I’ll be the first to admit that I have found it difficult to figure out precisely what “personalized learning” means. I’ve heard it used in so many different ways and through so many different channels that it can be hard for me visualize it actually in practice. I know that it is different from both “individualizing instruction” and “differentiation”, and yet, at least for me, it has never seemed to take on a “form” that I can easily define or truly picture.
I share this to highlight the fact that it has not been easy, therefore, to design learning opportunities that showcase personalized learning. Take many different views, and quite a few varied definitions, and while you end up with excellent ideas, you may have little to coalesce around.
All of which has led me to an important realization of my own recently (and my apologies if I’m late to this party): Maybe we can get to “personalized learning” by focusing on set characteristics that allow us to make meaning from a learning experience, rather than seeing “personalized learning” as a process unto itself, so to speak. This view has helped me to better understand that personalized learning can be just as much about highlighting that what we know makes us feel part of the learning, as it can be about any formalized structure to learning.
What do I see as characteristics that allow for us to plan for personalization? Here are three parts of the learning process that I believe tune an experience to each of us, and by extension, examples of how we use these characteristics in the professional learning we help to shape in our region.
Voice. When we are able to speak to an idea, an experience, an opportunity, we are more likely to feel as if we have a stake in how it develops moving forward. Using our voice makes us partners in the learning process, and keeps us from taking a truly passive role. In addition, we get to play the role of designer, shaping situations to what we need. Designing and personalizing can go hand-in-hand. The more say we have in how something is built, the more we feel invested in how it comes out. We can give voice through the opportunity to provide feedback after a learning session, the crafting of subcommittees to design learning opportunities, and the taking on of a collaborative planning stance when working with consultants from either inside, or outside, our organizations.
Choice. While learning is a full-time endeavor, not all learning opportunities land the same way for all learners. And we should expect this, particularly if we believe that learning should be meaningful for all learners. We can maximize growth from a given learning opportunity — and maximize the connection we feel to that opportunity – by providing enough of a foundation for learners to feel secure while giving enough choice for them to feel as if they can push limits and take risks. Sufficient learning can be done inside the box, but it is only through looking beyond that our possibilities can become limitless. One of the goals we attempt to reach in our professional learning design is to provide enough opportunities in a given interest area to cause educators to reflect on what will be best for their growth, but not so many options that the sheer possibilities become a burden to tease out.
Rejoice. Learning should always be more parts joy than struggle. Yes, challenge is key to learning but that challenge must be accompanied by the unbridled pleasure that comes from wrestling through a tough problem to identify new ideas, questions, processes or wonderings. And since our struggle and success points are different (we do have different life experiences, after all), it makes sense that we need to experience happiness through learning in whatever way works best for us.
Designing professional learning with joy in mind doesn’t have to be difficult. We simply need to consider people’s needs (time for breaks and to process, good food and good conversation, excellent tea and coffee, a comfortable location) and structure the learning in ways that WE (the collective “we”) would find to be an excellent use of our time. And that “we” is important; we should always be designing learning with more than one person at the helm. WE learn best when WE have played a part in designing it.
These three characteristics are in no way “the” characteristics. They have simply helped me better understand what it means to personalize learning, and through this lens, have helped me to do my work a little better each day.
Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.
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