December 03, 2005

Personalized learning

I blogged earlier about Guerrilla Learning, a book about various activities and approaches to rekindle children's natural curiosity and allow them to get an education as opposed to a schooling.

Although it can be of value to teachers in schools, there is one obvious obstacle, which kind of highlights a major problem with schools and schooling: that to develop their potential, each child needs personal attention at least some of the time, and needs a personalized learning plan. No child is like another exactly, and they develop in different ways and at different speeds and times.

One of the first things my colleague and I did when we started our experiments in autonomous learning, was to break the class down into smaller groups. We did this primarily to make class management easier: in a large group (more than 5), students become affected by a different dynamic where the fear of not conforming to the group takes precedence over personal performance or motivation (hence countless examples of students hiding their true English ability so as not disturb the group "harmony" - or less charitably, not to attract the group's negative attention in the form of malice, spite or even ostracism). Students can speak up in a smaller group, so the purpose of the class (speaking in English) can be more easily and fruitfully obtained if the class is divided into small groups of between 2-5 students each.

During a visit to a Language Self-Access Centre, I was reminded of the importance and value of learner profiles, something I had learned about when I was Learning Advisor at Sussex University Language Centre. The profile is, obviously, for an individual learner, not a class as a whole.

The terms "learner-centred" versus "teacher-centred" have been bandied about quite a lot, and AJ posted about what might hide behind this kind of rhetoric. But I'm slowly waking up (duh!) to an obvious fact: that it is very hard to truly accommodate learner-centred learning in a regular classroom. Because a regular classroom environment is geared towards managing a group of people, making them adapt to the environment, not accommodating itself to each individual in the room. It is based on a factory model or industrial model of production, a system created to maximize productivity, not to allow individuals to flourish and bloom and explore their potential.

Searching thru AJ's blog for his posting on "learner-centred" versus "teacher-centred", I came across frequent references to what he calls "individualizing", i.e. a personal learning plan for each individual student.

Although I realized a long time ago that a class is not the best environment for learning a language by far (I still haven't figured out what it IS good for), and I later figured out that breaking a class up into smaller groups makes for more effective learning and teaching, I didn't realize until recently that a class is fundamentally incompatible with individualized attention. At the same time I realized that individualized teaching/learning is the way to go if I'm serious about creating the opportunity for real learning (as opposed to jumping through hoops, or pretending to learn, i.e. playing the game of school).

It took me a long time to arrive at this conclusion because I spend the bulk of my teaching hours in a classroom: that's what I'm paid to do. Helping students individually, creating or helping them create their own individualized learning plans , would be great, but it would be too difficult to do in a class. That's what you do in a self-access centre, with a learning advisor.

However, that is what I am trying to do now. I've managed to create a syllabus (not in all my classes, just a few) where students can work on their own in varying degrees of independence, while I talk to students individually or in pairs.

I've started creating learner profiles for all them, using info gleaned in an interview. At first, knowing that there are in some of my classes some students who are way ahead of the others in terms of language competence, I imagined that I could suggest to them the possibility of working together to create a personalized learning plan that they could pursue inside and outside of class, sidestepping the class syllabus. However, so far, none of them has taken me up on this, with one exception, which I'll describe later.

What I'm doing now is interviewing students one by one with the primary aim of getting to know them better. To some of them, mainly those who are at risk of failing the class for various reasons, I am giving specific suggestions for extra work they can.

This is fun. The hardest part is setting up work or activities for the rest of the class to be getting on with while I'm conducting interviews; it would be easy to give them "busy work", but I want to avoid that, as one purpose for the interviews is to identify activities (work) for them that are meaningful and of personal value. I suspect that one common reason why many of those that are at risk of failing are at risk is because they find so much of what they are required to do in class meaningless. Some of them have explicitly told me so.

Perhaps it is this realization that is causing Will Richardson's mind to bloggle: that technology is making individualization possible, even within the classroom, while at the same time making the classroom irrelevant, obsolete and unnecessary. While this is very exciting, it fails to take into account why capitalist countries have a Soviet-style educational system. It fails to take into account that a factory- or mass-production model of education must entail the concept of management, which, as anyone knows who's seen Chaplin's classic Modern Times, means being able to slow down production as well as speed it up. It means being able to manage and control the output so as to avoid the chronic problem of overproduction. Thus, a scientifically managed school system must be in contradiction to a humanistic approach to the development of the full potential of the human being. That is why the system created schooling, not education, and why so many people (including the technophiles) are so eager to escape the schooling environment in the search of true education (homeschooling, private schools, free schools, etc).

In short, humans now understand (I think) quite well what education really is or can or should be. The headaches come when we try and squeeze that understanding into the framework of school.

This might be an interesting test: read this (link to pdf file) Learners' Charter (thanks to EdTechUK for the link), and this set of interesting questions which ask (link to Word doc) Are We There Yet? (from a link on the KPS blog, by cj)

Personalized learning. What other kind is there?


Brian said...

Another great line of thought. I can recall facing the same dilemma you describe. That dilemma centres on challenging the underlying assumptions of education. Schooling is a form of technology based on largely unfounded assumptions about how to divide students up, what to teach them, and when to teach it. This proposition is completely antithetical to anything that might be described as "personalized learning."

My own directions in group learning evolved to the organic. In other words, if something called group learning was to be beneficial it had to be dynamic and self-organized. The Viritual Community Project focused on that initiative as a fundamental strategic direction. At the same time, the approaches I used forced me into an intense conflict with the existing curriculum, and therefore the educational establishment.

You have nicely captured the fundamental conflict between the technology we call "class" and the reality of learning. Placing students into classes and classrooms, even within small group structures, does not necessarily mean we are doing something that could be described as "learner-centred."

The idea that technology makes individualization possible is folly. People make individualization possible, not technology. And besides, nesting a "new" technology within a far more pervasive and confining technology called curriculum does not lead to any meaningful change.

"In short, humans now understand (I think) quite well what education really is or can or should be. The headaches come when we try and squeeze that understanding into the framework of school."

Nicely said. Marco - it's refreshing to read thoughts from an educator that are not confined by technology.

Roger said...

Yes the 3 Rs - relationships, relationships, relationships :-)
I like Parker Palmer's ( ) description of learner-teacher-subject centered education and the pro's and con's of inhabiting each space.

Palmer asks whether there are times when "perhaps the classroom should be neither teacher centred nor student centred but subject centred."

In The Courage to Teach Palmer writes: "The subject centred classroom is characterized by the fact that the third thing has a presence so real, so vivid, so vocal, that it can hold teacher and students alike accountable for what they say and do.
In such a classroom, there are no inert facts. The great thing is so alive that teacher can turn to student or student to teacher, and either can make a claim on the other in the name of that great thing.
Here, teacher and students have a power beyond themselves to contend with the power of a subject that transcends our self absorption and refuses to be reduced to our claims about it."

Having said that I think one of the things a class can provide is a safe environment where learners can grow as teachers out in front of the class - and the class can contribute to this learning through peer assessment processes.