Personalized Learning: A Beastly, Binary Buzzword… Begone!

Personalized learning (PL) does exist, but not in the way most tend to use the term within the context of formal education (e.g., schools). The website, Getting Smart, has long promoted the term PL, which although is a for-profit business covering educational topics, does manage to publish many non-PL topics that are worth reviewing. But in What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers, the Getting Smart Staff describes new approaches to teaching and learning (under the umbrella of PL) as follows:

  • Meet the needs of each child
  • Adjust teaching practice
  • Give students “voice and choice”
  • How to achieve mastery learning
  • How to consider student input within the process of learning

Taking each of these in turn, I’ll outline why the term PL is not needed and usually leads to convoluted discussions around education.

  • Meet the needs of each child: Consider the term differentiated instruction (DI), which refers to students making decisions about course content, learning processes, academic products or learning outcomes, and learning environments based on the readiness levels, interests, and learning profiles of the students. Personally, I would omit from this definition learning profiles since it’s too similar to the idea of “learning styles” — something that has more to do with course content than actually any preconceived set of learner characteristics driving daily decisions about curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Thus, in terms of formal education, DI is based on readiness levels, interests, and the curriculum, where a written, taught, and tested curriculum exist in aggregate as a set of iterative and reciprocal networked nodes or actors. Therefore, what a student needs is derived from current readiness levels (i.e., understanding the gap between what a student knows and what they should know), interests (i.e., there is a low level of interest in the curricular goals), and the written, taught, and tested curriculum itself.
  • Adjust teaching practice: Adjusting one’s teaching practice relates to assessment. Formative assessment comprises of adjustments to learning tactics (the student’s responsibility) and to instruction (the teacher’s responsibility) for the purpose of promoting higher academic achievement. This can also occur through dynamic assessment when summative assessments (e.g., grades, badges, etc.) are followed by formative assessment episodes (e.g., turning a multiple choice exam into a learning activity), after having found out that student achievement was subpar. Although formative assessment blurs the line between assessment and instruction, it is still much like DI in that much of the decision making remains a negotiation between teacher and student.
  • Give students “voice and choice”: Giving students voice and choice is directly related to DI as it provides students the opportunity to choose content, process, product, and/or learning environments depending on the context. DI empowers students to take more responsibility for their own learning by democratizing education in terms of what, how, why, when, where, and with whom learning experiences are to occur. Nothing here is personalized nor individualized… just students making decisions about their own learning within the context of formal education.
  • How to achieve mastery learning: Mastery learning sounds good, but what does it mean in practice? How does one reify the idea that a student masters a concept, understanding, a set of skills, etc.? Setting behavioral objectives perhaps (i.e., per Bloom’s taxonomy), but the problem is that possible learning outcomes involve a vast number of performance verbs that go well beyond a simple taxonomy or even a set of competencies. In reality, performance verbs educators rely on to infer whether a student has learned or not are both intentional and (more importantly) incidental or emergent. Plus, Bloom’s taxonomy is more about assessment than setting predetermine learning objectives (how they are commonly used today) to drive instruction. Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) six facets of understandings (with aligned performance verbs) gets closer to more expressive-like outcomes by assigning a particular set of criteria or standards around specific performance tasks scheduled over the course of term, but leave room for certain knowledge to emerge. Finally, DI forces educators to take into consider what the student views as mastery learning since they are encouraged to make decisions about course content, learning processes, learning outcomes, and learning environment.
  • How to consider student input within the process of learning: Again, DI allows for student choice in terms of content, process, product, and learning environment, and does so by understanding that these relationships allow student and teacher to better define their roles within the educative experience.

What personalized learning means for teachers is that the term personalized learning is no different than the term learning: Learning cannot help but be personalized because there is only one person who can personalize it: the learner. So, because it is so ubiquitous, it cannot not exist. A learner is constantly personalizing learning based on a particular set of forever-changing circumstances: what the student knows, what materials a student has access to, and the personal relationships a student maintains. It is impossible for a teacher to personalize learning for a student — it is like saying that a teacher is going to learn something for the student.

Example 1: A student takes a course where there is zero differentiation such that the student is unable to access any other content, must adhere to one learning process dictated by the teacher, much complete one give product, and the only learning is to occur in class. Those in the PL camp would likely refer to this example as one that lacks personalization; that is, it lacks personalized learning (and probably individualized learning as well). Even within these learning constraints, the student will personalize her own learning by using any tactics necessary to maintain an educative experience. If there is any criticism in how this course is implemented, it comes mainly from the teaching practice and not necessarily the learning tactics. Differentiated instruction, WHERETO (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), assessment practices, etc. are the issue and not personalized or individualized learning.

Example 2: A student takes a course where there is a high level of differentiation but the student still struggles or fails the course. Let´s assume there are no learning disabilities and student makes every effort to achieve the objectives of the course. Contrary to example 1 above, DI, WHERETO, assessment practices, etc. might all be favorable, giving the students many opportunities to learn but the issue here might be the learning tactics or strategies that the student employed. Teachers also have the obligation to bring about awareness of learning strategies that provide wisdom (knowing what to do when one does not know what to do). The student (not the teacher) learns which strategies work best under different situations in order to make the educative experience more personal, yet all the while remaining personalized. The educative experience is never more or less personalized; it is personal, for better or worse. Stated another way, a PLN always exists but can either be purposeful or serve no purpose.

What teachers can take away from this is that students can become better learners by understanding their own personal learning network (PLN). For this discussion, a PLN is defined as ideational, material, and human connections or relationships that interact with each other for a particular purpose. The learner remains at the center of this aggregate set of ideational, material, and human nodes as relationships remain, grow, and diminish. What a teacher can do is to bring about a metacognitive awareness of how to maintain, grow, and prune a PLN for a particular purpose, like achieving personal and curricular goals simultaneously, for instance.

Educational stakeholders often use the term “personalized learning” to mean a shift in power usually from the teacher to that of the student. I have also heard the term used to promote technologies that use algorithms to tailor the learning experience for the student. The term, individualized learning is also used, which tends to confound the issue even more. But learning is personal, not personalized nor individualized. Personal learning, as in cultivating a personal learning network, is the recognition of greater learner autonomy in how the learner interacts with content (ideas), materials, and individuals. Personalized learning can only come from the learner if learning is understood to occur within a PLN, which occurs by degree or along a continuum. Personalized learning is not a dichotomy; it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. (Personal) learning, like a PLN, is continuous and by degree, and will forever be a sociocognitive (networked) experience that remains fluid as the individual changes over time.

We don’t get smart nor are we getting smart… we get smarter.

Originally posted to Medium.

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