Pretty much every educational vision statement I’ve ever read aspires to create lifelong learners. However, in a nation that consistently measures students against the average, the focus remains on content and skills and not actually learning. I absolutely agree that students need to learn skills and need to know content, but teaching at the expense of understanding learning is misguided practice. As the interest of personalization of learning grows, we need to recognize this is actually a very historical perspective about learning. In the one room schoolhouse of the 19th century, every student was treated individually by necessity. You clearly can’t teach a fourteen year-old in the same manner as a six year-old. But as our schools became larger, and industrialization set in, our curriculum became standardized for an average learner. The problem is, there is no such thing as an average student. In the 21st century, we need to educate our students for an ever-changing world and fortunately we are beginning to understand the role and importance of personalization in creating lifelong learners.
But personalization goes much deeper. It allows students to learn and develop skills through their interests. We know that emotion impacts our ability to learn, why not harness that? “When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience “aha” moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery (Kohn, 2004)”. Imagine how much more interesting it would be to learn how to calculate percentages by having a student in a rural area think about a 33% off sale on a Cabella’s website instead of a math sheet! What would be even more interesting (and truly beneficial) would be to have them figure out on their own how to do it (with guidance of course), and then have to present to their peers about their process. The proficiency at the skill level would be met, but more importantly the seeds of success, relevance and life long learning would be planted.
I love that schools are moving toward implementing programs such as “genius hour” “Fed-ex Fridays” and individualized capstone projects, but if we only offer them an hour a month for exploration, we are missing the point of personalization of learning. Mandating that all students do math for the same amount of time so that they can take the same test in two weeks assumes that all students need the exact same thing and will flourish if we standardize the curriculum and the class schedule. Todd Rose charges that by accepting the myth of the average student, we deny our most important assets, which are our variability and diversity. Obedient students can accept learning as an average, but truly innovative students often rail against it. We need to shift to a paradigm of learning.
By personalizing learning, we can recognize and encourage the strengths (multiple intelligences) and interests of our students and tailor the way students learn so that they don’t perceive learning as a snoozefest…a perception that could stay with them for a lifetime. By asking students to always be reflective about their learning, we are teaching them how to learn well; a disposition they will always have. My father used to say, “The benefit of a liberal arts education is that you learn how to think and how to learn”. This is what has led me to be a lifelong learner. As educators in the 21st century, we need to educate for the thirty year-old in our students. We want them to love learning and use that passion to be productive citizens throughout their lives. It’s not enough that we feel okay about them going on to the next level of standardized tests.