In many ways, it’s been quite a radical change going from the public school environment to a personalized, private-school environment. Never before have I had the opportunity to craft academic and social-emotional goals for each of my students, catering specifically to the needs of each child, nor have I been able to document so acutely to those specific needs. And while it’s changed the way I operate in the classroom–to a certain degree–there have been ways in which going from public school to personalized learning hasn’t really changed me all that much.
In many ways, my philosophy has not changed over the past year, despite the fact that this radical change in environments has pushed my thinking and shaped me even more as an educator. Instead, it’s caused me to ask many questions, the biggest of which centering around the definition of personalization. Even more specifically, I’ve wondered, what the difference is between differentiation and personalization. Is there even a difference? And if there is, why doesn’t it feel that different than what I used to do?
In public school, I was raised in Carol Tomlinson’s philosophy of differentiation, which entailed differentiating for each learner by content, process, and product. And this could look different in a variety of contexts. Deconstructing standards, creating lessons with multiple entry points, and allowing students to interpret content in their own ways to make a variety of products were parts of my practice–ones that I feel I’ve only developed more in the personalized learning environment. In fact, Tomlinson’s model even accounts for the more nuanced pieces of differentiation, including student interest, readiness, and learning profiles, all of which will contribute to the content, process, and product in any child’s learning path.
So then the question still stands: What’s the difference?
To me, the slight differences between personalization and differentiation lie in the humanism with which all teachers should approach their craft. Differentiation, as a clinical or technical term, seems almost benign; somewhat removed and disconnected from the needs of students as humans. On the other hand, the term personalization, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) grounding its roots in the word “personal,” connotes connection and a recognition of the immeasurable individual.
When I reflect on my own practice and the changes I’ve made between these two environments, I feel most palpably this heightened sense for the recognition of the child as human. For instance, in public school, I emphasized assessment criteria, “proper” pedagogy for these various learning styles, and a commitment to “covering the content.” And mostly out of worry. I worried that my excellence would be judged, that my judgment would be questioned, and that questioning the norm would be more work than it was worth.
However, in the personalized learning environment, these worries are turned on their respective heads. Instead of worrying about my excellence being judged based on content coverage and adherence to district initiatives and norms, I have conversations around practice that are centered on making all students successful and questioning why practices aren’t working for students, as opposed to why students aren’t fitting into our practices.
I suppose, though, the term we use doesn’t really matter. In fact, when I reflect on my own philosophy, I recognize that it isn’t determined by the semantical differences between personalization and differentiation. Instead, it’s determined by who I am as an educator and how I view these little humans in my classroom.
And what really matters is that I look beyond just what they are, in order to truly look at who they are.