I believe that all learning is personalized. Each of us uniquely absorbs knowledge based on our innate strengths, our personal experiences and our level of exposure with opportunities to think and problem solve. In order for anything to be “learned”, we must work through a process that Kevin D. Washburn articulates so eloquently in his book The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain1. According to Washburn, the learning process – or the learning pathway if you will – occurs in the following order: EXPERIENCE – COMPREHENSION – ELABORATION – APPLICATION as illustrated below.
So what, precisely, is Personalized Learning? It might be helpful to learn what it is not. It is not differentiation. Carol Ann Tomlinson provides a wonderful definition. “Differentiation means tailoring instruction to meet individual needs. Whether teachers differentiate content, process, products, or the learning environment, the use of ongoing assessment and flexible grouping makes this a successful approach to instruction.”2 Examples might include theme based literature circles around different texts or student contracts.
Personalized learning is different from differentiation in that students are empowered to have input on what they do and how they demonstrate their learning. Students have opportunities to think, explore, investigate, design, create, and discover solutions to problems. Students are allowed a greater degree of ownership through the entire process from the development of an idea to the presentation of a project or presentation to an authentic audience.
It is also not Individualization. Individualized instruction has been around for almost 50 years. ASCD provides a working definition of Individualized instruction. “Individualized instruction consists of any steps taken in planning and conducting programs of studies and lessons that suit them to the individual student's learning needs, learning readiness, and learner characteristics or "learning style." “3 Examples might include a teacher playlist of topics to work through or access to Kahn Academy tutorials.
Personalized learning is different from individualized instruction because students are empowered to incorporate the exploration and discovery of their passions and interests while they identify ideas, develop questions and formulate an action plan. Students collect resources, develop timelines and move through the iterative process of experimentation, gathering feedback and revision based on conversations, reflection and new knowledge.
(Kallick and Bena, 2017) identify four defining elements of personalized learning which include voice, co-creation, social construction and self-discovery.4
Voice allows students to become involved in setting the agenda by helping students to understand the power of their own ideas and how their ideas change as they are exposed to the ideas of others. Co-creation supports the growth of student creativity and higher level thinking by working with teachers to develop their challenge, refine learning goals and envision their performance assessment. Social construction involves the transformative power of building ideas through collaboration, discussion and dialogue. Students gain the ability to internalize and improve the larger end-product as they work as a team. Finally, the self-discovery attribute helps students learn how to manage themselves and actually understand themselves as learners.
The world continually evolves and it is of the utmost importance for our young people to participate in learning experiences that foster critical thinking and problem solving. When we design experiences that allow for the exploration of their interests and passions, engagement escalates. The potential for discovery and learning heightens and a sense of what they want to accomplish in life – the vision of a preferred future – begins to develop and emerge.
1Washburn, Kevin D. The architecture of learning: designing instruction for the learning brain. Pelham, Alab.: Clerestory Press, 2010. Print.
2Tomlinson,, Carol A. "Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ." ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (2000): ERIC Digest. Web.
3A Wording Definition of Individualized Instruction. ASCD/Glen Heathers, Feb. 1977. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.
4Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria: ASCD, 2017. Print.