Moving from Personalized Learning to Personalized Instruction

Personalized learning...wait, don’t go yet! The term has been put through the wringer in recent years with varying levels of accuracy and success. Unfortunately, one major theme that has emerged is that of equating technology to personalized learning. Take a walk around the expo hall of any education conference and you will see countless solutions to make learning “personalized.”

Technology affords educators options, but we should always remain hyper-focused on the highest area of impact: best practices. Deeply embedded into these best practices should be high expectations, high student-to-student collaboration, and high rigor. If we expect proficiency alongside good test-takers, that is what we will achieve. However, if we collectively expect more, we will be quite surprised with the results. Perhaps the image below has recently come across your social media streams…

The creator shared that his goal in crafting the image was to remind teachers that carefully thinking through just what we want our kids to know and be able to do is the first step that we need to take when making choices about the role that technology plays in our teaching. This image had a lasting effect on me as a classroom teacher in that it brought focus and clarity to the environment I was trying to create for my students. This realization eventually led me to establishing instructional practices that personalized learning for my students. 

To me, personalized learning occurs when a teacher and a learner know and respect each other enough to connect in meaningful ways, and when a learner begins to know himself well enough to know the next step he should take to master a new skill, or the next step on his path to accomplishing a goal. It is through the fluidity and flexibility of this interaction that a clear pathway to individual growth can be crafted. In this teacher/student partnership, these big three questions are answered:

  • Where is the learner right now?
  • Where are they going?
  • How are they going to get there?

The last question is where a personalized entry point into technology may emerge. In my experience, it started with empathizing with my learners. Personalizing learning for a group of learners is quite the difficult task without first empathizing with their unique needs. 

In beginning with the students’ needs, I could then seek out solutions, including meaningful technology integration. Simply plunking a student down in front of a laptop isn’t personalization. It’s a missed opportunity. Too often I’ve seen models claim to be personalized learning that, upon a closer look, appear to be actually digitized standardized learning. Nothing has changed from a pedagogical standpoint. There has been no increase in peer-to-peer collaboration. How would that possibly be an adequate model for personalized learning? We can do better. Instead, we can curate technology to provide students with a range of experiences that invites them into their own learning journey and asks them to develop a variety of skills, understand and appreciate diverse perspectives, and perhaps discover talents and interests they didn’t even know they possessed. 

For me, this begins in holding a funeral. Yes, a funeral

Here lies personalized learning. You had a good run, but your time is done.  Too many definitions, too many interpretations.   You relied too heavily on serving as a babysitter for good instruction  And got wrapped up in compliance.  R.I.P

There, it’s done! Let us now turn our attention to personalized instruction! No more sloppy terminology. No more solitary learning ecosystems in front of a laptop. Instead, let’s personalize instruction by allowing student voice and choice to exist. Let’s personalize the way we deliver information, model ideas, facilitate respectful dialogue, encourage discovery and exploration, and provide meaningful feedback. All learning should be personalized. But if the solution is a playlist of videos or adaptive questions, we are failing our young learners. The emphasis should be on connecting with others, having time to collaborate and share out one’s learning. Conversations with students can lead to rich, powerful, and personal learning experiences that are difficult or impossible to have in a silo. Proper and meaningful technology implementation can get us there. 

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer