There is a great deal of research and work in the area of personalized learning that point to a scaffolded progression from a teacher-centric classroom to a learner-centric classroom. Here’s a few excellent examples if you’re interested…
- Bray and McClaskey’s Stages of a Personalized Environment
- Jim Rickabaugh’s Personalized Learning: Curating, Customizing, and Co-Creating
- The IDEPortal’s Continuum of Control
Now, I love how these continuums help us to evaluate our own classroom practices to determine to what extent we are personalizing the learning experience for/with our learners. Educators, for good reason, struggle sometimes to identify the difference between differentiation and personalization, and I believe that these resources make that distinction very clear (Stage one of a personalized environment is very much a stage of differentiation).
That said, I wanted to blog about this topic to caution educators NOT to view the stages of personalized learning through a holistic Good (Stage 1), Better (Stage 2), Best (Stage 3) lens. I’ll backtrack a little here for clarification: Yes, a learner-centric learning environment is the ultimate goal in any personalized model, but I have yet to see, and don’t expect to ever witness, a classroom that I would say is unequivocally a stage three learning environment in each and every facet of the period or day. So, don’t be too hard on yourself educator. Stage three is not some zen-like experience at which your entire class can collectively one day arrive. Not to speak for them, but I don’t believe that’s what the brilliant innovators above are calling for either. Stage three is a clearly-defined aspiration – not a destination.
If this is not made clear to educators, my fear is that our progress will come to a halt.
I’ve heard educators who I’ve worked with express concern that their classroom isn’t a personalized stage three, Montessori-esque environment, and then they abandon the practice of personalization all together, frustrated, believing that this movement is idealistic and unattainable in practice.
Let’s Talk About Our Current Reality: Given that stage three asks the learner to take a great deal of ownership and initiative in the learning process, the scaffolding necessary to develop a classroom where all learners are equipped with the level of agency required to carry out their learning autonomously is a process that takes place over a duration of time that is likely longer than any one teacher has the time to influence. In other words, it takes a while for students to unlearn how they have been taught to see their role in the learning process, and it takes time to support/teach them to arrive at a true understanding of themselves and the learning preferences they have to optimize their class time and experience. That process can take a full semester, a year, or a set of years, so we need make our personalized practices systemic in order to develop that kind of learner.
So how do you systematize personalized learning when your educators are as unique in their individual teaching styles as your learners are unique in their learning preferences? (Not to mention accounting for the unique nuances of the various subjects and their course content)
You view each individual facet of your classroom practices as being on its own personalization stage or continuum.
Example: In an English class, the pace of instruction, the pace of reading, the pacing for assignments, the content learners read, the prompts learners address, the pre-writing strategies they use, the editing process, the way in which they demonstrate mastery of a concept, how they annotate, who they sit with, where they sit, how they allocate class time to accomplish a variety of tasks, how they engage and learn new concepts (you get the idea) — are all facets of the class that can be personalized, each being evaluated on a scale from teacher-centric to learner-centric.
Therefore, in one way or another, nearly all educators are currently personalizing learning in their classroom. That said, our vision for scaling up personalization needs to include frequency: both in the sense of consistency in any one of the aforementioned facets but also in the sense of extending opportunities for learner control across more of the facets noted.
Finally, (hoping that my point has been consistent throughout this post) while the expansion of personalized practices is the goal, do not be too hard on yourself in your pursuit of achieving manifest destiny with personalization. Truly, some experiences should not be personalized (yeah, I said it). For example, roughly one month ago, I observed a welding class and afterward, the teacher asked if he should differentiate his instruction to personalize that facet of his course. I’m sure he was surprised by my response when I remarked, Are you kidding me? Absolutely not. There’s no substitute or alternative needed to replace you firing up a welding torch to 300 degrees – live and in-person!
So instead, as you personalize, think of the facets of your class as a soundboard. You’re a professional educator – take confidence in your ability to dial those facets up according to the individual learner’s needs, preferences, and past experiences; according to your own teaching style and sensibility; according to your school system’s constructs, limitations, and goals. And while you may never push the entire panel to full volume, be intentional about dialing things up for and with your learners.