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Differentiated Instruction

3 Personalization Myths

Misconceptions of what personalized learning entails may stop teachers from attempting this worthwhile practice.

June 19, 2015

Personalization is all the rage across the country, and it’s no wonder why. Until recently, personalizing student learning felt like a dream, but now, in an age when user-driven practices are the standard and technology helps us function more effectively than ever before, personalization is feeling less and less like a dream and more like a blissful reality.

Along with any dream, however, come some myths that may deter teachers from attempting to personalize learning, perpetuating the deep sleep of the one-size-fits-all approach. Do you dream of personalizing your classroom of 30 kids? Let go of these three myths and get to personalizing.

Myth 1: Personalized Learning Means Everyone Is Doing Something Different

When I started working in a personalized learning environment, I imagined individual students working on their own projects and activities at their own pace, all coming out with differing products. I’ve learned that this is difficult to manage, and it’s also not exactly what we want—at least not all the time. Yes, we want to differentiate content for our students in order to help them access it in ways that work for them, but we don’t want them working in silos, void of interaction and deprived of shared experiences.

Resolving this conundrum requires balance. While students should have time to work on passion projects, teachers should also set up processes, protocols, and lessons that help nurture and manage the classroom ecosystem. Shared and small-group experiences are important, even if these activities are less personalized than individual activities.

After all, it is through interaction with similar content that students are able to have discussions, observe peer models, and participate in a learning community. This doesn’t mean that said lessons or activities will be one-size-fits-all. Instead, they will have multiple entry points and allow for varied paces, without the teacher having to plan 20 to 30 unique activities.

Myth 2: Personalized Learning Is Always Interest-Based

Many believe that student interest lies at the heart of learning, but I invite you to reconsider this assumption and modify it slightly. It is true that providing high-interest content will engage students, and it is true that students are more likely to interact with content that is within their interests. However, at the root of this lies student engagement with its roots planted deep in success and self-perception.

Student interest is only one dimension of personalized learning, and this dimension impacts each learning experience differently. In an engaged learning experience, all students are able to see themselves in the content, connect to it, and as a result, interact with it in order to learn. Connecting it to a student’s passion isn’t always a necessity. Instead, at times it’s about fostering success and helping them see the relevance in the topic.

I recently taught a series of lessons involving the Westward Expansion to my students. While I’m sure the Westward Expansion would fall into few of our students’ self-identified interests, they were all engaged in the lesson. Why? They were engaged because the content and process of the activity were structured in a way that students could observe, ask questions, and make inferences at their own pace. Some students drew pictures, while others wrote on Post-it notes and created concept maps to show their learning.

What’s more, this series of lessons was another way to debunk Myth 1, showing that if students are able to active “prosumers” of information, a well-planned shared experience will personalize itself.

Myth 3: Personalized Learning Is More Work

It doesn’t have to be more work to personalize. In fact, I argue that it’s simply a repositioning of where we focus our attention in the classroom. Sure, it may feel easier to plan using a textbook. However, a prescribed curriculum requires time reading teacher manuals, making copies, and grading assignments, whereas a student-driven and teacher-curated curriculum, personalized to the needs of individual students and classes, redistributes your time.

In a personalized curriculum, teachers spend time building soft skills, finding authentic materials that can be used for future students, and conducting authentic formative assessments that build momentum. Students slowly become more autonomous—more reflective—and we start to see a return on investment. We get to enjoy all the fruits of the labor that went into planning, preparing, and helping students access a personalized curriculum. This ends up actually saving us time in the classroom, as our practice becomes less reactive and more embedded into natural routines of inquiry, disequilibrium, and student-driven problem-solving.

The Return On Investment

The classroom is an ecosystem, and with every trophic level we travel up, it requires more energy to keep the passion for learning alive. By personalizing the curriculum, creating student-driven activities, and putting learning directly in the hands of students, we end up saving energy in the long run. Students become autonomous, taking responsibility for every piece of the learning process, and you find yourself sitting back and watching your well-oiled machine work on its own.

This takes a leap of faith. These myths wouldn’t be out there if there wasn’t a grain of truth in them. Most likely, when you start personalizing, it will feel like more work at first, but like anything else, all it takes is a bit of time, some experimenting, and a daily dose of reflection to feel like you’ve got the hang of it.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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