Personalized Learning: Making the Paradigm Shift

In his latest book, author and academic, Yong Zhao articulates a challenge that is facing many schools today. According to Zhao, in order to cultivate the creative and entrepreneurial talents that the successful navigation of the decades ahead will require, we need to shift to a new education paradigm:

“The new paradigm is no longer about imposing prescribed content and knowledge on all students. It is about enabling students to have personalized educational experiences …. In this paradigm, students are owners of their learning enterprises, instead of employees working to satisfy external standards. Students are driven by passions and interests. These learning enterprises are about enhancing students’ strengths, not fixing their deficits.”

This new paradigm is, increasingly, being given the name Personalized Learning (PL). Of course, learning has always been personal, and talented teachers have always attempted to make that possibility a reality. The idea of personalized learning is not new, but it is growing in popularity, largely made possible as it is by ubiquitous technology and necessary as a result of related transformations in the global workplace. Approaches to learning in 2016 should offer richer opportunities for all learners than were heretofore possible.

In a thoughtful environment in which teachers have a respected voice, PL should be seen as an evolution, not a revolution of practice. If we are to move away from the traditional mindset of fixing student deficits to one in which we focus increasingly on enhancing student strengths, then PL should be a logical next step for schools. Our contemporary digital landscape now makes this possible. Yet the gap between what students can learn on their own, using technology, and what they are permitted to learn in school is, in many instances, widening. Astonishingly, almost two decades into the 21st Century, the “debate” about the efficacy of technology as a transformative learning tool persists.

Zhao reminds us why the cult of edtech scepticism continues. “Cyclic amnesia”, he contends, “best characterizes the history of technology in education”. This, he asserts, is because, while technology has itself been dramatically transformed in recent decades, our vision of schools largely remains the same. The result is that technology is all-too-frequently being introduced in classrooms to do what teachers have always done. Little surprise then if change is difficult to identify or implement. Will Richardson’s recent book on the need for greater student agency provides the essential response to this archaic dialectic: “The debate is over: the potential ways in which we and our students can learn have changed forever, and we can no longer frame the education and schooling experiences we offer to our students through the lens of the education and schooling experiences that we ourselves had.”

Of course, personalized learning is not as simple as letting students do what they want, without guidance, structure, mentoring and support. I don’t know any teachers who would not enjoy the liberation of working in less restricted ways, without the mandates of external assessments and largely meaningless report writing. It will require a shift in thinking to make this leap. As we pursue this learning journey in our own school, I look forward to hearing from fellow educators on the topic and will share occasional thoughts on the subject in further blog entries.

In order to reap the full dividend of technology in schools we need a vision for learning that is about empowering students to learn for themselves, not to facilitate the delivery of curriculum. This is the paradigm shift required if schools are truly to harness the potential of personalized learning.


World Class Learners: How to Make Personalization and Student Autonomy Happen – Yong Zhao

Never Send a Human to do a Machine’s Job – Yong Zhao

From Master Teacher to Master Learner – Will Richardson