Personalized Learning: A New Take on an Old Concept

Personalized learning, especially when coupled with technology, is getting lots of interest and support. But doing it well requires serious commitments by both teachers and students.

by / August 12, 2017

Personalized learning has become a thing in K-12 education. And it’s showing some promise, especially when coupled with technology that helps teachers better individualize their instruction. Personalized learning is certainly not a new concept, but its current headliner status is partially due to financial support from some influential foundations. From my own personal experiences, I can speak to the efficacy of one particular personalized learning approach.

In 1980, fresh out of college with an art education degree but few compelling job prospects, I happened upon a book on the Montessori teaching method. I’d read about Maria Montessori in college, and was aware of her early 1900’s landmark work in Rome. But I knew little else of her educational philosophy or the learning materials she developed. However, within a month, I read every Montessori book I could find and visited a few Montessori schools. Further inspired, I then explored some teacher training programs. And to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I soon found myself relocated to Colorado and studying to be a Montessori teacher. I subsequently spent the next ten years teaching in Montessori schools, both private and public. And it was the best work I’ve ever done.

So what was it about the Montessori method that drew me in so quickly and certainly? The beautifully constructed learning materials were part of it. The engaged students and the purposeful activity in the classrooms also played in. But looking back, using my current lens and terminology, it was the personalized learning aspects of the Montessori method that I appreciated most.

The Montessori classrooms I visited were completely different from my own schooling: All of the students were working at their own pace, mostly on materials and projects of their own choosing, and the teacher moved quietly around the room, working individually and in small groups with the kids, guiding and instructing.

Fast forward to the present. They’ve now been around for over a hundred years, and Montessori schools continue to thrive throughout the world, while mostly keeping technology at arm’s length (especially in the pre-primary and elementary grades.) But many successful aspects of the Montessori method are also key elements in recent personalized learning initiatives. There are numerous definitions being used for personalized learning, but most share five common traits, and except for the last, all are characteristics common to Montessori classrooms:

1. The pace of learning is adjusted.
2. Learning objectives, approaches, content and tools are tailored and optimized for each learner.
3. Learning is driven by learner interests.
4. Learners are given choice in what, how, when, and where they learn.
5. Learning is often supported by technology.

What role can technology play to enhance a school’s shift towards a more personalized learning approach? Some of the current areas of focus include:

• Using data and learning management systems to help teachers and students keep track of the students’ progress and their particular areas of strength and weakness.
• Building, curating and adopting web-based curricula that teachers can individualize for students, enabling them to progress at their own pace.
• Employing competency-based online assessments that determine students’ achievement and readiness for advancement, based on their personal growth and mastery of particular standards.

I’m cautiously hopeful about the prospects of combining personalized learning and technology. But in large measure, its success will depend on teachers’ abilities to relinquish their traditional front-of-the-classroom roles, and on their students’ willingness to embrace greater responsibilities for their own learning. Most Montessori students begin as three-year-olds, an age where self-directed learning comes naturally. So the earlier students take on this role, the better the results.

Transitioning to a student-centered classroom, especially when it includes interfacing with technology-based tools and curricula, will be challenging for many teachers. And unlike Montessori, to date, personalized learning has no rigorous teacher training programs, no unifying philosophy, nor a seminal work written by a charismatic leader. So, the success of personalized learning will depend on the strength and persistent support of educational leaders, and on some inspired teachers who can help lead the way.

For further insights into personalized learning implementations, here are a few recent publications of note:

-An EducationDive article provides an overview of the current trends influencing personalized learning.

-An Atlantic article describes how Rhode Island’s new statewide personalized learning initiative is taking shape and how they plan to “…focus on the role of technology in facilitating and measuring learning at a student’s desired pace.”

-A Rand Corporation report covers their research conducted in a sampling of schoolwide personalized learning implementations.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.

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