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Student Well-Being Commentary

What Does Personalized Learning Actually Mean? It Depends Who You Ask

By Orly Friedman — October 30, 2018 5 min read
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Over the course of last spring I had the opportunity to sit down with dozens of parents to hear their take on the promise of a personalized learning environment for their child. What I heard were two very different visions of what personalization could look like. As the lower school head at a progressive independent school in Silicon Valley, I conducted the final parent interview before admissions decisions were made. I asked every set of parents to tell me what about our school model resonated with them. Parents invariably responded: “Personalized learning!” I was struck by how they each described their vision of a personalized learning classroom so differently. I realized that as a school we would need to provide clarity on what personalization meant to us.

The ways in which schools personalize learning are far from universal, and the available options require compromises that few educators have started talking about. As teachers and principals around the country ponder how to leverage technology to provide a more personalized learning experience for students this school year, they, too, will need to decide what they value.

The term “personalized learning” has been on the rise over the last decade. According to Google Trends, use of the term really started taking off in 2013. But for all that searching, the phrase seems to mean anything or nothing. The visions and values that fall under the brand of “personalized learning” are as different as the beliefs people have about “healthy eating,” from Keto to Atkins diets.

“Personalization” is not a set of common tactics. There are schools that personalize by having 90 kids sit in a gymnasium working on adaptive software. Some schools personalize by turning over to students all decisions about how, when, and where to work. Some schools provide one-on-one teaching throughout the day. Others personalize by giving students “flex time.” There are also schools that characterize personalization as tracking, differentiation, and individualized education programs.

The pro-personalization parents I interviewed tended to come in two varieties."

The pro-personalization parents I interviewed tended to come in two varieties. Ideally, we would be able to offer students the best of both of these visions, but trade- offs inevitably are required.

The first set of parents have high academic expectations and want their child exposed to all the on-demand customization that modern technology has made possible in other industries. If transportation, food, clothing, and entertainment can all be made to our specifications, they ask, why not learning? These parents want to ensure that their child is never presented with a question too easy or too hard, but always in their zone of proximal development to ensure a seamless learning experience. A common refrain is that their child is “bored” in their current school.

If a school chose to design a system of personalization for this set of parents, the emphasis would be on catering to the separate needs of each individual learner through technology or one-on-one instruction. This approach implies a prioritization of learning content over more process-oriented “soft skills” that come from working in a group setting with diverse learners. The emphasis is on individual efficiency, rather than developing agency. Students become the recipients of an education rather than active constructors of one. However, this allows them to advance at a significantly faster pace through the curriculum without unnecessary repetition or boredom.

The second variety of pro-personalization parents want their child to be able to slow down and get the support needed to fully learn a subject. These parents want their child to enjoy learning, and often complain that their current schools don’t make time for their child to study the subjects that deeply interest them, be it black holes, Legos, or songwriting. Sometimes their child hasn’t yet figured out how to fit in socially, and these parents are looking for a school that can help personalize that part of the school day as well. They look at the spikiness of their child’s learning profile with curiosity, appreciation, and patience.

If a school were to cater to these parents’ vision, it would mean emphasizing the teacher-student relationship. Teachers, not technology, do the personalizing to identify each child’s academic strengths and weaknesses, passions, quirks, and social development needs as only humans can. This vision prioritizes process over pace. Test scores may be less remarkable, but the content is also less standardized. The role the child plays, as a contributing member of the learning community, is part of the core school experience. Students may not learn as much content as quickly, but end up with a deep understanding of themselves as learners. This personalization requires staff with developmental expertise, and the results may be slower in coming but longer lasting.

After observing the benefits and drawbacks of personalization up close for four years, my balance is weighted toward prioritizing process over content. The long-term benefits of getting through algebra ahead of your peers loses its cachet by the time you’re 30. On the other hand, the long-term benefits of understanding yourself as a learner and the strategies that work best for you will last a lifetime. The differing parental viewpoints around personalized learning demonstrate not just the philosophical difference between learning fast and slow, but between entitled children and empowered children. The first set of parents want the hard parts of the learning process done for their child, while the second set appreciate that meaningful learning occurs when students learn—with appropriate coaching from teachers—to make meaning for themselves.

As more schools search for an effective model of personalization, they should first clarify what they believe about how children learn, their communal values, and their belief in the purpose of education. Then they should select a set of personalization tactics to match those values.

I believe learning is a social process, as developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote many decades ago. What we learn from and with our peers about being human is at least as important as the content being covered. The same technological progress that makes personalization of content possible is making content learning less valuable and the process of learning and soft skills that go along with it ever more essential.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Does Personalized Learning Actually Mean? It Depends Who You Ask

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