So, what’s up with personalized learning?

If you’ve been following the tone around personalized learning in the educational news sphere, there has been a lot of conversation, of late, on whether it delivers on its “promises” and whether what we imagine when we hear the term is actually what happens in practice (and vice versa). In fact, if you Google, “The Truth About Personalized Learning” you’ll see pages upon pages of articles, blogs, journal abstracts, etc. using phrases like “the inconvenient truth” or “the case against” or “parsing truth from possibilities” either in titles, or headlines, or descriptions, or text bodies. And, many of these pieces are of the newer variety, some within the last few months.

I won’t claim to be able to answer the question in the title of this piece. I can’t be sure why there has been such an angry turn on personalized learning, nor do I truly understand why so much in our profession turns “buzzword worthy” and ends up being further complicated once that happens. What I will claim, in this short post, however (and with full transparency, with no other evidence than my own upbringing), is that the idea of personalizing learning for students, remains sound, even if the term, or phrase, is moving out of favor. And I’ll do this by focusing on three personalizing characteristics that helped me get to where I am today.

It’s all about the relationships. I was very lucky. As an awkward and clearly geeky learner, there was no shortage of opportunity for me to be bullied going to school in the eighties. During that time there was less tolerance for nerdiness as an identifying quality, and, at least in my elementary school, being outwardly academic didn’t do much for me in the friend department.

Luckily, I had the benefit of four excellent teachers who not only cared about me, but cared about each student in their classrooms. I can’t begin to express how thankful I am to Mrs. Rownin, Mrs. Wilsusan, Mr. Schellhorn, and Mrs. Shoemacher. Each of them, in their own way, helped me to grow in very specific ways, so that by the time I went to middle school I was still geeky but much more capable of making friends and connecting with others.

In short, they allowed me to keep my identity while also growing it. They formed relationships with me that allowed me to learn how to follow my passions without missing out on other important learning opportunities. Importantly, they taught me that being relationship-focused is a key to maximizing learning, and as a student who was driven by opportunities to learn, the chance to see that fostering in-depth relationships would lead to learning opportunities I couldn’t experience through purely academic means opened my eyes. What does this self-analysis have to do with personalizing learning?

Quite a bit, actually.

 By getting to know me as a student and a person, these four teachers (and others later) helped me to understand that learning, leading, and living are first and foremost about the people we encounter and the process through which we help them (and ourselves) grow. And this will always be an individual path for each of us.

It connects learning to a love. In third grade, as a loud, and likely obnoxious know-it-all-wannabe, I often found myself alone with a book or with nature. This loneliness was likely well-deserved, at least in part, and while I didn’t know it at the time, a real turning point in my understanding of the value of personalizing learning. My teacher could have harped on the fact that I took too much airtime during discussions and that I was, for lack of a better word, basically a windbag, filled with hot air and loving to hear myself talk. But he didn’t let that define me. Instead, he noticed my fascination with spiders, coined me the “Spider-Man” (my favorite superhero to this day), and set me on a course to a long-term independent study of spiders during my third grade year.

Not only did I value the fact that he saw an interest I had that was truly my own, but I found that I was able to do what was required in class and still engage in this passion project. He created a truly personalized experience that allowed me to use a love to drive engagement and learning in school and turn me into a more focused (and appropriate) learner.

There is no limit to learning. One of the most empowering lessons for me was one that started in high school and continued into college. As I came to understand the infinitesimal pathways that existed to continue my learning, I found that this steadied my desire to grow, rather than causing me to become unbalanced. This idea that there is no limit to learning was very freeing to me, and as opportunities grew, this flexibility allowed me to use my voice and make choices that gave me the chance to craft a path that is truly my own. And the best thing about it? That path can be modified at any time, under any circumstance, for any reason. And no one can take that from me.

Connecting with each other as individuals, pursuing passions, and removing boundaries are all ways that we can personalize learning opportunities for those we serve. They are never easy, and I’m sure those who worked with me had their fair share of head scratches or stiff drinks on account of my idiosyncrasies. Yet it is precisely these ingredients (and a bunch of others) that allowed me to become a well-balanced educator (and a somewhat well-balanced human being), and therefore must be staples in the repertoire of all educators. So, like with anything else, as we consider all the concerns with personalized learning that continue to arise, we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger and broader goal of making learning meaningful for all. And we can only truly do that if we treat each learner as an individual person, with individual needs, wants and complications. Now to watch a trailer for the new Spider-Man movie! 

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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