Note: We are not sure we even like the term “personalization” as it can put the learner in a passive position if someone else “personalizes” their experience. If deep understanding only happens when it is personally relevant, no one can personalize an experience, but rather, the learner must find personal meaning in that experience herself.
Personalization is one of those terms that are bandied about conversation or actioned by a committee, but without anyone taking the time to make sure there is a common understanding of what they mean. While almost everyone in education claims to embrace a personalized approach to learning, the lack of clarity around what personalization entails makes it nearly impossible to implement it successfully. Personalization is more than a fad designed to bring about change until the next wave of pedagogical pseudo-innovation comes into fashion. Personalization has always been fundamental to making learning meaningful and enabling deeper thinking. Since research shows that deep learning cannot happen without meaning and thinking, a culture where personalized learning can flourish is pivotal for all schools. Can we then identify the basis upon which personalization is built in order to move toward offering this personalized learning?
At the heart of personalization is the relationship between the teacher and the student. In a traditional, top-down approach to learning, the teacher delivers a prescribed content to students, who is in turn responsible for absorbing (and most often repeating) the material, with little to no choice in the matter. The teacher (or the curriculum developer) makes decisions about what the student needs to know. A personalized approach to learning, however, flips that relationship and the adult becomes a coach who guides the student. The student becomes the center-point and drives the learning process, from what material is taught, to how the material is taught, reminding us why the material is taught.
Personalizing learning signifies meeting each student’s needs, both academic and personal. It means engaging the learner at the point where he finds meaning in what he is learning, at the level that is appropriately challenging. With the tables turned on the traditional approach, the student determines the questions he wants to answer within the context of the material covered. He engages thinking where his interests lie and finds motivation in his own curiosity. At the same time, he accesses his questions at a level that is academically appropriate, thanks to the close relationship with a teacher who differentiates, so that there is sufficient challenge to stretch the learning while avoiding so much complexity that he gets lost and frustrated.
Not only does this demand a cultural shift away from pushing teacher-defined content onto students toward a student-centric way of approaching learning, it also requires the development of a framework that will allow for all stakeholders to seize opportunities for personalization. This framework calls on everyone in the child’s life—at school and at home—to work together to know the child, to elicit questions from him, and to know him well enough to engage him in subjects in which he is interested and expose him to ideas that have strong potential to interest him. Working with the student on goals and on constructing projects that are meaningful to him, the adults start to let go as the student develops learning habits that sophisticate his inquiry, push him to find out answers, and from there pose even more questions that deepen learning. The outcome is a disciplined mindset that values learning.