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We often hear the term “individualized learning” when referring to schools. It has been deemed to be the pinnacle of educational practice, serving students well. The assumption is that we are approaching each student as an individual and meeting his or her needs. I’ve said it myself many times. What if, instead of individualizing learning, our goal is to personalize student learning?

Attending workshops at the Learning and the Brain conference last week caused me to consider the idea of personalized learning more thoroughly. As we work in service to the children in our classrooms, we must consider their interests, abilities, passions and needs. We need to co-create their learning with them, sometimes with more teacher influence, others with more student direction and still others with a finely tuned mix of each ingredient. Personalized learning is collaborative and cooperative by its very nature. Individualized learning is meeting a child’s needs by matching them with the educational systems goals. It may be a subtle difference, but it is one that merits our attention.

“Personalized learning is a progressively student driven model where students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.”  – Kallick and Zmuda 

Those outcomes may be mandated by state or national standards, negotiated by students and teachers, or requirements to move to the next level of learning. The key is that they are student driven not teacher driven, working in the name of what students need and not what teachers are used to.

Personalized learning requires a shift in thinking and practice for many educators. Instead of approaching students as someone we may have seen before, another iteration of themselves, we need to make a conscious effort to get to know them and understand who they are, what they are passionate about, and how to help them reach their goals. This will allow them to maintain the curiosity and wonder they brought to school when they first joined us. It will allow them to dare to question and create, making mistakes and learning from them. It will provide the personal success one experiences as they achieve a goal that matters to them, not to the bureaucracy of education.

As we innovate and shift our educational practice, we must ensure that students’ needs are personally addressed, not merely individualized to meet the teachers’ goals.