Education Opinion

All Learning Is Personal: So What?

By Contributing Blogger — July 07, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Jim Rickabaugh, Director, the Institute @ CESA #1

“Teach means ‘to show how.’ You can teach someone, or someone can teach you. Learn means ‘to find out about something.’ A person must learn things for himself. Someone else may teach him, but he must do the learning for himself.”

Alexander J. Stoddard and Matilda Bailey

All learning is personal - it seems almost too obvious to mention, right? However, there seems to be a gathering storm around the increasingly popular term, “personalized learning” (see here and here for examples). Anyone who follows education publications and blogs probably comes across an article related to this subject almost daily.

It seems that most people realize the system we have inherited is not optimizing the education opportunities for all children in an equitable manner. There are a variety of causes for this situation, however it is not because of bad parents, lazy students or uncaring teachers. It is a system problem, not a people problem. A system that was designed over 120 years ago just is not capable of giving today’s students the supports they need to succeed, in school and in life.

The Institute @ CESA #1 has been working with a group of districts across Southeastern Wisconsin since 2010 on a Personalized Learning Initiative. We read these contrasting articles on personalized learning with great interest; we chose the term well before it achieved such notoriety and we have developed a very specific model to define it. The focus of our model is to approach learning and teaching in such a way that the learner is at the center. At the core of our model are three components:

  • A deep, comprehensive understanding of the learner
  • Co-construction by the educator and the student of a unique learning path
  • Clear, compelling proficiencies that represent the next learning for the student

Our change strategy begins with changes to learning and teaching strategies that allow learners to achieve success while moving along a learning continuum with the end goal being independent, lifelong learners. Roles and relationships for all stakeholders will shift as the new learning and teaching strategies are implemented. Eventually structures and policies will be adjusted to bring the new practices to scale.

Our model is based on a wide variety of excellent research spanning a number of decades. It ranges from Benjamin Bloom’s work on the effectiveness of one-to-one tutoring more than three decades ago to more recent work by Carol Dweck on a growth mindset and John Hattie’s work around visible learning.

People often use personalized learning to mean a student sitting in front of a computer with little or no teacher interaction or guidance. We do not; in fact we maintain that personalized learning can happen on a small scale with little to no technology. However, to bring such a system to scale, today’s emerging technology tools are a necessary component.

Others attempt to differentiate among personalized, blended, and competency-based learning, but there remains confusion around the concepts and many still use them interchangeably. Blended learning can certainly be an effective learning and teaching strategy, at certain times and for some students, but if the same content is put online without regard to the needs, strengths, readiness, and interests of the individual student, it predictably will not be any more effective than traditional methods of instruction.

Truly personalized learning is also more than just competency- (proficiency)-based learning. While clear, compelling proficiencies are core to our model, in order to tap its full potential, educators must do more than give students clear competencies. Instead, the learner and educator work together to design a unique path for that learner to achieve each standard. The path takes into account learner readiness and interests, and the educator is then positioned to support students as they work to demonstrate proficiency in each standard.

While we are far from finished, the results the schools using this model have seen are very promising. Results captured on traditional assessments show students achieving at significantly higher levels across the performance continuum. Educators are reporting amazing increases in student engagement, confidence, learning persistence and ownership for learning. Meanwhile, the frequency of misbehavior is dropping dramatically.

As our story begins to spread, other districts, in Wisconsin and across the nation, are joining the movement to bring our model of personalized learning to their regions. We host several visit and orientation sessions during the school year. These sessions combine visits to sites to see personalized learning in action with staff development activities that are designed to build awareness and discuss initial strategies for implementing personalized learning. If you are interested in learning more about our model and how it is working on the ground in schools, we invite you to schedule a visit.

Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc. / PhotoEuphor

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