Understanding Personal-ized Learning

Scott McLeod, who spoke at this past year’s VASCD Conference, made a big point (and a valid one, too) about the differences between individualization in education and personalization. Personalization, more than the former, gets used a lot in education circles, and a lot with educational technology products.

An article by Alfie Kohn recently got re-published by Tech and Learning magazine about Four Reasons to Worry About ‘Personalized Learning’. In it, he quotes Will Richardson, who basically equates “personalized” with “individualized” and personal as what we should mean when we say “personalized” or “personalization.” The easy way to remember? Something individualized is done to you, and something personal is from you. Both authors are endorsing personal learning, but Kohn especially is cautioning us to be leery of the term, especially when it is used by vendors.

I have likely misused the term myself. It’s important to make the correct distinction here. I think there is space in our world for both an individualized approach and a personal approach, although Kohn and Philip McRae tie the whole idea of individualization to behaviorist principles that at their worst, “establish[es] children as measurable commodities to be cataloged and capitalized upon by corporations.” Kohn advocates for social, project-based learning. He says:

In the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community.

In Goochland today I see a mix of approaches towards learning, and sometimes, we do want to help support students either in groups or individually with study that is tailored to their current needs. We have never needed technology to help differentiate instruction (although it can help, a lot), and as Kohn points out, we have never needed technology to make learning personal. In the end, striving to personalize instruction means for us that we have to be flexible enough with our design for instruction to allow the perspectives, desires, interests, and emotions of our students to play a role in the learning experience. When and where digital tools can support that pursuit, we have some interesting new opportunities. Otherwise, in our pursuit towards individualization, we might take the time to weigh our efforts with individualization versus different opportunities for authentic learning.