Learning Pathways

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The other day, I posted about what personalized learning is not.  This, of course, begs the question of what personalized learning is.  And that will require far more than one post can contain.  I’ll do my best to break this down into different components and address them separately, as much for my own sanity as anything else, but they all intersect.

“Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, when, how and where students learn – to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student.  Within a framework of established curriculum standards and high expectations, personalized learning motivates students to reach their goals.  Students take ownership of their own learning and develop deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults.  Technology is necessary to implement personalized learning effectively, affordably, and at significant scale.  Teachers leverage technology to gain detailed and timely knowledge of their students that guides instruction.  Effective use of technology allows teachers and students to focus more on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.” – Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech Consortium (MAPLE)

Individualized pathways and student agency in directing their learning are at the center of personalized learning.  What an amazing concept – that students should take responsibility for the what, how, when, and where of their learning!  If there is one thing we know in this age of accelerations it is that learning will have to be a lifelong endeavor as much of the content knowledge students gain during their PreK-16 educations will become obsolete by the time they graduate.  And yet, providing students diverse learning experiences is nothing new; it has been the calling card of empowered and empowering educators since long before computers became a mainstay in our classrooms.  No robot, no matter how developed the user interface or the artificial intelligence algorithms, can provide this level of personalization for students.

This does mean that educators need to focus more on helping students learn how to learn and less on which year Christopher Columbus sailed west.  It means that part of what educators bring to the table is a rich array of student experiences so that students can learn not only content and skills but also which types of learning experiences work best for them.  

We’ve talked about “voice and choice” in learning for decades.  I’m old enough to remember when it was considered a giant leap forward in student-centered teaching to give students  choices in how they would demonstrate understanding based on their interests or “learning style.”  Personalized learning offers students a variety of ways to learn the needed objectives as well as options for demonstrating acquisition.  A simple example of this would be to give students a wide array of “inputs” such as books, articles, websites, videos, role-playing, field trips, etc. in order to learn about a topic.  Educators and districts that build curriculum using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles are already doing this and more.

Educators play an important role in helping students develop agency and creating personal learning pathways.  They offer a variety of ways to learn objectives and a variety of ways to demonstrate mastery.  They assist students in making choices about their learning paths.  And, of course, they are integral in the design of curriculum materials and working with students in a developmentally and pedagogically appropriate manner.

Students have an important responsibility in their own education as well.  Compliance is no longer enough; students need to be engaged and purposeful in their education.  Even very young students can make educational activity choices with teacher guidance.  Students learn what works for them, their own strengths, needs, and preferences, and can explain the rationale for the choices they make.

In personalized learning, educators motivate students to reach their goals and prepare them for taking ownership of their lifelong learning adventures. Knowledge, technology, and even climate change are all accelerating at an exponential rate, making it more important than ever that our students are able to learn and adapt well after they leave the classroom.

Personalized Learning: No Robot Teachers

cup of robots ~ on whiteAs students left for Physical Education, Mrs. F. reminded them that when they returned, each student would have an individualized list of the math concepts they needed to work on later in the day.  These lists were created by looking at the classwork, homework, and formative assessments students completed recently.  This is personalized learning.

E. is in fifth grade but is dyslexic and reads significantly below grade level.  He is able to access a digital version of the Social Studies textbook with text-to-speech capabilities.  After listening to the text, he can participate fully in classroom discussions about the events leading up to the American Revolution.  Using the speech-to-text option in Google Docs, he can also respond in writing to the comprehension questions, and writing prompts, and take notes on his reading.  This is personalized learning.

Ms. M.’s class is working to increase their multiplication math fact fluency.  Once students have mastered the concept of multiplication, memorizing the facts in order to better utilize them in problem solving is most often done through the tried-and-true method of flashcards, excruciatingly boring for both the student and the person working with them.  By using a service called Reflex Math, students can practice their math facts with adaptive algorithms that repeat facts that students still need to master, have progress tracking available to student and teacher, and positive feedback.  This is also a form of personalized learning.

Universal Design is personalized learning.  P-B learning (take your pick: Problem-, Passion-, Project-based) is personalized learning.  In none of these scenarios is the teacher replaced by a robot, and yet this is the cry being made by those convinced that human teachers will go the way of the dodo and all students will spend their days from age 3 through 22 seated in front of a computer.

While some will claim that the third scenario essentially replaces a teacher, I disagree.  Flashcard practice has been a home assignment and one that teachers have found parents less and less available to do with their students.  Flashcard practice doesn’t take a Master’s degree in Education to perform; creating rich problem-solving projects that utilize math facts in order to complete them, does require well-trained educators.  Where would you prefer your child’s teacher devote their time?  As an educator, where do you think your planning and teaching time is best spent?

While technology can help facilitate personalized learning, personalized learning is about people and pedagogy, not boxes and screens.  Or robots.