Personalized Learning: Time to Open and Empower

“In essence, we are prisoners of the past. To create a modern institution of education, we have to … look at education with a fresh perspective, a new mindset … grounded in today’s realities, yesterday’s lessons, and tomorrow’s possibilities. The new education must start with the most recent discoveries about human beings: why they learn, how they learn, and where they learn. It must take into consideration the resources we have today, all the learning opportunities that can be harnessed in a globally connected society.”
– Yong Zhao

As we work towards extending personalized learning opportunities at our school, I increasingly appreciate having a Personal Learning Network as we navigate this process. Phil McRae contacted me via Twitter recently and shared his excellent article, ‘The Politics of Personalization in the 21st Century’. While McRae lauds attempts to make learning more personal, he is rightly concerned that the direction may, in some instances, be too much about the technology, rather than the person. He makes a point that many have been grappling with recently, the notion that personalized learning is an idea or concept that seems to be struggling for a clear identity: “Given that language is the fundamental medium for the social construction of meaning, the term is currently under construction and being (re)defined in many quarters.”

Personalized learning should not be primarily about the technology. A focus on technology rather than the person is never wise when it comes to learning: relationships are critical. However, I am less inclined to be concerned about technology in our independent school context and would hate to see schools go down the route of faceless, data-obsession and centralized, controlled learning. Price views, “technology not simply as an aide to learning but as the imperative for change”. What McRae correctly highlights is the need to clarify what we mean by the term personalized learning. “Ultimately”, he suggests, “we need to individually and collectively (re)define this term, and in doing so be empowered to share a vision of what knowledge and pedagogical approaches are of most worth in the 21st century.”

The motivation and incentive to make learning more personal seems abundantly clear. There must be more to school than grades. The problem with “Personalized Learning” is that it is in danger of becoming an overused label that means different things to different people. Personalized learning has been associated with differentiation, individual learning, competency-based learning, mastery learning, and confused with individualization. Its 20th century context and 21st century intentions are very different. While we hope to provide students with greater agency over their learning – and to provide them with the skills to do this – we are currently using the term Personal Learning, (not personalized) to describe this. Education is rife with good ideas that become capitalised and require affiliation and an allegiance to prescribed sets of beliefs and approaches. Teaching For Understanding, Making Thinking Visible, Writers Workshop and Multiple Intelligences are examples that come to mind. These are attempts by good people to clarify worthy approaches to learning, but the initial common sense can quickly achieve cult-like, membership-only status and be replaced by rigid rules and conventions. We must place the PERSONAL and interpersonal at the heart of what we do and not make the mistake of using tech platforms to track and measure data so that we can mechanically move students from data point to data point in the misconceived notion that there is anything personal about such systems.

I also wonder if the name personalized learning doesn’t bring with it too much historical baggage and confusion to serve our means? Instead of redefining the term should we simply consider replacing it with one that more accurately captures what we want for our students? How about Empowered Learning? Or perhaps we should opt for the language of David Price who speaks of OPEN Learning, an approach that is about culture, collaboration, and community:

“Because information flows faster and more freely than ever, and because we are better connected than ever, the barriers to learning are being dismantled. We share what we learn instantly and, generally, without restrictions. How we learn, and whom we learn from, has been transformed. Our reliance upon anointed experts and authority figures has diminished, while our capacity to learn from each other has spiralled.”

Whatever terminology we choose to use, we must remain faithful to the integrity of providing students with greater agency over their learning.

Zhao, Yong quoted in Leading Modern Learning: A Blueprint for Vision-Driven Schools (McTighe, Curtis) Solution Tree, 2015.
McRae, Phil. The Politics of Personalization in the 21st Century.
Price, Price OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Crux Publishing, 2013.

Image credit: Bryan Mathers at Visual Thinkery.