Collaborative Learning

3 Dimensions of Personalized Learning

Personalization is worthwhile, but it shouldn’t mean students working only on their own—they need to collaborate on learning.

June 1, 2021
FatCamera / iStock

Educators, administrators, and parents across the country are planning for the fall, hoping to make personalization an integral piece of their plans, but choosing personalization can be a slippery slope, especially if your definition of personalization is flawed. In Reclaiming Personalized Learning, I offer five myths about personalized learning:

  • Myth 1: Personalizing learning means that the curriculum must be individualized. The reality is that curriculum must be designed so that all learners can access it.
  • Myth 2: Personalizing learning means that the curriculum must be interest based. In reality, interest and engagement are not synonymous.
  • Myth 3: Personalizing learning lies within the teacher’s locus of control. Instead, personalizing learning is a partnership between educators and learners.
  • Myth 4: Technology is necessary when personalizing learning. The reality is that technology can help, but only in a way that humanizes the classroom and preserves human connection.
  • Myth 5: Digitally driven personalization paves a path to equity. Instead, to restore equity, we must focus on inclusive practices that remove barriers to learning.

The reality is that there are diminishing returns with individualized learning in the classroom. After a year of social isolation and learning from screens, the last things our students need are web-based, adaptive technologies that digitally individualize the curriculum and are most commonly associated with personalized learning. Instead, we need to embrace a collectivist mindset, taking a three-dimensional approach to personalization—one that keeps our students connected to one another, ensuring educational equity.

Dimension 1: The Collective Consciousness 

For learning to be equitable, all students must have access to what they need in the classroom to succeed. Too often, when discussing equity, we focus on academic outcomes. This inevitably causes us to define equity in terms of content that’s “just right” for individual students or “at their level.” However, we must expand this definition of equity and, by proxy, our definition of personalization. To actualize equity in our classrooms, we must go beyond just-right content and consider a sense of belonging and human connection, too. Our students need to feel a part of something greater than themselves, and they need to feel connected to their peers.

This ultimately means that personalization can and should take place within whole-group instruction, which involves cultivating a collective consciousness among a community of learners. Engineer content with varied entry points, so that learners of all abilities can integrate into a common experience, prioritizing connectedness between learners. We can readily achieve this by embracing both the workshop model and complex instruction. Within these models, learning blocks are intentionally structured for points of convergence around common mini-lessons, tasks, or provocations, meanwhile diverging when appropriate, so that students can exercise their independence or work in small groups for targeted instruction.

Dimension 2: Small-Group Learning

Once the collective consciousness of the classroom is secured, teachers can leverage small group instruction as a second dimension for personalization that is more individualized than whole group instruction. Traditionally, teachers use small groups to address common needs among groups of learners. For instance, if a group of third graders need a review of skip-counting to help with multiplication, small group learning might be the perfect way to reinforce that skill.

That said, we must be careful with small groups. Our students can sense when they are in the “low group,” even if we think we’re labeling our groups in a clever manner. This is, again, where we must expand our definition of educational equity, reminding ourselves that our students need to feel pride and that they belong in the classroom. By rigidly engineering small groups for homogeneity, we run the risk of creating academic hierarchies in the classroom, unknowingly causing harm and further isolation for students who struggle.

However, by leveraging both heterogeneous and homogeneous groupings, we can diversify our groupings and dismantle systems that track students into a low-, medium-, and high-achieving hierarchy—I use a simple tool for this. The lettered groups represent homogeneous groupings, while the numbered groups represent heterogeneous small groups. Because I’m mindful about how often I pull these different types of groups, my students are largely unaware of which groups are organized by level. I also like to put their names on sticky notes, so that I can easily shift groups based on formative data, constantly mixing up groupings and proactively addressing hierarchical tracking in my classroom.

Dimension 3: Nurturing the Inner Dialogue

Individualization still has value in the classroom. For example, feedback is most valuable when it’s delivered with honesty, actionability, and timeliness, and tailored to the individual child, taking into account their unique strengths and challenges. While traditional grading practices might mean delivering feedback through letter grades or written comments, leveraging conferences not only allows for an efficient and sustainable delivery of feedback but also allows students the ability to respond in the moment, incorporating it directly into their learning in real time.

I refer to this dimension of personalization as “nurturing the inner dialogue,” as it entails providing academic feedback and also offers students the opportunity to reflect on their learning habits. To make conferencing successful, come up with a structure that includes three components: discuss strengths, identify an obstacle, and provide the child with an action step. This creates a culture of self-reflection and goal setting within the classroom, hopefully restructuring students’ inner dialogues so that they begin to identify strengths, challenges, and action steps all on their own.

Putting the Person Back in Personalization

After a traumatic year, it’s quite possible that we need personalization now more than ever. But we mustn’t conflate personalization with individualization, and we must resist the temptation to individualize learning through digital programs. These programs are more likely to dehumanize learning and institutionalize our students, when what we need most is the rehumanization of learning.

As we move into the fall, I urge you to make the new school year about humanizing personalization and building a culture of human connection, allowing our students—and our teachers—to heal through learning within the collective community.

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