By Phyllis Lockett Oct 30, 2017
In what no doubt feels like an ironic twist for most teachers, the concept of personalized learning has come under fire. The term has become derided as emblematic of a technological takeover of education—with the potential to sap the humanity from teaching.
But teachers know personalized learning is designed to enable the sort of flexibility children deserve, and provide space to adjust the format and structure of lessons to fit each student’s needs.
The modern push toward personalized learning started in the 1960s and 70s, when some teachers began practicing what they called “individualized instruction.” A student’s progression through a subject was based on whether he or she was able to demonstrate mastery of the previous lesson, which allowed teachers to tailor their instructional strategy to the challenges or accomplishment of a particular learner.
More recently, the term “personalized learning” has become conflated with something it is not. Technology zealots have used the term to hype education technology products, offering a vision of technology-driven recommendations rooted in the sort of black box algorithms that power Netflix or Uber.
Critics have, in turn, come to view personalized learning as synonymous with a dystopian future state, rife with developmentally inappropriate practice; where teachers have been replaced with computers, and learning is anything but personal.
In short, personalized learning is a term increasingly used, but poorly understood—the focus of a debate among parties that don’t agree to a consistent or accurate lexicon.
Now it’s time for educators to take back the term personalized learning.
Let’s start with what personalized learning is not. It isn’t about the use of computer programs, the proliferation of online courses, or a Trojan horse for allowing industry in the classroom. It isn’t about efficiency, marginalizing the role of great teachers, or disrupting the critical importance of the teacher-child relationship.
Personalized learning is exactly what it sounds like. It means tailoring curricula to fit every student’s unique needs. It means connecting lessons to students’ communities and cultures. It is about cultivating agency by listening to students when they say what they need.
Furthermore, personalized teaching is based on the premise that there is no “average” student. There are only individuals, with different needs, strengths, and interests. And a learning experience that honors this goes a long way in helping all learners succeed. Imagine an approach to learning where every learner—no matter their age, race, geography, or economic status—has a unique learning experience, built just for them. That’s personalized learning.
Since no two students learn in exactly the same way, at exactly the same pace, or enter the classroom with exactly the same knowledge, it doesn’t make sense to give them exactly the same lessons. Teachers have always known that. But they now have more tools and technology to tailor their approach.
To advance a deeper understanding around personalized learning, we spent a year talking to teachers and trailblazers in the personalized learning movement and developed a four-part framework that is now championed by more than 1,000 educators across the City of Chicago.
- It is learner-focused, where learning experiences are designed around a deep understanding of learners’ academic and non-academic needs, interests, and strengths.
- It is learner-demonstrated, where learners progress at their own pace and advance based on demonstrated competency, not time spent on a subject.
- It is learner-led, where learners are coached to take ownership of their learning.
- It is learner-connected, where learning transcends location in relevant and accredited ways, connected to families, communities, and networks.
We know enough about how students learn and what teachers need that we should not settle for a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Both students and teachers deserve better tools for success. This may mean greater use of technology. It also means giving teachers more resources to identify students’ needs and rethinking the way schools are organized.
For some schools, personalization won’t entail any technology at all. It’s about meeting kids where they are.
There’s an old saying in education, often attributed to philosopher John Dewey: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” The world is changing rapidly. As educators, we must adapt and give all of our students the tools they need to succeed in this new economy.