Making Personalized Learning Plans Personal

Personalized learning plans is a trending topic in edchats, and Vermont has taken the nation’s biggest step forward on implementing PLPs. There seems to be some confusion or disagreement, though, on what “personalized” is exactly. The U.S. Department of Education somehow confuses personalized learning with competency-based learning here; although, they do a better job of it here. Others interchange individualized learning and personalized learning routinely, but the two are really different. Individualized learning is great, and a big step forward from our 20th century one-size-fits-all industrial model. But it’s not personalized learning.

Individualized learning is essentially teacher centered. Teachers deliver individualized instruction to students, and a subset of students may receive remediation, work at a different pace or rate, and may even have different objectives. Teachers direct the individualized learning. This is fantastic! This is an incredible advance from even five years ago. Technology has allowed us to bring individualized learning to scale with adaptive learning engines and learning management systems that offer multiple pathways and differentiation for students.

Individualized learning is so good that we often want to call it personalized learning. It’s like when something is a remarkable coincidence, but we want to call it “ironic” because that sounds smarter or better. “I ended up getting the same number on the football team that my dad had 30 years ago. Isn’t that ironic?” Nope.

Personalized learning is really a step far beyond individualized learning. Students are the drivers in personalized learning. “Personalized,” in terms of modern, 21st-century, digital internet conventions means that the user can “personalize” the program, whether is a website, newsfeed, profile, theme . . . or learning program. Personalized learning allows students to pursue their own interests, talents, hopes, dreams, and ambitions. It is, indeed, so personalized that students own and are responsible for the learning. Schools and teachers function in a facilitator role in this model.

It’s important to know that there is a distinction between personalized and individualized learning because schools can model both types at once. The two models are not mutually exclusively, and students certainly benefit from being in both models.

Vermont is on its way to meeting this personalized learning definition. From Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin:

The idea here is — whether you are dyslexic like me and don’t learn traditionally or whether you excel traditionally or whether you’re somewhere in the middle — our job is to have an educational system where everybody succeeds and everybody learns to their potential.

Vermont schools will help students develop PLPs in the seventh and ninth grades (other grades to follow), and those plans will be revised each year. Students have access to online courses and college courses to pursue their learning goals.

PLPs won’t reach their full potential, though, until students can pursue those plans each day at school. Ultimately, PLPS need to be more integrated into a student’s day than taking additional college or online classes. And I definitely think schools have the capacity to do this. We have students for 8 to 9 hours a day in our schools. Surely we can carve out thirty to forty-five minutes a day for students to pursue their hopes and dreams.

And wouldn’t it be great to be in the hopes and dreams business?

Trusting the Young Learner

Can we trust to the young learner to “own” a part of their education? Before we answer that, let’s see what young people can do when they have a chance to personalize their learning. Take a look at teenager Logan LaPlante in this TedX video:

Let’s do one more. These kids are impressive. Check out teenager Adora Svitak.

Pretty impressive. These two young students make interesting and related points. Logan tells us that kids have more neurons than adults, and that’s why kids are more creative. Adora implores adults to think more like children.

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”  –Mark Twain 

Sometimes the young mind can think outside the box because it’s not filled with information and information bias. The young mind is not afraid to take great leaps where seasoned, studied minds dare not venture. The young mind is not warped by agendas and ideologies.

Take a look at scientists from the past. So many had their profound, revolutionary breakthroughs at a young age. Isaac Newton invented calculus at twenty-two. Albert Einstein published his theory on relativity at twenty-six. Charles Darwin began his study aboard the Beagle at twenty-five. Stephen Hawking developed his singularity theorem at twenty-three.  (Don’t worry, Council of Elders, we have advantages, too, but that’s for a different blog.)

As educators especially, we can’t just dismiss the young mind because it’s young.  If we set the bar low, they will shoot for that. Check out Luba Vangelova article “Are We Taking Our Students’ Work Seriously Enough?” We want to move students up the Hart’s Ladder of Participation.

Are we ready to facilitate hopes and dreams? Are we ready for that much personalization? None of that sounds very standardized-test or job-market ready. But that doesn’t mean that we have to extinguish our students’ hopes and dreams either. The British philosopher Alan Watts had an interesting take on why the young generation should pursue their hopes and dreams.  Here’s a snippet from a Watts’ lecture in the early 1970s shortly before his death:

We might not find a 1970s philosopher’s advice to be the most pragmatic in today’s job market, but we are also not the best at predicting what the job market will look like in five years, and even worse in our 10-year forecast.  Nevertheless, it is still possible to prepare students for future job markets AND pursue their hopes and dreams.

For more on how to create time during the day to let students personalize their education, check out this blog post.

For a better understanding of personalization, differentiation, and individualization, check out Barbara Bray’s chart here:

Be sure to share your personalized learning thoughts and adventures with us!

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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1 Comment

Barbara Bray

Thank you Adam for your post about personalizing personal learning plans and including our PDI (Personalization v Differentiation v Individualization) chart. We created and updated this chart for a reason -- to clear the confusion around the terms. The National Ed Tech plan explained that personalization was all about instruction. In doing that, the focus for Race to the Top and other major initiatives around "Personalized Learning" was put on the teacher once again. We wrote a post "Responsibility vs Accountability" mainly because teachers and schools are accountable to learners learning. []
In working with schools around the country, we found that teachers have so many demands on them that there is no time for them or their learners to learn about learning or reflect on learning. If you ask kids today how they learn best, they probably are not able to tell you. It is not about putting a label or listing a learning style. It is about how they learn and process information. The issue in the US has been a focus on "one size fits all" curriculum and standardized tests for way too long. The curriculum teaches to the average. There is no average. So any learner who is at the extremes (gifted or learning challenged) miss out or fall behind. So the curriculum and learning strategies need to change. The environment needs to be more flexible. Like you shared with these eloquent learners, they want to learn, they want to express what they know, and we need to give them opportunities to shine.

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