Thursday, April 10, 2014

Personalized Learning Myth: Isolation

Cross-posted with the OSD: Learning for the Future blog. If you want some background, you can view all posts about personalized learning here.

Myth: Personalized Learning is a Solo Sport

One misconception about personalized learning is that because it is personal or individualized, it lacks opportunities for students to work together, resulting in isolation. It is easy to see how this misconception can occur, especially if a learning environment has a large technology component. Seeing students "glued" to computers screens evokes concerns of social isolation, maladjustment, and even dystopian futures devoid of human interaction. Regardless of what the student may actually be doing on the computer, it is difficult for the observer to see what is happening. The learner could actually be collaborating with others, but it's hard to tell. 

Jim Rickabaugh, director of The Institute @ CESA #1, identifies collaboration as something to look for when evaluating personalized learning:
  • Collaboration. Contrary to the perceptions of some, personalized learning is not isolated learning. While some learning tasks and student work are best accomplished as learners are working alone, collaborative learning also plays a key role in a personalized environment. The question is not “either/or,” but what is the best fit for the learner and the learning task. Visitors to personalized learning environments are likely to see a variety of learning approaches: students working alone, in pairs, small groups and even in large gatherings in response to the learning challenges at hand. 
Unfortunately, isolation can be a result of poor implementation of some teaching and learning strategies which are used to personalized learning. Proficiency-based progress, one of the core components of personalized learning, is often associated with computer-based instruction. In this case, isolation can be real, and this is bad. 

We know that there is great value in skills like collaboration, teamwork, communication, and understanding the perspectives of others. As we seek to develop each learner's maximum potential, we must be deliberate about teaching these crucial "soft" skills in addition to traditional academic skills. These interpersonal skills are more personally meaningful, useful, and practical than many purely academic skills, so it is ironic that they would be lacking in "personalized" learning.

In order to meet the needs of learners, teachers must design learning environments in which learners work in groups, discuss ideas, debate solutions, and learn how to disagree with another person's opinion while still conveying respect for the person. Some learners need to process verbally, or "talk it through," to make sense of their learning. Teachers must provide opportunities for students who learn through discussion and interaction. Teachers must also make sure that students for whom discussion and collaboration does not come naturally are still gaining these important skills.

It is challenging to design activities which teach learners how to develop these skills and practice them, while at the same time enabling learners to move at their own pace. However, what we typically call "soft skills" are now some of the most important skills we can give our students. Developing the "whole person" is a vital part of personal learning. 

For more information about Personalized Learning in the Oregon School District, see

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Personal Learning Myth: It's a fad

Cross-posted with OSD: Learning for the Future. If you want some background, you can view all posts about personalized learning here.

Myth: Personalized Learning is a fad that will pass

Education has a reputation for adopting fads and then ditching them a while later, so it's no surprise that some educators see personalized learning as yet another trend or buzzword that will soon be replaced by the "next big thing." This is often expressed by the sentiment, "If I wait long enough, it will go away."

I am familiar with the swinging pendulum of initiatives. Most of the time, it seems that these fads happen because one instance of a practice, technique, philosophy, strategy or product is found to be successful, and then others try to replicate it. The problem is that what gets replicated is usually the most visible, superficial aspects of the solution. Open classrooms and 1:1 computer programs are some classic examples.

What makes me more optimistic about the drive for student-centered learning is that it has been around a while. The research supporting it goes back 30-40 years, and I've seen it implemented in various forms for the past twenty years, albeit in small pockets. We are finally to the point where there is enough pressure on the system to force us to think about learning differently. My hope is that this will make us re-think the small boxes we are putting children into. 

I rarely hear politicians talk seriously about systemic and structural reform of public education with any detail. The dialogue seems to be limited to "more rigor within the current system because it is failing" or "it's failing, so let's introduce market forces like vouchers to allow parents to choose any school they like" but the choices are inevitably implemented within the same batch-processing structure. Neither of these, it seems to me, are a substantial enough reform - they are both just modifications of the model. 

Personalizing learning is a process of removing the artificial structures, the fads, and the superficial aspects of instruction, and going back to the essence of learning. 

To be honest, are there things out there called "personalized learning" that are fads? Probably. It seems that the label "Personalized Learning" has been slapped on all sorts of stuff to try to sell it. Certainly all that stuff will be ineffective. So the challenge is to critically analyze what really "counts" as personalized learning, and what just has the sticker slapped onto it. Jim Rickabaugh uses this test: 

If you see something that could be implemented large-scale without completely disrupting the current school system, then it's not personalized learning. 

He supports this assertion by saying that because the current system was designed to be completely de-personalized, erasing all individuality, then achieving anything personal at 100% capacity would be incompatible with the current system.

