Individualized Learning is Great, but What About the Commonalities?

Recently I wrote a response 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 how we can celebrate and nurture the unique potential of each learner. Yet, his question can be understood in another way, and I’d like to devote this article to that other way.

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?

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.