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.

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