What Do We Really Mean When We Say 'Personalized Learning'?

Naomi Chung/Flickr
Naomi Chung/Flickr

The idea of personalized learning is seductive – it implies moving away from the industrialized form of education that pumps out cookie-cutter students with the same knowledge and skills. After decades of this approach, it is clear that all children don’t learn the same way and personalization seems to honor those differences. However, that term has taken on several different meanings.

“When you say personalization, what do you mean by that?” asked Diana Laufenberg, director of Inquiry Schools and a former teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. “It’s not a word that always means the same thing.”

Personalization is often used in the ed-tech community to describe a student moving through a prescribed set of activities at his own pace. The only choice a student gets is what box to check on the screen and how quickly to move through the exercises. For many educators that’s not the true meaning of “personalized learning.”

“That has nothing to do with the person sitting in front of you,” Laufenberg said. “It meets the needs of an individual in a very standardized way, but it doesn’t take into account who that kid is.” For Laufenberg, personalization only comes when students have authentic choice over how to tackle a problem. A personalized environment gives students the freedom to follow a meaningful line of inquiry, while building the skills to connect, synthesize and analyze information into original productions.

Educators at the EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy eagerly discussed the merits and challenges of personalizing learning. Dozens of teachers agreed that a truly personalized learning experience requires student choice, is individualized, meaningful and resource rich. This kind of learning allows students to work at their own pace and level, meets the individual needs of students, and perhaps most importantly, is not a one-size fits all model. Technology was strikingly absent from these conversations. Instead, the common view of personalization focused on giving agency for learning to the student and valuing each individual in a classroom.

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However, in order to navigate the system of accountability in the U.S. educational system, many school district leaders require public school educators to teach a specific curriculum that will be evaluated on standardized tests, while at the same time telling teachers to be innovative and creative within their classrooms. When that happens, the structures around the classroom leave little room for the kind of authentic, whole-child personalization many teachers dream of offering. The demands of the system -- and education leaders’ desire to excel within it -- lend themselves well to the computerized, modular and often very standardized system of “personalization” many ed-tech companies are offering. Those are the tools with a market in the current system.

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“We often say we want creativity and innovation – personalization - but every mechanism we use to measure it is through control and compliance,” Laufenberg said. “Those things never come together as long as that is the overriding moment.” She cautions educators who may be excited about the progressive educational implications for “personalized learning” to make sure everyone they work with is on the same page about what that phrase means.

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