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The Imperative of Personalized Learning

By David Callaway
The Imperative of Personalized Learning

No matter where you have been for the last few years, you will not have failed to see that the world is changing. What’s more, the pace of change is also unprecedented. Students that I taught 15 years ago are now entering a world with jobs that did not exist when they were in my classroom. Technology from the Jetsons has become a reality and beyond.
Several years ago, at a Central and Eastern European Schools Association (CEESA) conference, I listened to a futurist expound on what’s next. This, by the way, was one of those jobs I had never heard of ten years ago. Futurists are people paid to scour the technology sector and scrutinize the news and then make their best guess on the trends and innovations coming our way. They are typically engaged by corporations to get an edge on the competition. They are also useful in helping those of us who work in education to prepare our students as best we can for their own futures.
From this keynote, I took away two key points. One, that futurists can at best predict just a few years into the future due to the rapid pace of change and technological innovation. And two, that the most important skills for us to teach our students are those related to creativity and innovation that will allow them to solve problems they have never encountered before.
Consider education as a whole right now. Do we see our education systems embracing this change? Despite some promising high-level support for personalized learning from institutions such as the U.S. Department of Education, which cites personalized learning as the only way forward to redress the inequity in the current U.S. education system, there is little to no real change in our classroom practices.
Personalized learning is a complex approach, not least because its practice is determined by the context within which it is applied. To oversimplify, it is the practice of putting students in the driver’s seat so that they can move forward at their own ideal pace in progressing through the curriculum. It is often combined with inquiry-based, constructionist approaches with a focus on non-cognitive (or 21st-century) skills. Interestingly, I’m not sure any educators in a one-room, 18th-century schoolhouse would find the concept of personalized learning particularly strange; after all, adapting to meet the individual needs of our students is often second nature to a good educator.
All this said, most schools doggedly stick to a closed, rote learning approach that maintains a fixed pace for all. This may be due to the curriculum the school has adopted or a reluctance on the part of the administration to change. When we really think about it, do any of us believe that the ability to regurgitate facts is actually a useful skill? Do any of us still believe that straight As alone will guarantee an Ivy League college acceptance?
The facts stand against this. Corporate interview practices have already shifted to focus on non-cognitive skills over traditional ability in math, science, and literacy. Companies such as Google and Amazon have well-developed systems to identify who they want and it’s not a set of perfect grades they’re looking for.
So what are we doing as educators to rise to this challenge? Looking around the globe, there are many schools that are working towards becoming learning-progressive, placing the focus on these so-called “soft skills.” In such contexts we might note a heavy emphasis on a design cycle that provides multiple opportunities for students to work on collaborative or solo projects and to develop their creativity. No doubt this is an excellent step forward. Based on what I’ve observed as part of ICS Addis Ababa’s research and development program, however, most of these programs do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of being highly effective.
There has to be a balance. Just as the ability to complete math tasks alone is less useful without the creativity needed to apply these skills, the ability to think outside the box and innovate is less useful without the physics and math knowledge to get that design off the ground. As schools, we need to look at being both learning-progressive and highly effective.
At ICS Addis Ababa, our approach looks at how to support each of our students, so that they have the agency to choose and move forward in their learning. We feel that this requires more than one educator in the room, so we are working on a variety of models that build on the advantages of combined teacher efficacy.
At the highest level, this engages the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) approach, where teachers plan together, look over student data, and collaborate to come up with solutions to support optimal growth in their learning.
We’ve adapted our classrooms physically to allow more than one class to work together within learning hubs and have reconfigured student support services and schedules to support this learning model. Currently, we are somewhat limited by our classroom layout, but we’re in the process of constructing an elementary school building with larger learning hubs that will support four sections of a grade in one area with adjoining breakout rooms.
Within these hubs, students prioritize and select work to focus on, moving between a variety of spaces and seating possibilities, between collaborative and quiet spaces. Educators move around and support students, sometimes through small-group work, sometimes through individual conferencing and a variety of other instructional practices. Students make the essential agreements and build the rules and processes with a variety of support at their disposal. This goes hand-in-hand with the IB PYP new enhancements, which focus on student voice and choice and student agency in their learning.
As innovation in education continues, our needs continue to change and we have got to adapt. There is no magic plan to follow, no easy “how-to” explanation. But as we learn, we develop our own skills as educators, allowing us to continue supporting our students in adaptive and flexible ways.
The world is changing, and as educators it is our responsibility—both morally and professionally—to do our utmost to support our students, which means accepting that we need to evolve.

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12/23/2019 - Megel
Great article. Am I a futurist? Personalized learning as you put it is and has always been part of an effective pedagogy yet schools fight against this due to other constraints. Perhaps it is now a time to release the shackles... Great read.



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