Personalized Learning or Personalized Schooling?
When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she wanted to have a Natural Birth. I eventually came to realize this meant she didn’t want any pain medication during labor (more on my delayed understanding later). When she contacted the hospital to enroll in a birth preparation class, she was pleased that they offered a wide range of courses and schedules, including the six-week Natural Birth Preparation class she wanted. They also offered a Labor and Birth Preparation class for mothers who were open to pain management options, and a class for mothers intending to have a C-section.
There were five other mothers in our Natural Birth Preparation class. One of them was pregnant with twins, one was trying natural labor after having had a C-section with her first child, and the other three were like us—having a first child. My wife was in a unique situation because her doctor had already told us that she would almost certainly need to have a C-section, but she was committed to trying natural labor if at all possible. Given the unique health circumstances and personality characteristics of the six mothers in this course, the instructor did a great job of tailoring the information to meet the unique needs of each woman.
What is Personalization?
Our experience with this class was very personalized. And it was very personal. In education literature, the terms Personalized Learning and Personalization are being increasingly used and discussed, and disagreements about Personalized Learning and its value to students have resulted in several blog posts and debates in the past month. Audrey Watters links to eight of them and adds her perspective here, and Mike Caulfield furthered the conversation here. I agree with others that we need to define these terms better, and my experience with the hospital birth class is a useful and illustrative reference point.
Personalization is also at the top of my mind because a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of facilitating a roundtable conversation at the Online Learning Institute (OLI) during the 2014 ISTE conference in Atlanta. The topic—which I had proposed months ago—was Learning: Personal or Personalized? What’s the Difference and What Does it Mean for Students? It was validating to also see that ISTE’s Chief Innovation Officer, Wendy Drexler, facilitated an OLI roundtable on this same topic: The Continuum from Personalized Learning to Personal Learning Environments.
Learning is different than Schooling
One of the first critical distinctions we should make in this conversation is to ascertain the difference between Learning and Schooling. Schooling describes the systems and structures that educators establish and use in order to determine where students should be and what they should learn. On the other hand, Learning describes the pedagogical strategies used with students, and ultimately refers to what is cognitively happening in the mind of a student to develop understanding. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have written two books that provide great insight into the design differences: Understanding by Design focuses on designs for Learning, and Schooling by Design describes designs for Schooling.
To highlight the differences between Learning and Schooling, as well as how Personalization factors in, I developed a concise chart to illustrate these distinctions.
Too often, when educators talk about Personalized Learning, the discussion centers on where a student is physically located or what courses or lessons she should be doing next. But I think those topics actually fall under the idea of Personalized Schooling. For example, the hospital provided some degree of Personalized Schooling for my wife and me because they offered at least three different classes to accommodate mothers’ preferences and needs, and enabled mothers to make a personal decision to choose one course in which to enroll. Personalization requires offering multiple options and providing some degree of choice.
Learning is Usually Personal. Schooling Too Often Isn’t.
Learning—which involves meaning-making, transfer, and knowledge acquisition—can ultimately only happen in a person’s mind, which means that Learning is by definition personal. But Schooling happens outside a student’s mind, and is therefore only as personalized as educators and policy-makers choose to make it. And too often, it is not very personalized. For example, in many high schools for the past several decades, a student in 11th grade is likely to be told to take Algebra 2, regardless of her interests or aspirations beyond high school. There usually aren’t many upper-grade math options to choose from. Such impersonal aspects of many schooling structures and course pathways certainly contribute to the interest in and pursuit of more personalized designs.
The Natural Birth sessions also had some degree of Personalized Learning because when appropriate, the instructor tailored information to the unique circumstances of each of the women. In a personal health situation like this one, it is much easier to understand and remember medical information when it is framed in the context of an individual’s own health needs. That said, however, my wife and I certainly processed and remembered the information differently because she was the one who was pregnant and would be giving birth, while I had a more supportive role to play in the experience.
Missing the Big Idea
But when it comes to Learning, providing information in a relevant context isn’t enough. Simply transmitting knowledge has limited effectiveness for enabling sense-making and long-term transfer in new situations. At the start of this post, I mentioned that it took me a while to realize we were enrolled in the “no pain medication” class. In fact, even though I’m confident that both my wife and the instructor had pointed this fact out multiple times, I didn’t pick up on this big idea until the fourth week of the Natural Birth Preparation class.
That night we were shown videos of Natural Birth. And I was not prepared. Pretty quickly I leaned over to my wife and asked, “Why are these mothers in so much pain?” She immediately replied, “Because it’s painful!” I whispered, “I know that! But why don’t they take some pain medication?” At that point, I realized I had gone through half the class and had missed the primary purpose of the entire course—which was somewhat embarrassing. I think one contributing factor to how this major detail slipped past me was that the class was mostly the instructor transmitting information. She was fun to listen to, had great stories, and answered people’s questions. But that doesn’t serve as evidence that students were necessarily learning and understanding.
To further highlight the pedagogical importance of this point, we can look at the research from John Hattie that was discussed by Alex Hernandez and Ben Riley. The two Interventions on Hattie’s list in Riley’s post that are most frequently associated with Personalized Learning are “Individualized Instruction” and “Computer-Assisted Instruction.” I would argue that their low Effect Sizes likely have less to do with their capacity for personalization and more to do with the inherent instructional pedagogical design. The definition of instruction is: “information imparted,” “orders or directions,” “furnishing with authoritative directions,” and even “a command given to a computer to carry out a particular operation.”
Even though the interventions that Hattie evaluated might have given each student an accurate and reasonable sequence of lessons regardless of age or grade level, every lesson likely only furnished the students with directions. For example it’s very tempting to teach fraction multiplication by saying, “To multiply fractions, just multiply the numerators then multiply the denominators and write the new fraction.” Transmitting information like this in isolation doesn’t require the learner to activate their prior knowledge to make sense of the information, cognitively engage, or independently transfer. And unfortunately, many education software programs and many classroom lessons are designed to simply transmit knowledge and skills like this on a regular basis. By its very design, this pedagogical approach prevents students from engaging with and understanding big ideas.
More Personal = Less Impersonal
In short, Schooling needs to be more Personalized and Learning needs to be more Personal. Schooling designs need to include more options and allow for greater student agency to choose from among those options. Personalized Schooling more routinely honors student interests and empowers student initiative. Learning designs need to include more engaging experiences where students grapple with relevant challenges, bring their own intuition to meaningful questions, and apply their prior knowledge in every lesson. Whether students engage with a whole class, small group, in an individual setting, or with technology, they need to think critically before being told how to solve problems. Personalized Learning more routinely honors intuitive thinking and empowers sense-making.
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