Please come join me on Wednesday, March 6 at 11:00am in Ballroom E for “The Paradox of Personalized Learning,” in which we will dig into these ideas even more.

I had the unique privilege of hearing David Brooks speak this morning, as so many did at SXSW’s keynote panel. I especially connected with his reflections on individualism. As someone who writes a great deal about personalized learning, I couldn’t have agreed with him more.

“Freedom sucks,” he said plainly, referring to the notion that freedom—in its purest sense—can be incredibly lonely. After all, when we are free to do whatever we please, we are disconnected from those around us. When we are “unattached and uncommitted,” Brooks said, we’re “unremembered.”

The Loneliness of Freedom

Freedom can, in fact, be lonely. It can be isolating. But American culture prizes fierce and rugged individualism. We live in a society where we are praised and prized for comparing and competing with one another. We’ve become so conditioned to believe that we’re not winning unless someone else is losing.

I connected with this idea so fiercely because it’s how I feel about personalized learning. So many believe that in order to personalize learning, we must individualize curriculum; they believe that in order for children to feel seen and heard as individuals, that they must have a disproportionate amount of voice in the creation of their curriculum. In extreme cases, some even believe that they should have total control over what they learn.

But this, too, is lonely. It’s lonely because it siphons learners off from their peers, robbing them of critical points of convergence in the classroom. These points of convergence lay the foundation for social and emotional learning, and they lay the foundation for building equitable classrooms that honor socially just teaching and learning.

Our kids cannot learn if they are not able to connect with one another; they are not able to learn if they do not do not find balance between their individualism and its place in the collective culture of the classroom.

Balancing Individualism and Collectivism

Our culture begs us to choose individualism. It asks us to put self-interest before collective interest, and this is the primary reason we see a push for personalization that also values fierce individualism. If not for the focus on comparison and competition, we would not be chomping at the bit to individualize curriculum through digital means. If, in fact, we tempered individualism with collectivism, we would see that we can actually have both: we can take care of individuals while taking care of the whole.

Both are actually very important, and I argue that both are mutually dependent on one another. Individuals crave a place in the collective; they long to belong with others. Likewise, the collective requires healthy individuals for the overall well-being of the collective.

As a result, these two hang in delicate balance with one another. Between them exist a palpable tension, and should we choose to embrace that tension, we can actually find balance between the two, allowing not only for the health of the collective, but also for all individuals to be seen, heard, and valued within the collective purpose.

Personalizing in Three Dimensions

It makes perfect sense that you might wonder how we do this. The answer is relatively simple: change the way that we personalize learning, and do so in a way that is not unidimensional, reductive, and linear. Personalizing through the digitized individualization of curriculum is just that: it reduces learning down to a linear series of lessons, disallowing depth and productive dissonance.

We can change our methods for personalization by doing so in three dimensions. In the first dimension of personalization, we allow teachers to cultivate a collective consciousness in the classroom, leveraging whole group practices that build shared values, norms, and knowledge within the classroom culture. In the second dimension of personalization, we leverage small groups and partnerships to further build upon these shared values and common knowledge, allowing students to leverage social learning to continue to grow. In the third dimension of personalization, we nurture the inner dialogues of each of our children, not only providing feedback to help them grow, but also understanding them in terms of their identities, motivations, and unique senses of self-worth.

When we think of personalized learning in three dimensions, we remember that there is a place for both the collective and the individual within a model for personalization. Moreover, the tension that exists between these two seemingly opposing ideas becomes supportive and productive.

In a world where our emphasis on the individual has gotten us into somewhat of a precarious situation—so precarious that it’s caused us to leave our most vulnerable behind—the best advice we need right now is to not choose a side. We need not be so rigid in our thinking, so that we might entertain the idea that both the collective and the individual are critical to making inherently personal learning spaces where all are welcome, where all belong, and where all have access to an education that is rich and rigorous.

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