Interpreting the “Personalized Learning” Landscape – A Zookeeper’s Guide

On May 5th, I am giving a keynote presentation at the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Groups (BCCPAC) Spring Conference and AGM (link here) on the theme of Personalized Learning or PL.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to provide a brief overview of the PL landscape as it exists in education today. What’s most important to grok is that PL is served up in different forms reflecting a spectrum of approaches and the degree to which learners are provided autonomy.

Unschooling – this is a free-range, anything goes, fill ‘yer boots approach to learning for home-based learners of all ages. The late John Holt, a former teacher and author of many excellent books on the subject, is considered the patriarch of the unschooling movement which also has been helped along by advocates Pat Ferrenga and Jerry Mintz of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, or AERO. Summerhill (England) and Sudbury Valley (USA) are recognized as institutional examples of this approach.

Self-Directed Learning – this is a more formal approach to supporting subject-oriented learning, recognizing the role of a learning plan, interacting with authentic mentors, and maybe a learning coach or two. I can’t think of two finer champions and designers of Self-Directed learning than my late colleague in SelfDesign Brent Cameron and former Simon Fraser University professor and author Maurice Gibbons. SelfDesign Learning Community, the K-9 program I  co-founded with Brent and others in 2002, is based on helping young learners focus on their learning passions as was our “Virtual High” program of the 90s. In SelfDesign, now wrapping up our 11th year, we have around 1500 learners.  

 Child-Centred Learning – this is generally recognized as an institutional approach in which a curriculum is adapted to the unique learning sensibilities of children. The most well-known of these that is growing in recognition is the ‘Regio Emilia’ approach (from Italy). Art, play, crafting, and physical activity are all emphasized in curricula in such programs, many of which also take their cues from the open-concept school experiences and and experiments of the 1960s and 70s. I consider Waldorf and Montessori exotic versions of this approach, reflecting the unique approaches of their founders.

Differentiated Learning, AKA Differentiated Instruction – this category is a recent addition to this grouping, in that it incorporates findings from neuroscience as a way for teachers to recognize different learning proclivities among their students, and craft curricula and lesson plans reflecting these differences. The preeminent goal is to cover prescribed curricula and this approach gives teachers some breadth and flexibility to this end. IMO this is where the ‘BC Ed Plan’ lands, as do many other so-called “individualized” learning approaches.

Conventional schooling – this is thrown in as a marker at the other end of the PL spectrum from unschooling. It follows from an approach driven by prescribed learning outcomes mortared into kiln-fired curricula that there is little recognition and accomodation of personal learning sensibilities. Hasn’t changed much in style since it was introduced in in the 1800s and its utility is questionable. While this approach has proved to be the most enduring and resistan to change, some relief has shown up in recent years with the introduction of ’21st Century Skills’ that proscribe processes such as collaboration, creative problem solving with the help of internet tools.

Excepting conventional schooling, all the approaches mentioned above reflect recent important insights from Multiple Intelligences, Constructivism, Positive Psychology and various Epistemologies. I think a transition from conventional to any of these approaches is long overdue and will benefit society and certainly future generations of learners and graduates. Considering how many experts agree that most of the work of 10-20 years from now hasn’t even been conceptualized yet, let alone introduced, the futility of orienting schooling to hard-wired curricula is starkly apparent. Personalized Learning options offer much welcome relief.    

(and a note of caution: beware the technocrats who are angling to use data and monitoring systems as a way to “personalize” learning; under this guise you can expect more externally-developed evaluation and standardization, and little “personalized” learning)

For information on my book: Learn Your Way! SelfDesigning the Life You Really Want, Starting Now (2011) and to order a copy, go here.  

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