Letting Go to Make Room for Personalized Learning

Personalization is everywhere. I am certainly not the first to make the astute observation but I have been noticing how prevalent it has become in our daily lives. For example, when I go to workout or barre class, I’m in a room with 20 women but my teacher provides opportunities to work at my level and then pushes that me further, simultaneously providing individual feedback and corrections to make sure I am going to get the best workout. I leave tired, sweaty and prepared to be sore just like all the other people in class. The teacher, on the other hand, doesn’t sweat a bit and is ready to teach the next class as if was her first of the day. Similarly, as I have flown a lot lately, our entertainment during flying experiences has also become much more personalized. Rather than the one size fits all movie, everyone can bring their own device and connect to a variety of entertainment options to suit their personal needs. Not to mention my kids who have no idea what it means to wait for a favorite show to come on and love Netflix. I love it too as I get to set the parameters for what they can watch and the time, they have voice and choice in their entertainment.

Our kids are growing up with increasing degrees of personalization and adults have quickly adapted to expect this as well, yet we are often so hesitant when it comes to personalizing learning in schools. It’s true that it’s a drastic change from where we have been as most systems have become hyper-standardized to meet the demands of NCLB or GERM (global education reform movement) as Pasi Sahlberg calls the testing epidemic.  In order to  emerge from this fog and transform our schools, we must provide learning experiences that offer personalized learning paths that included student voice and choice.  The access to individual devices and online resources affords learners countless opportunities to learn and grow at their own time, place and path.  Teachers can and should set up the parameters aligned with clear learning objectives but allow for flexibility and choice just like you can on Netflix or United Entertainment.  For the teacher to be a facilitator of powerful learning experiences, it is critical that they utilize their expertise and time with students to coach and provide feedback so that like my barre teacher, students are working hard and being pushed to their limits. The learners should leave class exhausted, not the teacher.

So, my question is, What holds us back from personalizing for learners?”  I don’t think it’s that teachers and leaders don’t believe it’s what’s best for kids or that they don’t know how.  I think that we are still suffering from the systems and policies that push teachers and leaders to “cram everything in” and continue to add the new to the old. This in lies the problem that must be addressed. We can’t ensure all students have gone through the units in a book if we aspire to personalize. These two don’t fit together. We have to omit some existing practices and make room for new ways of learning. Just as United got rid of most of the overhead TVs in their new planes to provided access to more personalized digital content, teachers should be allowed to omit some or all of the lessons in textbooks or prescriptive pacing guides. Educators that are providing learning experience that are truly different, have prioritized their values and aligned learning experiences. This alignment requires keeping some practices, refining others and finally getting rid of some old ways to make room for new practices that allow for more personalized learning.

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