Personalized Learning: Education’s Rapidly Rising Tide

Students returning to classes in coming weeks may well experience more Personalized Learning opportunities than ever before in what has blossomed into one of the most important new education trends.

In schools across North America, from Kindergarten through post-secondary, educators are re-vamping their approaches to better meet students ‘where they’re at’ in their learning needs and dispositions. In some cases entire school districts and even governments – including the British Columbia Ministry of Education –  are instituting wholesale changes supporting more personalized learning.

The new direction in education reflects a convergence of insights from neurological science and psychology and trending breakthroughs in social media and technology.

Recently, neurological science has confirmed that each person, no matter their age, has a unique learning ‘ecosystem’, reflecting different experiences and genetics, and other factors. And psychology has confirmed that people are more enthused to learn when they have a personal interest in a subject or the learning approach matches their preferred inclinations and dispositions.

These insights have been previously acknowledged by some educators as well as homeschooling families, though they never quite gained enough influence to gird significant educational change and challenge the dominant model of conventional schooling in which achievement has been largely shaped by standardized curriculum and testing. Fail to ‘make the grade’ – defined on somebody’s else’s terms – and students might be bell-curved into a passing zone, or failed and urged to seek remediation for another attempt. It’s a cookie-cutter format that has discouraged millions of kids over many decades.

Enter new technology options coupled with social media and there’s no denying the opportunities for all students to be supported in learning through a spectrum of personalized approaches.


Personalized Learning is akin to a Genie that’s been permanently sprung from the lamp 

The spectrum of personalized approaches includes both the differentiated instruction model, which is oriented to helping students of differing backgrounds, competencies and dispositions reach teacher-defined curriculum goals, to a self-directed model that supports goals based on student-declared learning interests.

Though the adoption of both models has only recently become widespread, both orientations have been tried and proven effective through many pioneering programs. In all cases students gain more opportunities to design the what and how of their learning, work off existing strengths, and also influence how that learning is assessed.

SelfDesign Learning Community, the program I helped to found in 2002, was borne out of a unique model supporting Personalized Learning originally developed by Brent Cameron in the mid-1980s in his Wondertree program. Both Brent and I have completed graduate degrees that confirmed the efficacy of supporting personalized approaches.

Last year, SelfDesign enrolled close to 3,000 learners in its programs, including around 750 special needs learners, and many other programs across North America are now tacking in this direction.

With organizations like the Harvard University-supported Students At The Center creating infrastructure support for schools introducing Personalized Learning approaches, and the rise of global movements like DIY and Makers – both alive and well in SelfDesign – this new model of education is catching on, and fast.

I liken Personalized Learning to a genie that can’t be stuffed back into the lamp. Nor should it be, given the rapidly-changing nature of human society and the need to provide children and youth today with the most compelling learning experiences possible and not last century’s textbooks.

This idea is echoed by Chinese-American education expert Yong Zhao, also an advocate of Personalized Learning to cultivate individual and entrepreneurial talent. In a recent blog Zhao wrote, “Personalization of the learning process has tremendous value in improving student learning, and is undoubtedly a major improvement over the traditional one-size-fits-all teaching practices.” 

I’m with you, brother.

(In a future blog I’ll list some of the more compelling resources supporting 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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One Response to “Personalized Learning: Education’s Rapidly Rising Tide”

  1. JONATHAN August 31, 2016 at 10:13 am // Reply

    Great perspective, Michael!!


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