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My Take on Personalized Learning


Disclaimer; These thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer. This post has been ruminating for a few months. Glad to finally get all my thoughts down.

What is Personalized Learning?

Last December, Pernille Ripp, educator and author of “Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Inspire Your Students,” posted on her blog about 5 Tenets of Personalized Learning. This post resonated with me, as I believe she really hit on a key aspect: Start with the STUDENT! Here are the 5:

  1. Student Voice
  2. Student Choice
  3. Student Planning
  4. Student Reflection
  5. Student Action
My Take
Giving students voice, and REALLY getting to know the students, fits in perfectly with our district’s embrace of Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Instruction, along with Doug Fischer’s work on “really getting to KNOW your students!
Student Choice does NOT mean everything is a free-for-all. The idea is to give them choice in What they learn, How they learn, When they learn, and how they will be assessed. 
Remember: We still have standards, so students won’t have choice in everything they learn!
Students help plan the lesson of how to get where we want them to go. By allowing students to plan, they can become truly engaged in the learning process, not just compliant!
Student reflection is an important component to make learning “sticky.” Students should self reflect through blogs or other tools, experience meta-cognition and self-assess their learning.
Having students take action on their learning allows for rich, authentic learning experiences. This ties in very well with service learning, where students are required to take an action step.
My Definition

Our district has been exploring personalized learning for the last 9 years. This initiative has the goal of giving students ownership of their learning, making it more authentic and helping them reach our Next Generation Educational Competencies:

There are many, many examples of teachers doing great things in this regard, with many examples of concepts Ripp mentions above, but for some reason, being able to clearly define “what” personalized learning is has been a struggle. I believe this struggle has been due to trying to define personalized learning, without putting the student first.
Earlier this year, I sat down and wrote my own "Personalized Learning Manifesto" to share MY philosophy of personalized learning. I firmly believe that learning is defined by what the STUDENT is doing, NOT what the teacher is doing in the learning process. Here was what I wrote down, with some minor edits along the way.

I believe that Personalized Learning means that students, with the support of teachers as activators, have agency in:
  • What they learn, based on recommendations of the instructor
  • When they learn it
  • How they learn it
  • How they demonstrate that they have learned it
Students take ownership of their learning, and understand WHY they are learning particular subject matter.
Note: Students will not have agency in all aspects of personalized learning all of the time, but should have choice in some aspect all the time.

The teacher as "activator" is something I learned from Michael Fullan in his talk at COSN last year. He utilized some of the work of John Hattie, on effect sizes of influences on student learning and acheivement. Fullan defined “activator” behaviors as:
  • Reciprocal Teaching
  • Feedback
  • Teacher-Student Self-Verbalization
  • Meta-Cognition

While Hattie has now updated his list, and these particular activities are not as high on his “effect size,” I like the term to describe the teacher’s role. Activator signifies action! “Guide on the side,” just doesn’t cut it!

Too often, when people think about personalized learning, they feel as though it is "All or Nothing." They assume that  ALL components need to be in place ALL THE TIME, requiring huge data dashboards and management systems to deal with it. Not only do most people find this overwhelming and unattainable, I have yet to see a data system that can do everything that people want/expect it to do!  By focusing on these “systems” as a way to define personalized learning, it also takes the focus off of the learner, which is counterproductive.

Some might argue that personalized learning requires:
    • A Competency Based Progression
    • Learner Profile
    • Personalized Pathways and Plans
    • Flexible Learning Environments

To me, these are management and infrastructure components that a district may need to support personalized learning, but are NOT REQUIRED components of personalized learning. These are the “tools” that as I said earlier, don’t fully exist in one system, but are advocated for by corporate education reform movement as a way to “sell” something to districts and be relevant.

This is why Will Richardson wrote the other day "This is Why Personalized Learning Will Fail." Richardson argues that the term “personalized” has been “co-opted by billionaires and Silicon Valley startups” that are part of the corporate education reform movement, and that it is too late to get it back. Instead, perhaps we should call it “personal learning.” Even Barbara Bray, who wrote the book, “Making Learning Personal,” mentioned to me at ISTE that she is moving more towards Project Based Learning to achieve the goal, because “personalized” means it is being done to students, rather than the students doing it for themselves.

I’m really excited that we will be diving deeper into “The How of Personalized Learning” at our Edina Learning Institute this August, and that Pernille Ripp will be our opening day keynote!! In addition, we will have a three day tstrand on Inquiry led by Diana Laufenberg, where staff can come together and collaborate to create a inquiry based unit, as well as keynotes and sessions on service learning from Jim Toole and Learning Spaces and design from David Jakes.
My hope is that as our staff and others explore “how,” they will define it through the student lens! Join Us!!


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