Personalizing Learning


Last week in a meeting we held edcamp style sessions in the afternoon.  One of my colleagues, Joan Brown, brought up a great question that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

Are we talking about differentiation or personalization?  And do we really know the difference?

I think this is a conversation happening in education circles around the world.  And I don’t know that there is any consensus, yet, but I want to share my understanding of these two REALLY important ideas.

Differentiation is teacher led.  So if I was differentiating a professional learning session, I’d break them into groups by ability and provide different activities or instruction to each group.  I might provide some extra materials to one or two teachers depending on their needs.  I’d choose who was in which group and what they needed to best access the material based on assessments and other data.

Personalization means giving control of the learning to the learner.  The learner (in this case, our teachers) would be able to have control of their learning space and the actions they complete to learn.  We often hear the four elements thrown around when we are talking about blended learning.  I think these four will apply to our personalization as well:  Pace, Place, Path and Time.  This helps me think about how we can personalize for teachers (and for students).

  • Pace – allowing the learner to set their own checkpoints and deadlines along the way.  I’ve heard many teachers talk about the start and end date being firm, but the checkpoints for these other check-ins are negotiable.   This also means that learners can take the time they need to learn the concept, instead of moving along at an artificial pace, simply because the curriculum map or pacing guide says we only get one day on this concept.  Learners might move on more quickly or spend a little extra time.
  • Place – do we all have to sit in our desks, learning at school?  Especially for our teacher professional learning, this might not be the most effective way to learn for all of our users.  What if teachers had a choice of completing some work at school or at home or someplace different entirely?  I know when I had deadlines, I often needed to be out of my house (where I was distracted by all the things that I needed to do) and find a cozy coffeeshop or cafe where I could work and meet those deadlines.  Lately, my professional learning happens most often curled up on my couch!
  • Time – I think time is related very closely to place.  We don’t have to learn only when sitting in our seats.  The availability of video tutorials, connections to other educators with diverse experiences and blog posts and articles galore means we don’t just learn when a PD is offered on a topic.  Learning never stops and can be squeezed in little chunks for those of us who learn best that way or all smushed together in a day of learning for others.
  • Path – this is the one of the four elements that I think gives educators the most pause when trying to think of how this looks with students.  We’re governed by pacing guides and test blueprints and state standards and have to teach what our colleagues teach when they teach it… so how can we relinquish control of how students learn?  I believe that we can model this for our teachers by providing choices in how students meet their learning targets (some might choose to watch a video, others may read an article, still others might listen to a podcast, another learner might do all three!) As I plan and lead the learning, I would provide options and students could choose the path they take to learn their material and demonstrate their learning.  When I’m starting out I might provide all of the options that might choose.  As we move on and learners begin to acclimate to these choices, I might provide more open ended options or questions that the learner can find and share with their classmates.

I’ve been trying to redesign professional learning opportunities we offer to our staff this year and these have really been my guiding principles.  This means I’m including hyperdocs, seating choices, activity choices and more for the learners to exert some control over their learning.  It’s not always perfect, doesn’t always go as planned and it’s sometimes messy.  It has, however, been well received by our staff and I always include a bit of time to discuss how these kinds of strategies might be used in our classrooms (even pointing out how it’s ok when things go wrong because it shows flexibility and that it’s ok to make mistakes!)

So think about how this might look in the work you do, whether that’s leading learning with students or teachers.  Do you agree or disagree with my clarification of the difference between personalization and differentiation?

**Special thanks to my friend Sharron Wooden for her help as I made sure this post clearly explained my thinking!

One thought on “Personalizing Learning

  1. Good point. However, do not confuse personalized learning with personal learning.

    Personalized learning is still something done TO the student instead of BY the student. We may provide kids with a few choices as to time and place but they have little to no control over the most important part of the learning process: the content. We rarely ask kids about what’s important to them, what are their interests and passions, what they what to learn.

    Certainly there are fundamental skills and basic information every human being should learn during their time in K12 schools. But a large part of the curriculum presented, especially high school, is irrelevant to the futures in which our students will be living. Starting in upper elementary, we should be working to help kids discover and work on ideas that interest them. Leading to true personal learning and an understanding of how to continue that process after they graduate.


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