Why Schools Shouldn’t Fear Personalized Learning

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past fifteen years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Don’t fear personalized learning.

Personalized learning shows promise, implementation spotty was recently published in a local paper in Florida. In it, school district officials in Lake County describe personalized learning as a pedagogy that offers “voice and choice in the learning process.”

“It seems like it is working in some classes and not working in others,” School Board member Marc Dodd said. “What has happened is we have heard from students, ‘I am teaching myself and I am getting instruction from the computer.’ Some students said this was the most amazing thing ever and there were some classes teachers gave them a packet and said, ‘Good luck.’

As I read on, I got the sense that Lake County’s “personalized learning” is actually individualization.

Personalized Learning vs. Individualization

Model Student’s Role Teacher’s Role Illustrative Examples
Personalized Learning Actively pursues authentic, complex problems that inspire co-creation in the inquiry, analysis, and final product Facilitates learning through questions, conferences, and feedback
  • Student develops playlists (curation of texts, experiences)
  • Student leads conferences
  • Student achieves mastery based on demonstrated ability and performance
Individualization Controls the pace of the topic as well as when to demonstrate mastery Drives instruction through teacher-created tasks and related lesson plans
  • Teacher develops playlists
  • Khan Academy
  • Dreambox or Compass Learning

Individualization allows for instructional learning to happen anytime and anyplace. Students are assigned learning tasks and use technologies — computer-adapted models, software platforms, teacher-generated playlists — for learning.
The student controls the pace of the learning before demonstrating mastery of the material. Videos, practice problems and  instant feedback are all available in preparation for a computer- or teacher-generated test.

Individualized learning is instruction calibrated to meet the unique pace of various students.

This approach shouldn’t be confused with personalized learning. Teachers may use technology to make specific adjustments in assignment and pacing from learner-to-learner, but a personalized learning model includes a relational process.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning allows students to declare what they believe to be relevant, interesting, and worthy of study within the confines of the required curriculum.

Personalized Learning Experience:

Within a personalized learning exercise, students have the opportunity to…

  1. Identify or create an idea, question, or problem
  2. Determine key actions, resources, and timelines
  3. Engage with one another or on their own to draft a solution
  4. Receive feedback and consider next steps
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the task is complete

Don’t Fear Personalized Learning

District officials are quoted in the article that “there is a misconception that personalized learning is a substitute for teaching.”

In fact, the heart of personalized learning is personal which requires a learning partnership. It is characterized by understanding who your students are, engaging them in problems, issues, and ideas that matter, and taking the time to provide regular feedback to help them refine skills, increase sophistication, and discover who they are.

A “packet” or a software platform is a poor substitution for a powerful partnership with a community of learners, both within and beyond the classroom. True personalized learning keeps teachers as a focus for students while shifting the relationship to be one of collaboration instead of dictation.

Technology-platforms can be used effectively to engage students in the mastery of basic content and skills. It is highly disruptive to teachers’ instructional plans if they only focus on the basics. Where students need more support is how to engage in problems that don’t have an easy or straightforward answer, challenges that require thoughtful investigation, analysis, and conversation, ideas that need prototyping and feedback.

This is the heart of the next chapter of teaching and learning. Hopefully this doesn’t get lost.

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