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Personalized Learning? Let Us Be Clear

We hear so much about personalized learning – I even use the term myself, hoping that what I mean is what others understand, but knowing full well it isn’t. Once again, here’s a term that loses all meaning as it’s appropriated by every reform group to describe all types of learning, from providing students with a choice of book to read from a limited selection to letting a student pursue her personal interest in a way she chooses, with guidance from a knowledgeable adult or a learning community.

Most of what I read or hear about seems to be very focused on students going through the prescribed curriculum at their own pace – more like personalized pacing than personalized learning. Or students taking one of several prepared paths through a carefully scaffolded, mapped but granular curriculum. So whether you turn right once or turn left three times, you end up facing in the same direction. Is this really ‘personalized learning’?

I understand my views may be extreme. But every time I see a child completely engrossed in exploring something that’s puzzling her, something about which she’s curious, something which may never have been part of the required ‘curriculum’ but full of interesting nuances and connections, and I see her generating and asking questions of those in around her or in her extended learning community, experimenting and testing her thinking, meandering through the information and ideas she finds, examining them for relevance and reliability without a test or set of worksheets, stickers, grades or extrinsic rewards of any type, I am awed by this quest. This is what I think of as personalized learning. They are learning all the ‘basics’ of learning, which consists not of a set of facts but of a way of pursuing an idea. When I use the term ‘personalized learning’ when speaking with others, this type of learning quest is what I mean. But I’m pretty sure they think I mean those other definitions and often assure me this is what they are doing or trying to implement. I get the impression our conversation is happening in two different universes.

I realize that in the current education system, my definition of personalized learning probably cannot exist as long as we insist on maintaining most components of the system as is. The question is how much are we willing to change? If only a very little, a tweak here, another there, or only one component of what is a large, tightly interconnected system, then nothing really changes at all. The system, in its quest to maintain its equilibrium, readjusts, off-setting one shift with another in the opposite direction to neutralize any systemic threats. Zero-sum, stable, back to calm familiarity.

Maybe we need to develop a more precise description, so we can learn from those who truly engage in personalized learning – those outside of the system, who are home-schooled or not yet schooled – and be prepared with that model when the time comes to make it possible. Which means when the time comes that we realize a new system of education is not only necessary but possible. The time when we’re willing to rethink everything about what we mean by learning, education, and the role an institution like school has in this process.

With all the learning opportunities ubiquitous access to technology, both in and outside of school, makes possible, that time could be now.
October 3rd, 2013 @ 11:07AM