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'Personalized Learning' is For Everyone in the System

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"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place". 'This quote is attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the Nobel Prize winning Irish playwright. If he is the true source, the observation was made in the first half of the twentieth century. Truth holds examination over time. We are still living in a world where the statement is true. 

Particularly in schools where we have seen failed attempts at innovation and change, the illusion that communication has taken place is often a contributor to downfall. Policy and mandate revisions have often fallen to the same sword. Educators are quick to use terms and acronyms as shortcuts but those are not good communication tools. Certainly, we are all familiar with the terms 'individualization', 'differentiation', and 'personalized learning'. But, who in the public knows what those terms mean? Even among us the language of our profession can be confusing.

'Personalized Learning'...What Is That?

At a recent conference, Bena Kallick demonstrated this truth to be evident in the room of 80 or so educators.  A thundering silence followed the question, "How do individualization and differentiation differ from personalized learning?" Can you answer this question?  If you answer it to yourself, how do you know you are right? If you ask one other person, how do you know you are both correct? If you research it on the web, how do you know your source is correct? These are the questions that have to become central to our work and communication about it. Certainty is no longer an easy place to arrive. It is an uncomfortable place for some, but if we are to teach children how to be successful in this complicated world, we must, ourselves, become insistently curious.

While we researched and wrote a guide for leaders wanting to make a STEM Shift the manner in which to move into a 21st century learning model, we saw evidence of the shift into personalized learning as a key element. The powerful effect of making a STEM shift is the engagement of all students and their empowerment as learners. We found that in every environment whether it was a single classroom or an entire school or district. Students were energized and engaged and learning in new ways. Inter- and trans-disciplinary learning, based on questions that required problem solving, grabbed the attention of even those students who were previously lagging behind. What we saw was personalized learning.  Kallick and Zmuda explain,

There are four defining attributes of personalized learning, each of which can be used as a filter to examine existing classroom practices or construct new ones. These are voice, co-creation, social construction, and self-discovery (p.3).

Yes! These are four essential attributes of all learning environments that are dedicated to helping students become problem solvers and creative thinkers and have a central role in classrooms designed for this new framework for learning.

'Personalized Learning' Begins With the Leader

Leaders take note. We can't expect to develop those four attributes in others without developing it in ourselves.  This is where our belief that leadership and leaders are central to shifting into a new teaching and learning paradigm. We cannot ask teachers to step away from the lectern, move their desk to the side or even out of the room, do the hard work of planning and then act as coach during the learning without having learned in that model themselves.

Leaders can embed this in their work with teachers. If we want teachers to step away from being the information deliverers and empower students to become active and engaged learners, leaders must do so with their teachers. If we want teachers to teach students how to work in teams to construct new knowledge, leaders must invite their teachers into co-creation. If we want teachers to teach students how to find and use their voice, leaders must do so with their teachers. And if we want teachers to have their students be reflective of their behavior and performance, leaders must do so and ask the same from their teachers.

The intention and manner in which we communicate with each other holds within it the very things for which we yearn: respect, reflection, dialogue, clarity, direction, and empathy. Once leaders embed this in their work with teachers and teachers experience what it feels like, students will be the beneficiaries.  Who wouldn't want that?

Kallick, B. & Zmuda A. (2017). Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools.  Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email. 


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