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Friday / December 15

Putting the Personal in Personalized Learning

The era of standard teaching and standard learning is coming to a close. It may not be official, and many people may not see it on the horizon, but it is approaching. Research, best practice, and the need for higher levels of engagement around learning are all dictating this shift. As with all changes in education, it will be a slow road for most places. It will mean plowing over entrenched mental models and moving beyond legacy practices in scheduling, grading, and how students are motivated. For some places of learning, the transformation has already begun. In these forwarding thinking classrooms, schools, and districts, the conversation is growing around how to best surround kids with their learning. This concept is called a variety of things including student-centered learning, deeper learning and personalized learning. The remainder of this post will focus on the potential positive impact that personalized learning (or whatever you choose to call it) can bring to learners, young and old. There are some essential features of this next generation of learning that we should all consider as we lean into its possibility.

1. Personalized Learning requires us to be more PERSONAL than ever.

There is a rightful worry that personalized learning will remove the emotion and soul of learning that is essential to its success. Personalized learning to many means allowing the best algorithms in the world to build a learning sequence for kids that moves them as quickly as possible through a set of competencies. It equates personalized learning to computerized learning. This perception of personalized learning has brought friction into the system at a time when the best parts of personalized learning are still taking space. The learning spaces that are truly finding success with personalized learning are actually putting additional energy into infusing empathy into the learning process. They are looking to the needs of students in a foundational way. These schools recognized that personalized learning means taking care of the whole child, and the ever shifting needs of that child. Personalized learning must be agile and nimble as it cares for mind, body, and soul. This whole child development includes surrounding all children with multiple adults that have a personal connection to their success.

2. Personalized Learning means putting the PERSON first

Our legacy systems in education rarely place the interest and voice of the student at the center. Personalized learning can’t be done to kids, but it needs to be with kids for kids. It means designing hundreds of roads for kids to follow that allow for rest stops, braking, time in the fast lane, minimal road construction, and just the right amount of potholes to overcome. These learning paths are built with the correct balance of push and pull curriculum, so that students can pull the learning that they need to pursue their passions each day at a much higher rate than the necessary curriculum that is pushed into their learning spaces.

Personalization also means co-creating and co-designing the learning experience with students. Successful personalized learning is about listening to students, including their voice as often as possible, and building systems, including technology systems, that are agile to the micro-shifts and fluid needs of all students. Personalized learning remembers that at the heart of every decision is a person, a student, a child that is an asset to the school, the community, and beyond and their needs are paramount to any system, structure, policy, or procedure that has been, is currently or will be made as it relates to the best practices in learning.

3. Personalized Learning changes PER the conditions on the ground.

All of our kids struggle with the stresses of life, some to a greater degree than others, and as we begin to design personalized learning this fact needs to be at the heart of the work. Stress is burying kids, and much of it comes from the standardized educational system that we currently operate. Kids are worried about grade, points, tests, and pleasing the adults at home and at school by playing the game of school well. The last thing that learning needs is a substitute system that claims to push forward the best tenants of learning while maintaining the current level of stress in the system. High stakes schools have high stakes health concerns for kids. The absence of play, the lack of joy, and the missing spark in the eyes of students are limiting creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking. Planning personalized learning means having a local lens for global solutions. It means having been hypersensitive to place, and having the wisdom to make the best decisions for each student, each hour of each day.

The best of personalized learning is still being created. It is being created as dedicated teachers explore the topic through conversations, experiments that succeed and experiments that fail in their classroom, and by sharing resources, ideas, and materials with fervor with their colleagues around the country. These dedicated professionals will need partners as the best experiences and opportunities rise to the surface. They will need partners in policy makers, students, parents, and edtech entrepreneurs as all of our scaleable successes in the future will require a healthy mix of these supporters. Personalized learning, even in its infancy, appears to be a way out of the standardized forest that education has been trapped in for way too many years.

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Dr. Robert Dillon serves the students and community of the Affton School District as Director of Technology and Innovation. Prior to this position, he served as a teacher and administrator in public schools throughout the Saint Louis area. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. He looks for ways to ignite positive risk taking in teachers and students and release trapped wisdom into the system by growing networks of inspired educators. Dr. Dillon serves Secretary of Innovation for Connected Learning, a Saint Louis based organization designed to reshape professional development to meet today’s needs. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak throughout the country at local, state, and national conferences as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is supported by his wife and two daughters, and spends the remainder of his time running and cycling.

Bob is the author of Leading Connected Classrooms: Engaging the Hearts and Souls of Learners and Redesigning Learning Spaces.

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