Close your eyes and imagine a successful classroom...What do you see? How do the students look? What is the teacher doing?
Odds are the image that comes to mind is of seemingly engaged students in orderly rows with a teacher holding their undivided attention. This makes sense, as this is how so many of us learned. In this picture, the teacher is at the center of learning, disseminating knowledge to students who consume it, process it and then reflect back that they "understand it"—all in some set fashion. Clearly this is not personalized learning.
With personalized learning the picture is dramatically different.
Imagine a classroom where some students are using their cell phones to edit pictures and some are working on laptops to assemble a timeline. Perhaps others are reading on their own while the teacher is talking with others in a small group. This is more what a personalized learning environment looks like. It might appear disjointed or even feel uncomfortable, but there are several underlying principles that make this picture work which are essential elements of personalized learning.
Who's the driver?
In personalized learning, it's the student. This is the single most important principle to understand and embrace when moving to personalized learning. In the traditional model the teacher is really the driver who chooses the destination, selects the path and sets the speed to get there. It's an informed process, but, nonetheless, the students are more like passengers on a journey established by the teacher.
In a personalized model, students drive their learning, and all educational structures and roles enable this. They are empowered agents, use their voice and make choices to determine their learning path. This demands a school culture where there is a shared vision and joy in learning, an understanding that it's a lifelong practice and is part of the bigger, broader world. The role of the teacher in all this is more essential than ever, but more on that below.
Who are these drivers?
Of course, personalized learning entails gaining a 360-degree view of students' strengths, needs and goals, and incorporating a thorough understanding of these factors into the learning process. Learning styles and personal interests are tapped so learning is engaging and authentic. A roadmap with goals is also visible to students, teachers and parents so everyone shares a clear picture.
How far can they go?
Likewise, personalized learning enables students to learn in their zones of proximal development. Like Goldilocks, students can try different options until they find learning techniques that are "just right" for them. This is where masterful teaching, curriculum and other supports help them achieve their highest level of mastery possible.
How will they get there?
Extending the analogy, students choose the vehicles and routes that best suit their profiles—some may travel by air, whether in planes or hot air balloons, while others may travel across land using trains, automobiles or bikes. This doesn't mean everyone learns whatever he or she wants willy-nilly. It does mean a variety of materials, tools, approaches and measures are available to support the students in reaching the learning destination and expressing their accomplishments.
At what speed?
Lastly, as the drivers, students set the pace of their learning. What one student grasps quickly, another may struggle with and vice versa. While this is one of the most straightforward elements to understand about personalized learning, it also requires innovative instructional models and flexible environments that make space for self-paced learning.
How will we get all these planes, trains, automobiles, bikes and hot air balloons to the destination?
For personalized learning to reach its potential—and thus our students to reach theirs—personalized learning has to be sustainable and scalable. Part of the answer is technology. Its capacity and ubiquitous nature are knocking down the four walls of the classroom, giving teachers innovation "superpowers" while completely changing student expectations for access and engagement.
At the same time, technology is not the whole answer. iNACOL, a key player in developing online learning, emphasizes that computers and technology must serve—not define—personalized learning.
ISTE's recent downloadable guide on personalized learning and technology describes both personalized learning and the role of technology best:
One-to-one personalized learning is not simply a “patch” for a broken education system. It is a new way of expanding and enhancing learning for all students, regardless of their individual abilities and circumstances. Personalized learning is not the digitization of traditional learning. It is the individualization of learning through use and mastery of modern digital tools and collaborative strategies among teachers, students, and peers who utilize the unique possibilities of the digital environment. Technology is the tool that makes personalized learning easier and more efficient.
What then is the role of the teacher?
Seasoned explorer. Master road builder. Vehicle designer. Air-traffic controller. Emergency roadside assistance. All of these and more. All teachers want to support their students' learning, but personalized learning requires new kinds of savvy from teachers, as well as a shift in mind-set and in strategies. In the words of one high school teacher:
It's about the ability to become a facilitator rather than the central point of information...about encouraging student collaboration, student investigation. And on the macro level really making the classroom bigger than just the four walls that it's in.
None of this is possible, however, without schools that both expect and, more importantly, support all of this. Where learning environments are flexible, not rigid. Where teacher learning is enabled and parents are engaged.
So, clearly, personalized learning puts the student squarely in the driver's seat and opens new horizons for all of us to explore. And, like all explorers, we'll be challenged to write new maps, adapt our worldview and throw out old tools, but the guideposts above point the way forward.
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About Babak Khosravifar
Babak aspires to create a world where students can enjoy learning, excel through an environment that’s personalized to them, become stronger learners and, ultimately, empowered individuals. This leads his drive to unleash the combined potential of technology and education.
Babak, is putting his academic research interests in intelligent tutoring systems, machine learning, game theory and data analysis to work at Mentorina R&D. As co-founder and managing director, he investigates how technology can help create better learners who can excel and enjoy the process throughout their lives. He earned his PhD in Computer Science at Concordia University, and held two post-doctoral fellowships at McGill University.