In “Arriving at a Definition of Learning,” recently published on Edutopia, Dr. Beth Holland offers the idea that personalized learning, blended learning, and differentiated instruction should be seen as “interrelated supports for deep learning.”

I happen to agree.

Dr. Holland makes some excellent points, not only in emphasizing the importance of a collective vision for teaching and learning before implementing new initiatives related to blended, personalized, or differentiated learning, but also that technology should not be placed at the center of models for personalized learning or differentiated instruction.

But too often, the opposite happens. Too often, personalized learning and differentiated instruction are seen as mutually exclusive or unrelated. And because of this–and likely because of corporately-driven agendas that conflate personalized learning with technology-driven individualization–we end up with a brand of personalized learning that is dehumanizing, getting us further from the very reason for making learning personal in the first place.

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, authors of Make Learning Personal and How to Personalize Learning illustrate stark differences between differentiation, individualization, and personalization in their PDI chart, which you find on their website. “[Personalization] is learner-centered,” they say. “The others,” referring to differentiation and individualization, “are teacher-centered.”

I have a slightly different perspective, though. To me, differentiation, individualization, and personalization are not mutually exclusive. Instead, differentiation of both instruction and the learning environment is a means to student-driven individualization (actualized through mindfully-bounded student choice). Individualization, as a construct, simply means to make individual or distinctive. It does not refer to whom is doing the individualizing, meaning that it is, in fact, possible for individualization to be learner-centered by creating opportunities for bounded choice.

As a result, student-driven individualization, supported by instruction and learning environments that are differentiated for diverse groups of learners, ultimately engenders a brand of personalized learning that’s humanizing.

Screen Shot 2018-09-10 at 12.11.37 PM.png
I’m going to call this the DIP chart–mostly because I think it’s funny and I like dip.

Humanized Personalization vs. Dehumanized Personalization

I subscribe to a brand of personalization that’s quite different than what you might see in mainstream, technology-driven circles. I call it humanized personalization. Too often, models for personalized learning are dehumanizing. They are dependent on web-based adaptive technologies that individualize content on behalf of students. Hallmarks of dehumanized personalization include an over-reliance on adaptive tools like Lexia, TenMarks, or Khan Academy or perhaps even an over-individualization of content (i.e., each child has a different article to read or worksheet to do). It puts self-interest, digital technology, and an obsession with data collection at the center of an education system. I know this well because I use to do this when I worked for an education technology start-up in Silicon Valley.

What I soon learned after tireless hours of trying to collect and manage this data was that it this method for personalizing was no more effective than my methods for teaching and reaching students in environments that weren’t labeled as personalized. My students weren’t more thoughtful readers, more articulate writers, or more creative mathematicians. They had simply been accelerated through content and tracked, similar to how they would have been in a one-size-fits-all learning environment.

It occurred to me that the times where learning was most personal was when students were able to connect with their own agency and make decisions with autonomy. In essence, the individualization was not provided to them through technological means; individualization was, instead, created in partnership with the learners themselves. This alone makes the process of personalizing a humanizing one. There is nothing more human that the ability to be able to make choices for oneself.

Aligning on a Definition of Autonomous Decision-Making

I recognize I’m not the first one to say that agency and autonomous decision-making are integral to personalizing learning, but it’s important to note that too many take this too far. Flawed models for personalized learning assume that the entire curriculum must become individualized through student choice, but this isn’t the case. This is neither scalable nor sustainable, and oftentimes this leads to an unproductive struggle that can actually be counterproductive to meaningful learning. I know because I’ve seen this first-hand through working in personalized learning schools. And I will never go back to that.

Choice needs boundaries. In fact, with the right boundaries, students can have a great deal of space to choose. In writing workshop, students can write a true story about any moment in their lives; in reading workshop, students can learn about character traits through choosing their very own just-right book; in math workshop, students can find multiple pathways and multiple solutions for an open-ended math task that invites creativity and curiosity. When we think of student voice and choice this way–when we put boundaries around it, especially for our youngest learners–we see that personalization can be achieved, and can be done so in a way that’s humanizing.

