Personalization is all-the-rage across the country, and it’s no small wonder. Until recently, personalizing student learning felt like a dream, but now, in an age where user-driven practices are the standard and where technology helps us function more effectively than ever before, personalization is feeling less and less like a dream, and more like a blissful reality.

Along with any dream, however, comes some unattainable and idealistic myths.  And while these myths make perfect sense, many of them deter teachers from even attempting to personalize learning, perpetuating the deep sleep of the one-size-fits-all approach.  Are you one of those teachers dreaming of personalizing your classroom of thirty kids? Train your brain to break these three myths, and then get to personalizing!

Myth 1: Personalized learning means everyone is doing something different.

When I started working in a personalized learning environment, I immediately imagined it as individual students working on their own projects and activities at their own pace, all coming out with differing products.  But what I’ve learned is that not only is this difficult to manage; it’s also not exactly what we want — at least not all the time.  Yes, we want to differentiate content for our students in order to help them access it in ways that work for them, but we also don’t want them working in silos, void of interaction and deprived of shared experiences.

In order to resolve this conundrum, it requires balance. While students should have time to work on passion projects, teachers should also set up processes, protocols, and lessons that help nurture and manage the classroom ecosystem.  Shared and small-group experiences are important, even if it means these activities are less personalized than individual activities.  After all, it is through interaction with similar content that students are able to have discussions, observe peer models, and participate in a learning community. This does not, however, mean that said lessons or activities will be one-size-fits-all; instead, these activities and lessons will have multiple entry points, allowing for varied paces, without having to plan 20-30 unique activities.

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Collective inquiry can personalize more than you might think.

Myth 2: Personalized learning is always interest-based.

Many believe that student interest lies at the heart of learning, but I invite you to reconsider this assumption and modify it slightly.  It is true that providing high-interest content will engage students, and it is true that students are more likely to interact with content that is within their interests; however, at the root of this lies student engagement with its roots planted deep in success and self-perception.

Student interest is only one dimension of personalized learning, and this dimension impacts each learning experience differently.  In an engaged learning experience, all students are able to see themselves in the content, connect to it, and as a result, interact with it in order to learn.  Connecting it to a student’s passion isn’t always a necessity.  Instead, at times, it’s about fostering success and helping them see the relevance in the topic.

Most recently, I taught a series of lessons involving Westward Expansion to my students.  While I’m sure “Westward Expansion” would fall into few of our students’ self-identified interests, they were all engaged in the lesson.  Why?  They were engaged because the content and process of the activity was structured in a way where students could observe, ask questions, and make inferences at their own pace.  Some students drew pictures, while others wrote on post-it notes and created concept maps to show their learning.  What’s more, this series of lessons was another way to debunk Myth 1, showing that if students are able to active prosumers of information, a well-planned shared experience will personalize itself!

Myth 3: Personalized learning is way more work than one-size-fits-all curriculum.

It doesn’t have to be more work to personalize.  In fact, I argue that it’s simply a repositioning of where we focus our attention in the classroom.  Sure, it may feel easier to plan using a textbook.  However, a prescribed curriculum requires time reading teacher manuals, making copies, and grading benign assignments, where as a student-driven and teacher-curated curriculum, personalized to the needs of individual students and classes, redistributes your time.

In a personalized curriculum, teachers spend time building soft skills, finding authentic materials that can be used for future students, and conducting authentic formative assessments that build momentum.  Students slowly become more autonomous — more reflective — and we start to see a return on investment.  We get to enjoy all the fruits of the labor that went into planning, preparing, and helping students access a personalized curriculum, which ends up actually saving us time in the classroom, as our practice becomes less reactive and more embedded into natural routines of inquiry, disequilibrium, and student-driven problem-solving.

The Return on Investment

The classroom is an ecosystem, and with every trophic level we travel up, it requires more energy to keep the passion for learning alive.  By personalizing the curriculum, creating student-driven activities, and putting learning directly in the hands of students, we end up saving energy in the long run.  Students become autonomous, taking responsibility for every piece of the learning process, and you find yourself sitting back and watching your well-oiled machine work on its own.

This takes a leap of faith.  These myths wouldn’t be out there if there wasn’t a grain of truth in them.  Most likely, when you start personalizing, it will feel like more work at first, but like anything else, all it takes is a bit of time, some experimenting, and a daily dose of reflection to feel like you’ve got the hang of it.

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