Monday, November 3, 2014

Personalized Learning: Will American Schools Ever Get There?

Personalized learning is a hot topic in education right now, emerging as one of the "new forms" of the modern era.
How could learning NOT get more personalized, what with all of the apps, devices, search engines, maker spaces, genius hours, contests, global projects and authentic opportunities for learning, prevalent in the modern world?

Yet the old forms stick like glue, holding us back from exploring ideas of what education could and should look like. Structures like grades, schedules, age-groupings, testing, even school itself must be critically examined. Do they still make sense?

It may be cliche, but the saying "out of the box" really speaks to me. I feel that the old forms gained popularity and still hang on because they represent the alluring idea that education can be boxed, measured, and standardized. [We thought the same thing could be done with nutrition, and look at what we are learning about the unhealthfulness of factory foods.]
Why do we love boxes?

Chris Lehman says that students should never be the implied object of their own education. Do you teach subject content or do you teach kids? Kids are not standardized. We need to stop pretending and start speaking truth.
TruthMy students, despite being born in a roughly 365-day span, have vastly different abilities, needs, interests and motivations. They come to me at varying stages of physical, emotional and academic development. This impacts what they are able to do in my language arts classroom. 

You wouldn't know it by looking at most schools, but acknowledging and accepting this is the easy part. Once we accept that learning is developmental and students have different needs, what are we going to do about it?

How do we get from point A (think rows of desks, worksheets. teacher-centered, everyone doing the same thing, compliance, grades, etc.) to these "new forms" that so many of us are envisioning and working to create? How does personalized learning work within the old-school constructs within which most of us are forced to work?

The key is embracing and creating environments where open-ended, unboxed constructs provide students opportunity for "choice and voice as opposed to chore and bore, documenting growth (which we do at my school through student blogfolios), formative assessment, and trying things to see what works for each child. The role of the teacher has totally changed to more individual coaching and conferencing.

Many people say that they want students to be able to learn according to their passions, personalities, abilities and interests, yet they are terrified to let go enough to allow this. Many of us, parents and educators alike, want it all. We want our students to be able to learn out of the box, but we want to keep the box, too. We are so afraid of what will happen without it. Will our children be prepared for college? How often do we stop and ask ourselves what it even means to be educated?

We can not have it both ways. We must decide where we stand and what we believe. If we believe  in a student-centered, personalized approach, we have to let go of some of the old ways of doing things. We have to understand that learning is developmental, that we learn through practice. We have to allow the roles of both teacher and students to evolve and change.

Learning is messy, messy, messy. Any attempt to make it un-messy squeezes kids into unnatural confines that work for some, but not all, students.


Unknown said...

Hello Andrea,
My name is Cortnee Meyers. I am a college student at The University of South Alabama in Mobile, AL. I am going to school to be a Physical Education teacher. In my EDM310 class, we get assigned to blogs by people in our field. I enjoy this very much because of post like yours. I really liked the point you made about people wanting their kids to think outside of the box, but we still hold on to that box. I agree with you completely when you said we must choose where we stand. Do we want to stick to the old style of teaching or do we want to use open ended and open box ways to teach our kids. Great post!
Thank you,
Cortnee Meyers

Emily said...

Hi, Andrea,
I love that you call it "Personalized Learning"-- that really describes what you are talking about so much better than "Individualized Learning". As part of the Parent Ambassador program at MJGDS, we kept hearing that term "Individualized Learning" and it just sounded like empty buzzwords even though I understood what it meant. Suddenly, by changing "Individualized" to "Personalized", it feels like a distinctive journey. What I am trying to articulate is that, as a mother, I couldn't connect to "individualized"-- the word sounds connected to data or a bullet point. "Personalized" tells me the curriculum is flexible and (hopefully) creative and bends with my child as she learns. Thank you for giving me a new vocabulary.

Andrea Hernandez said...

Hi Emily-
Thank you for your comment!
I'm glad that you connected with something I wrote, and I really appreciate your participation at Parent Connect as well!