While the idea of making choices for oneself is humanizing, the notion of making choices without boundaries has the capacity to be just as dehumanizing as plodding children through content on an iPad–even if it is “at their own pace.”

Bounded Choice Promotes Personalization

Boundaries help us achieve two very important goals when humanizing personalization. First, boundaries provide structure for choice making. Students need structure when learning how to make choices because making productive choices goes against their natural inclination. It’s not instinctual to them. A lack of boundaries in making productive choices can actually be quite stressful for children: the chaos of it all can be subtly traumatic, causing them to act out with attention-seeking or dysregulated behaviors.

Further, boundaries around choice-making allow for points of convergence within our classrooms. Unbounded choice creates infinite pathways for divergence from one another, taking away opportunities for dialogue, discourse, and other social connections around learning–simply because children are not able to use the same content to collaborate. This dehumanizes learning in the sense that it literally takes other humans out of the learning experience for individuals. When students learn entirely on our own–whether through individualized content or projects–they become isolated from others simply because it’s more challenging to find connections between what they’re learning.

Individualized Content is Not the Answer

It is for all of these reasons that differentiation, individualization, and personalization are not mutually exclusive. Differentiated instruction–mediated by learning tasks that are specifically designed for diverse groups of students–unlocks a child’s ability to individualize their own learning path through bounded choice. The child who wants to write a true story about the time she accidentally snorted milk in her nose can do so, individualizing the content while still working within the confines of the group; the child who wants to read science fiction can do so because they can still study characters during reading workshop like the rest of the class ; the child who wants to use skip-counting instead of multiplication can do so, because that’s where he is and that’s what he’s ready for–but it also doesn’t stop him from accessing the same content as the rest of the class.

Striking a Balance Between Convergence and Divergence

The very act of making choices while still feeling connected to the learning community is what makes learning personal and humanized. It strikes a balance between exercising free will while still being able to connect with the other human beings that occupy their learning space. It allows for both convergence around common content, but also equity so students can access content in a way that works for them.

For learning to be personalized, we must move away from individualizing content, especially through digital means. Individualizing has the capacity to be dehumanizing, and in a world that is becoming increasingly troubled by hateful rhetoric and a toxic achievement culture that has made anxiety levels spike even amongst our youngest children, we can’t afford for our schools to be any more dehumanized than they already are.

We must, instead, choose differentiated instruction. We must, instead, help our students learn to make choices within boundaries. We must, instead, humanize our pedagogy in order to make learning truly personal.

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2 thoughts

  1. Paul- The big question is: “How do we help every learner develop agency in their learning so they can connect with their own agency and make decisions with autonomy?” We have had many discussions about learners developing agency. Our systems and recognized pedagogical approaches have not lent themselves to create a culture of learning where every learner has the opportunity to develop agency and make decisions with autonomy. Let’s talk about this!

    I do agree we need to move away from individualizing content through digital means but how can we empower ALL learners to have full access to the content? Let’s talk about this as well.

    1. It’s a great question, Kathleen. I think we achieve this through differentiation, and I believe that we support it through scaffolding decision-making in our classrooms. This can be done through explicitly teaching self-awareness, honing our understanding of intrinsic motivation (which is not synonymous with interest-based learning), and engineering a curriculum that has varied entry points for a diverse group of learners–to name a few ideas.

      In doing so, we engineer a classroom and a curriculum defined by bounded choices. Children are able to make choices within constraints defined by the teacher, slowly expanding those boundaries as the children age. This scaffolds the process of autonomous decision-making over time. We can also achieve this through building strong relationships with our students, which then serve as a foundation for giving feedback and nurturing their inner dialogue, so that that they begin to make decisions on their own that truly meet their needs.

      Teaching self-awareness, understanding intrinsic motivation, and teaching universal skills through lessons with varied entry points creates a learning environment that promotes equity and speaks to all students.

      What do you think? Which systems and/or pedagogical approaches do not lend themselves to this type of inclusion?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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