Individualized Learning is Great, but What About the Commonalities?

Recently I wrote an article in reply to David E.’s question about the tensions between a growing focus upon individualized learning and common educational innovations. My reply to him was focused upon what we might be able to share in our education innovations that can help us better celebrate and nurture the unique potential of each learner. Yet, his question can be read or understand in another way and I’d like to devote this article to that.

In a world of individualized, personalized, customized, and self-directed; is there any room for a common curriculum or some shared set of educational goals and objectives? We call this new generation the i-gen because they grew up in an increasingly personalized and individualized world, and it can be argued that growing up in such a world can draw us away from a common body of knowledge.

Years ago many people started their day reading the newspaper. The created a common set of information about current events that served as a starting point for conversation. In a world of personalized news from our handpicked news sources (like what I get on my iPhone each morning), we have fewer commonalities. I can’t recall who but one author called this a problem of shifting from the daily news to the daily me.

Is the same thing happening in education because of people like myself who celebrate the and even emphasize the role of the individual? We talk and write about student choice, voice, and agency. Does this mean that we can’t have any common body of knowledge? Is there no potential balance between the two?

Yes, there is plenty of room for a balance of the two. It is just that we are still working through an entire school system (largely international) that historically emphasized the commonalities at the expense of the individual. At the same time, some of this talk about personalized and individualized learning can actually help more students achieve higher levels of mastery of any common body of knowledge that we might determine.

I’ve visited plenty of schools that embrace self-directed learning, personalized learning, individualized learning, student-led project-based learning and all sorts of related models and practices. Plenty of them grapple with what, if anything should be part of a largely shared curriculum for the learners, and almost all of them have something. There is a core body of math skills that they aspire to guide students toward mastery. There is often of a body of knowledge and skills associated with learning how to learn. Some have foreign language requirements. Many have a core body of knowledge about traditional content areas as well.

The difference with some of these newer individualized models (as with the model common in the one room schoolhouse of old) is just that it is not all about how you scored on an exam or precisely how many common core standards that you mastered. Yes, progress toward mastery in recognized bodies of knowledge can and do still play a role in the overall curriculum, but this common body is not used as a club to pound outliers into submission, to create uniform students, or to minimize the role of individual strengths, goals, and abilities. School is not reduced to covering a list of standards, rating students on how well they did, and then moving on. Individualized models are, at the heart, about honoring and caring for the individual within the larger group, and seeking to help each individual truly grow in competency,confidence, character, and agency.

I believe that there is great value in a robust exploration and discussion about what should be common knowledge in a given learning community. I happen to think that students can be involved in that conversation so that they can better understand the value of certain common bodies of knowledge while also seeing the value of more individualized curriculum. For those who are worried about losing a common body of knowledge or under-preparing students by leaving something out, why wouldn’t we want to do more than just cover that content. Why not create a learning community that grapples with and seeks out answers to these questions together? What is important for me and us to know about the history of our country and world? What is important for me if I aspire to be an active, engaged, and contributing citizen? What role does literacy play in my life, what are its benefits, and what are its limitations? What is truth and does it matter? If so, why? What is beauty? What is goodness? What is courage? How does media of the past and present influence me, others, and the world in positive and concerning ways? How has the language of math shaped the world and my life? What are the benefits and limitations of the scientific method? Can money make you happy and what is its role in my life and the world?

There are countless other questions that we can ask, that students can ask. We can seek answers to these. Along the way there is ample room for schools to have shared questions and others that are more individualized, creating opportunity for each student to explore personal interests and prepare for future or emerging callings.

The common curriculum given to all works okay for plenty of people. I went through such a system as did most of the people reading this. It plays a significant role in many good schools today as well. Yet, for me, it comes back to that word that I often mention, agency. How do we best equip each student with a growing sense of agency? Then, stemming from that, I ask this question. How can we re-imagine school so that we are less likely to waste the incredible diversity of gifts, talents, and passions that exist or can exist in different students?

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

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