Personalized learning? What does THAT mean?

Education is always aflutter with new buzz words.  Buzz words and phrases get bastardized as they are used in and out of different circles by people who have various depths of understanding about the origin or intention of the words.  I could cite multiple, historical examples and I bet you can, too!

A phrase that is being tossed around a lot in my district right now is “personalized learning.”  Well, learning has always been “personal” so what’s the big deal?  Ah, but something about this buzz phrase strikes a different chord with me.

You see, I love learn learning but I pretty much hate school.  That may be a little hard for some people to grasp as I am entering my 25th year as an employee of Albemarle County Public Schools, but it’s true.  As a professional educator, I have loved reading books like Garth Boomer’s Negotiating the Curriculum and Steven Levy’s Starting from Scratch.  I have enjoyed imaging how my school life would have been different had I had more teachers like this.  

Yes, but, we now have state tests.  What if we considered our standards sets to be the Power Standards only and we ignored the minutia unless an authentic need for knowing presented itself?  Or, what if we focused on concepts and big ideas and let thinking drive what we do and how we do it?  How would kids do on “the tests” then?  Doug Reeves thinks they would do just fine.

Some folks have heard “personalized learning” and responded by saying, “We’ve been doing that for years.  It’s called ‘differentiation.'”  Have we?  Is it?  I have had many opportunities to sit and chat with Carol Tomlinson over the years and have enjoyed her work immensely.  Have we really been doing what she describes?  I don’t think so.  I think we have done pieces and parts of what she pushes us to, but not to the extent that it is possible in our schools.

And are “personalized learning” and “differentiation” the same?  I struggle with that.  In my mind, differentiation is still about what the TEACHER does.  Personalized learning is what the STUDENT does.  I think I can say, “A student learning in an environment in which the educators subscribe to the practices and mindsets of differentiated instruction has more opportunity to personalize his or her own school-centered learning than a student who does not.”  But, that’s about it.

Why did I feel like I had to add the adjective “school-centered”?  Perhaps because of the “common good” clause.  We do have schools and we do have set curricula so there is, by design, a limit to the choices we can offer our young people.

How do we commit to ensuring learning is personal, personalized, differentiated, and standards-based?  Can and should there be an AND or must there be an OR?  



2 Responses to “Personalized learning? What does THAT mean?”

  1. Pam Says:

    Becky, Your definition of differentiated and personalized learning feel right on target – I’ve been reconceptualizing personalized as being choice-based, determined, or driven. Watching kids this summer who chose to participate in a variety of camp/academy work in which they mostly had choices about what to do really offered perspective on the lack of behavioral issues or inattention to learning when choices were present. We never and likely never will move as far as we’d like in this area but we must keep it out there and offer more development opportunities for teachers to experience the power of choice. That should help build capacity. Thanks for sharing.

  2. hoosjon Says:

    Becky,I agree completely with your comparison. As I read this, I was totally thinking that personalization sounds like the student making the choice and differentiation sounds like the teacher making the choice for the student. Especially after you’d made the distinction between "learning" and "school" …Thanks for giving me something to think about!

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