The 4 X 4 of Personalized Learning — Part 1

Today nearly any time that you are online you are constantly provided with personalized content: music, shopping, dating services, entertainments, etc. You constantly receive content and information that are relevant to your needs and interests. And this personalization remains true even in your everyday life, away from screens: At the gym, your activities are personalized, through dashboards, data and even trainers. At the mall, if you can afford it, you can get your personal shopper; at work, you may be personalizing strategies and communications to your clients. Education doesn’t have to be an exception.

While how we can personalize learning experiences is new, the idea of doing it isn’t. According to Chris Sturgis, in her presentation at the Keene College NHDOE 2015 conference, “Personalized Learning has been around for about 30 years.. since the 80s, and had been developed a while before.” Yet there is a tremendous amount of buzz now. During the last decade, many emerging edtech companies, researchers, practitioners and leaders have started talking about personalized learning, from various angles, and with variable opinions. For some, they are deep into a transformation and true believers while for others this is still a buzzword, a concept that is only good in theory, a utopian model that is too good to be true. A few months ago, before joining Ed Elements, I am not sure I was in either camp. I did not grow up in the US or attend schools in this system. I did not know enough to have an opinion. That changed dramatically the day I started prepping for my job interview.

Being part of an education company that helps many school districts around the nation, with their personalized learning journey, I have learned a tremendous amount. So for others who are beginning to think about personalized learning, or for those who are far along in their journey, this is my 4x4: 4 Promises of Personalized Learning, 4 Approaches to Personalizing Learning, 4 Facts About Personalized Learning and 4 Districts that are Transforming Through Personalized Learning.

Over the next few months I will share my key learnings about each of the four but today I wanted to start with what got me hooked — the promise of personalized learning. Because when I first started learning about the potential I got excited. But now when I look around and see how often that potential is realized, when I think about how we work with our clients, I see instead that personalized learning promises something…and it delivers on those promises.

Promise 1:More efficient and effective learning: According to iNACOL’s definition of personalized learning, student’s educational experiences are shaped by their strengths, needs and interests and instruction is tailored to their needs. Students receive the content they need to master, without having to sit through content they already know.Every student is unique and special with a specific learning style and personalized learning takes that fully in consideration: It doesn’t slow down students who are gifted, and doesn’t rush students struggling to keep up with the rhythm. Simply, it doesn’t meet all students together in the middle as a one-size-fits-all, but meets each student where they are. And this is so much more efficient and effective than a model in which while trying to meet everyone we actually miss almost everyone. When students spend more time in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) learning is more effective and efficient. When digital content is adaptive and teachers constantly use data to inform instructional choices, learning is more effective and efficient. And when learning is more effective and efficient, students can both learn more and go deeper.

Promise 2: More time for teachers to focus on each student:Instructional models centered around personalized learning provide time for teachers to focus on each student in different ways.In a project-based model, for example, teachers spend time understanding student interests as they help they develop areas to study or do projects. In one on one tutoring, teachers (or more often adults assigned as tutors) get to know the needs of each student they support by doing things like reviewing their past work and working together on current assignments. And in blended learning, the path many of our districts choose to go down, teachers focus on each student in many ways: they use data about each student daily to make choices. They use time and space differently to give them more time for small group or individual work. In personalized learning environments teachers know their students better and have time to address particular students’ needs. The model allows them to deliver targeted intervention to specific students. They are also enabled to give one on one attention to the students who need it most.

Promise 3: More student-centered and engaging: Tailored to the individual needs, skills, and interests of students, personalized learning enables students to take ownership of their learning. Students feel happier about the learning process. The classroom becomes a space for discovery and fun, school becomes a place where they want to be, learning becomes an activity they want to do, and courses become enjoyable challenges they want to achieve. And this leads to so many amazing things. We can turn students into life-long learners when we engage them early and often. We can empower them to set and achieve their own goals; we can help them to chart their own paths. And when they do all of this, they also almost always achieve more. Don’t believe me? Check out our 2013–2014 Results Matter report.

Promise 4:More prepared for college, career and citizenship:The industrial era is over. We cannot teach our students the way we have been taught. The traditional model of education, born in the industrial age with a one-size-fits-all approach, does not meet the needs of our modern economy.Personalized learning gives our students a personalized educational experience “that equips them with the skills, values, characteristics and knowledge they need to thrive in our modern society.” Today information is easily accessible but what we do with it, how we use it and how we apply it is the challenge. We do not need to teach our students to memorize facts, we need to teach them to use facts to solve problems. So the focus of our classrooms needs to change. What we want to teach and how we teach needs to be better suited to the world of work our students will enter. And personalized learning enables us to do this. It gives us a new approach to teaching that better prepares students for the connected age we live in now.

Getting to four promises was hard but considering I started trying for three (we all love to think in threes) and cut it down from around eight this seems like a good place to have ended up. And these are four promises that I think are important. These promises are reasons why I think everyone should consider personalized learning. Because who doesn’t want to promise to students that learning will be more effective, that teachers will spend more time with them, that they will be more engaged and that they will be more prepared? Shouldn’t these promises be givens?

In my next blog post (coming soon, stay tuned) I will move from four promises of personalized learning to four ways to approach it. In the meantime, I’d like to know more about what promises attracted you to personalized learning. Post in the comments, shoot me an email or catch me on twitter. I promise to write back.

Update : Check out the part 2 of this 4X4 of Personalized Learning Blog Series:

The 4X4 of Personalized Learning, Part 2 : Personalized Learning Facts

Originally published at