares it with those who are willing and interested in learning more. It happens when an edupreneur ventures out to start something new and distinct from the norm. It happens in the smallest or simplest practices as well as grand and complicated ones.

The last part of the quote…about making the existing model obsolete is probably where I might differ from Fuller, especially in education. When it comes to education, there tends to be much more convergence than obsolescence. MOOCs don’t replace higher education. They get assimilated. Online learning doesn’t make face-to-face obsolete, but it creates a massive blended learning movement. The same thing is true for many emerging models. When it comes to education, there is room for many competing, complementing, and co-habiating models.

Nonetheless, for a new innovation to take root, it needs its own space, its own soil, perhaps a very different type of soil than what works for the existing model. As I see it, that soil consists of freedom from most (or all) existing policies and procedures, room for a fair share of autonomy, and the ability to establish its own metrics and measures for progress and success. It needs room to tell its own story in its own way, and then leave it to others to decide whether they prefer the new or existing model. Anything else is judging the quality of a rose by comparing it to an oak tree.

This is a difficult but important question for the educational leader and innovator. Sometimes you find yourself in an organization that create freedom and space for true innovation. Sometimes you are the leading able to help create that space. Sometimes you are the innovator who finds it challenging, even overly inhibiting, to pursue that mission-minded innovation that haunts and inspires you. In such times, it is important to deeply and candidly consider whether it is wise to pursue reform from within, to find another organization that better aligns with your vision and is willing to support it, or to venture out on your own, joining those few but important people who start new schools and organizations.

Learning as Work or Play

I’ve learned so much more outside of school than in it. For every book that I’ve read for a school assignment over the years, I’ve likely read 20 outside of school. I’ve conducted more interviews, written more, observed more, experienced more, and learned more. I’ve also surfaced far more insights outside of school than inside it. They’ve led to meeting and connecting with fascinating people; changing my beliefs, behaviors and convictions more than anything that happened amid my formative or higher education experiences. I’ve also enjoyed these activities immensely. I’ve lost track of time on late Friday nights. They’ve driven me to travel thousands of miles for a single conversation or a few hours of a new experience. They’ve left me  falling asleep at night with a sense of accomplishment and joy about a life of discovery and learning. They’ve also kept me from falling asleep, wanting to write or read just one more page, wildly scribbling out a new idea, chatting with a new friend, or dreaming of the possibilities. I had some wonderful experiences in formal schooling as well, but they just don’t compare to what I’ve learned beyond the walls of those buildings. Why?

In The Most Productive Ways to Develop as a Leader, Herminia Ibarra wrote the following:

In contrast, no matter what you’re up to, when you’re in “play” mode, your primary drivers are enjoyment and discovery instead of goals and objectives. You’re curious. You lose track of time. You meander. The normal rules of “real life” don’t apply, so you’re free to be inconsistent — you welcome deviation and detour. That’s why play increases the likelihood that you will discover things you might have never thought to look for at the outset.

This blog is play more than it is work. This is the place where I log and experience new discoveries. I am free to debate with myself from one article to another. I’m not trying to write like an academic. My thoughts are serious and I strive for substance, but this fun for me too. I don’t try to sell myself as much as I play with thoughts and experiences, exploring the possibilities and inviting others to join me in this play. Wonderful outcome emerge. I build new connections. The play extends. It often turns into “work” in the sense that money is exchanged, goals and planning emerge, tasks are accomplished, programs are developed, and agreements are signed; but for me it is still driven more by a mindset of play than work.

This leads me to wonder, if play is such a powerful lever for learning, why not take greater advantage of it in our learning organizations? I recognize that there are times when play might not work or it might not even be appropriate, but so much of what is done in school could happen through a culture of learning by play, as so powerfully and whimsically championed by the Institute of Play. Groups like the Institute of Play represent a movement in modern learning (not just schooling) and work that:

  • invites us to accept the challenge of addressing the engagement crisis in schools and workplaces;
  • helps us take advantage of our human propensity for play and discovery;
  • sees teachers as game-designers and architects of a culture of engagement;
  • invites students to participate in quests, challenges, adventures, and experiments;
  • and helps students learn to apply principles of games and play to direct their own learning throughout life.

Doesn’t that sound fun?

But how does a school full of games and play prepare people for the real world?

First, it helps them learn. Second, it helps them maintain that inquisitive, engaged, exploratory, adventurous spirit of their childhood. Third, it helps them chang the real world into a place with more curious, engaged, playful people. As Lincoln is quoted as saying, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Could the same thing be true for the communities and workplaces of the future?

Will #OpenBadges Remain Open? That is up to us.

Reviewing a critique presented by Dr. Michael Olneck at the pre-conference event on Open Badges at the Learning Analytics 2015 Conference, I was reminded of a 2012 quote from Tim O’Reilly, something that haunts me because I know it to be true with technology after technology over the past 200 years. Before I share the quote, I’ll set it up with a short introduction.

There is democratizing technology and authoritarian technology. I’ve written about that in the past. However, there is more than one way to approach this. You can look at the technology itself, its inherent features and how they are likely to lead one toward more authoritarian or democratizing structures. That, for example, is present in debates about gun control. Some argue that guns, by their nature, are designed to shoot things, including people. As such, people might push for more regulation and control around them, resulting in a more authoritarian ecosystem within which guns reside. Others look at the social landscape and argue that there are plenty of examples where guns are present, but violence with guns is low or absent. They are not necessarily looking at the affordances and limitations of the technology directly, but they are instead examining how it developed in a give context. As a result of their approach, they may argue for maintaining a larger democratizing ecosystem for the technology of guns. In reality, both of these factors are constantly at work with the assimilation of a technology in a new context. There are inherent affordances and limitations to the technology that make some things possible and other things more likely. At the same time, there are complex individual and societal forces that impact how it develops, especially the power structures that develop alongside a given technology.

As such, what happens if we shift the conversation, not looking at the technology, but examining the technologists themselves and the organizations that offer or benefit from the technologies? With this question in mind, consider the previously mentioned quote from Tim O’Reilly.

So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in. –

As we commoditize technologies, there is a competitive lever that starts to shape the ecosystem around that technology. As there become winners in the marketplace, companies that maintain control over a technology’s development and implementation begin to shape it in ways that amplify the company’s control and benefits. In the extreme, this is what we get with a monopoly, but there are less radical examples as well. Consider that there are largely two dominant operating systems in the computer ecosystem today. In the same article cited above, O’ Reilly stated,

We saw this happen with Microsoft. It started out with a big vision: How do we get a PC on every desk and in every home? It was profoundly democratizing. But when Microsoft got on top, it slowly started choking off the pathways to success for everybody else. It stopped creating more value than it captured.

Is or was Microsoft a monopoly? That has certainly been debated in and out of the courtroom. It started with a grand democratization of access to computers and eventually the Internet. Over time, it turned into two main companies controlling the system used on those devices. There remain democratizing affordances of these devices and the associated connectivity, but now people are largely compelled to comply with the standards and interface established by a couple of key players.

In his introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about two possible futures. One grew out of Orwell’s 1984, where we become oppressed due to our fears. The other came from Huxley’s Brave New World, a future where we are oppressed by our pleasures. Either can lead to similar ends, more authoritarian control with the promise of some other value: safety, pleasure, efficiency, etc.

How do we resist such a future on a smaller level as we see the development of new and potentially disruptive concepts like micro-credentials? O’ Reilly continues by arguing for ecosystems of innovation where participants “create more value than [they] capture.” He explained,

Everybody wants to foster entrepreneurship, but we have to think about the preconditions for entrepreneurship. You grow great crops in great soil. And the soil is the commons. Increasingly, we have monopolistic companies that try to take as much as they can for themselves. And we have a patent and copyright regime that makes sure that nothing goes back into the commons unless by an extraordinary act of generosity. This is not fertile soil for innovation.

This is easier said than done. Open Badges are open and that feeds the commons. However, maintaining a commons requires commitments from those in the commons. It seems to me that as badges expand, there are a growing number of emergent and maturing business models that will either feed this openness and spirit of innovation or will seek to control it for market share and financial gain. Business models obviously need to include consideration about such things, but for this openness to continue, ROI has to be about more than financial, especially in the education sector. It is an interesting challenge to navigate because we likely need scalable and robust solution to grow the badge ecosystem, but we also need the leads of those scalable solutions to commit to a spirit of openness and cooperation as much as competition. One thing seems clear to me at this point in the development. There will be winners and losers, and the losers may not even recognize when or what they have lost until later.

This does not mean that I lack hope about the open badge and micro-credential movement. I see great promise, possibility and opportunity. Yet, these are not certain, and the future of the ecosystem as I hope to shape it depends upon a growing core of influencers who are genuinely committed to and uncompromising about the value of the commons.