Is personalized learning the future of education? That depends on who you ask. Like almost anything regarding instruction, the concept of personalized learning has its benefits and its challenges. The true value of a personalized approach can only emerge after educators find the right way to implement it with their existing instruction.
In an article in Education Week, Benjamin Herold reported that the U.S. Department of Education has provided half a billion dollars to districts for personalized learning. Herold also notes a lack of research or evidence that would support such a serious investment. According to the article, “the state of research around real-world implementations of personalized-learning models remains muddled and contentious.”
It seems that for every study that cites evidence in support of personalized learning, one can find another study that counters these arguments.
Defined as an instructional approach that “places the interests and abilities of learners at the center of their education experience,” personalized learning has been gaining strides in classrooms while amassing critics in the educational world. In support of personalized learning are individuals and organizations that have fully invested their efforts in the approach. For example, Jim Rickabaugh, and Christina Spader, members of the Institute for Personalized Learning, along with James Murray, document several benefits of this student-centered instructional concept:
- Nurtures powerful learners rather than just proficient students.
- Positions learners as partners with educators to identify learning goals, design learning paths, create learning experiences, and share accountability for learning progress and success.
- Is competency based, in that progress is based on learning rather than on time spent in learning activities. Students share in monitoring growth in their competencies and progress along learning continuums, often across multiple subject areas.
However, some educators have taken issue with this approach. Dan Meyer, a math teacher and popular education blogger, questions Rickabaugh, Murray, and Spader’s interpretation. Specifically, he inquires how sitting students in front of a screen to receive personalized instruction from software and prerecorded video tutorials is an improvement of their educational experience.
“Fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing instructional videos are often cited as advantages of personalized learning, not because this is necessarily good instruction, but because it’s what the technology permits,” wrote Meyer.
The effectiveness of personalized learning seems to depend largely on how it is implemented. There is no formalized standard currently available, so perceptions of this instructional approach can vary. Even when elements of personalized learning can be agreed upon, including voice and choice, an appropriate level of challenge, and a real audience for authentic work, the level of implementation can vary.
Instead of offering another definition of personalized learning, let’s explore what’s possible within the context of the reality of today’s classroom.
Three Realities — Three Possibilities
For anything to be truly innovative, including personalized learning, it has to differ on some level from its predecessor, whether that difference is iterative or fundamental. Personalized learning, in an ideal situation, should offer something not available previously in education.
One element is every student has voice and choice in what they want to learn. Students have to drive the goal setting with help from the teacher when needed. Without voice and choice, learning ceases to be personal. It devolves back to traditional education, including grades and achievement scores. This lack of involvement leads to disengagement with the learning process.
As one high school student notes, “So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning.”
Here are some examples of schools that provide voice and choice in the classroom:
- 2nd-grade students select a topic they are interested in learning more about. The teacher guides students on how to ask a driving question and develop a goal for their time.
- 5th-grade students are tasked with conducting research on an important issue in their community. This is a yearlong project. The teacher provides time and resources for 40 minutes three times a week for students to engage in this personal inquiry.
- Students are able to engage in independent study, giving them the space to pursue an idea or skill they are passionate to learn more about.
These examples are not that hard to imagine in classrooms. What’s holding teachers back?.
The Reality: Time is the enemy.
Teachers have never dealt with more standards, curriculum requirements, or assessments than they do today. There are 44 literacy standards for Grade 3 students in Common Core, and some have substandards within them. When teachers are tasked with curriculum development, some educational consultants expect educators to address every standard as they prepare instruction. Asking educators to carve out more time in their jam-packed days for this work is ill-advised.
A possibility: Identify standards within student-driven learning.
Just because a student might select the learning topic or skill doesn’t mean that standards aren’t addressed. A little imagination from the teacher can go a long way. For example, with the 5th-grade example, students should be expected to engage in informative writing (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.2), use technology to communicate their learning (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.6), and effectively present their findings for an authentic audience (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.4). Using this approach, students can meet standards and drive their own learning.
The second element of personalized learning, an appropriate level of challenge, requires an awareness of students’ current abilities — of their strengths and needs as well as their interests. This information can drive what a student should be working on and how to conduct the process. As an example, the 2nd graders who develop a driving question around a topic or skill they want to learn can take self-assessments to discover their strengths, preferences, and areas of growth. They can use this knowledge as they plan and engage in personalized learning projects.
The reality: Every student is unique.
How can any educator know the specific details of every child in their classroom and then gear personalized instruction around this information? It is not realistic for a teacher to monitor 25-30 individualized learning plans. The demands of today’s classroom give teachers little time to prepare instruction that challenges every student at just the right level.
A possibility: Use a learning relationship management system.
Teachers work too hard. We struggle to relinquish the responsibility for learning to students due in part to the many standards we are expected to meet. Yet there are always opportunities for flourish within constraints.
Among the more innovative technologies available for helping students develop their own challenges are learning relationship management systems (LRMS). These differ from learning management systems (LMS) such as Edmodo and Schoology, in which the teacher facilitates the work being assigned and completed. An LRMS puts students in the driver’s seat.
The voice and choice students are offered in learning something new and challenging should be within the context of a real audience for authentic work. Students should be able to publish their findings online and present their final projects for families and even the community. Digital portfolio tools, blogs, websites, and social media can facilitate some of this communication and celebration of students’ work from their personalized learning projects.
The reality: An authentic audience is not always available.
Opportunities for engaging in authentic work can be difficult to come by or create. Younger students who are still learning to read and write might need several learning cycles with learning basic information to understand the process. In addition, students need opportunities to practice in a personalized learning project within the classroom environment. How often do we give students the chance to make mistakes publicly with little worry about who might view the outcomes, excellent or not?
A possibility: Create a community of learners by altering classroom design.
Teachers can create an authentic audience for real work in their classrooms by rethinking how they set up their classrooms. Tables, chairs, and stools can replace desks. Comfortable seating can become a preferred location for students to informally talk about their work and thereby develop new ideas and strategies. Educators should not dismiss the power in having peers serve as partners in brainstorming and developing possible learning projects.
Students can also be taught to provide feedback for each other as they work toward a successful learning outcome. The authentic audience for students’ real work can come from within the classroom community.
Effective Learning Experiences Have Always been Personalized
In an Edutopia article titled “The Original Makerspace,” middle school English teacher Laura Bradley noted that her writing classroom is not much different than the makerspaces popping up in schools.
“Although the writing classroom may not look like a makerspace, the principles that drive a maker project can also be seen in a student-driven writing workshop,” she said. “Makers and writers both work through processes that include brainstorming ideas, creating rough drafts, seeking feedback (or testing) in order to make improvements, and eventually producing a final product.”
Learning experiences that honor student voice and choice give students an appropriate level of challenge and provide an authentic audience for real work. These are not new concepts. They have existed since formal schooling began, without a large expense. Positive relationships develop because everyone supports each other in their personal endeavors. Technology is used when it is necessary, not just when it is nice. Teachers engaging students in this type of learning is personalized because the student is given the authority to learn like anyone else.
This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principal position and eventually head principal at an elementary school. Now as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, Matt enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. You can also connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadByExample and on his website at mattrenwick.com.