So, if something has "Personalized" slapped onto it, ask yourself if it could exist at 100% implementation in the current model. If not, then it's probably not actually personalized. 

Another reason I believe that personal learning is not a fad is because it meets the relational need that everyone has. In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin says, "Everyone is a person, and people crave connection and respect." I believe that personal learning is both enabled by, and results in, more personal connections. Godin talks about the role of people in the information age in his manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams:
“We don’t need a human being standing next to us to lecture us on how to find the square root of a number or sharpen an axe....What we do need is someone to persuade us that we want to learn those things, and someone to push us or encourage us or create a space where we want to learn to do them better.”
This is why technologies that help implement personal learning won't replace caring teachers. The technology simply frees up the time spent on clerical or organizational tasks so that teachers can spend more time with students, helping them as they uniquely can. It is crucial to keep the focus on the person who is learning. Any technique, product, or strategy that doesn't have the person who is learning at the center of its work is missing the mark.

For more information about Personalized Learning in the Oregon School District, see

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Progress and proficiency

I just read a January 2014 publication by iNACOL and CompetencyWorks called Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education. Here are some key points that I believe we need to focus on when personalizing learning for our students. (The emphasis in the quotes is mine.)
"It is important to remember that students will be starting at different points along the larger learning progression, and teachers will need to be able to assess, grade, and track learning gains...."
My takeaway- We must pre-assess continually before each unit.
"The transparent scoring system that tracks student progress in competency education shifts the power dynamics in the classroom. Immediately, students are more empowered, demanding to understand what the standards mean, to know what proficiency looks like, and to have choices in how they demonstrate their learning. Teachers who try to cling to traditional management practices from the conventional classroom — by using points as incentives or punishment — are likely to end up frustrated."

My takeaway- If you want student empowerment and ownership, make your assessment criteria transparent and give students choices in how to demonstrate their learning.

"In competency-based high schools, you may hear students talk about themselves as 'faster' or 'slower' learners. At first it sounds disturbingly like smarter and dumber. However, as the conversation continues, you find that students think of this as their pace or tempo."
"John Caesar explained, “One of the greater challenges of performance-based systems (PBS) is pacing. Pacing is easy in a time-based system because ‘time’ is the constant. In PBS, time is the variable and learning is the constant, so pacing and acceleration become a critical conversation. At Lindsay we are designing ‘individual meters’ for students that provide for diagnostic pacing to include acceleration and deceleration over time. This is critical...."
My takeaway- We need to stop having knee-jerk reactions against words like "faster," "slower," "advanced," or "accelerated." In a student-centered learning environment, these are not value judgments, just facts.  These terms are only evaluative in the context of the rigidly-paced, factory model of industrial-age schooling. If we are uncomfortable with students learning at different paces, it indicates that our mindset is stuck in an "everybody is exactly the same" mentality.

I recommend reading the whole report, as it is an easy read and is a good review of the research behind why the industrial-era grading system is broken, and how to assess for learning.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Personalized Learning Myth: Students Do Whatever They Want

Myth: Personalized Learning means students do whatever they want

Sometimes when people hear that personalized learning is "all about the student," they get the impression that students can do whatever they want, or that teachers are merely observers or logistical coordinators.

This is understandable, but not accurate. Teachers are still the leaders of the instructional process, but they encourage the input of learners and try to incorporate learner interests to provide motivation. Teachers pre-assess what students already know and can do, so that students don't waste time on things they already know. Teachers use assessments that measure the depth of understanding so that they know not only what students know, but how deeply they understand it. Teachers use this information to design learning so that all students are growing and learning regardless of where they start.

In a personalized learning environment, student perspectives are invited and respected. What the students prefer may not always prevail, but they are authentically considered and when possible, are implemented. Students choose from:
  • multiple "starting points" depending on what they already know,
  • multiple methods of accessing and processing information,
  • multiple ways to engage with content and concepts, using strategies that encourage ownership of their learning,
  • multiple ways to express (or demonstrate) their knowledge and understanding.
While it is true that personalized learning can be described as "giving students voice and choice in their learning," this doesn't mean the students have absolute choice. The Institute @ CESA #1 gives the following description of how learner choice is considered.
Whenever practical, learners are given options regarding the ways in which they will engage in learning. It may be the approach to completing a task, how learning will be displayed or with whom learners will work, but choices are a part of the environment. The focus remains on clear, vigorous standards, but the paths learners will take to meeting these standards include learners as co-designers.
As you can see, there are still standards that learners are expected to achieve, but instead of being told exactly how to get there, learners have some choice in how to learn, how to engage with what they are learning, and how to demonstrate what they know.

For more information about Personalized Learning in the Oregon School District, see