Author: Matt Riggan
Editor’s Note: Below, Matt Riggan shares his perspective on the NGLC Bay Area convening, which took place in January 2015.
Our two-day visit had been all about personalized learning. We’d heard that term in every school we visited and in every session in between. But what does it really mean?
Visiting schools and talking with other NGLC grantees, I heard three distinct visions for personalization.
The first focuses on using technology to locate and support students along a continuum of learning within a given content area. This view prioritizes meeting students where they are in literacy and mathematics. Students work at their own pace, and teachers have the ability to identify small groups for direct support and intervention. What is not necessarily personalized in this view is what kids actually learn. More often than not, that is defined by standards and accountability systems, or other external factors like college entrance requirements.
The second view of personalization emphasizes “voice and choice.” It’s based on exposing students to a range of ideas and types of work, pushing them to think about their interests and passions, and ultimately help them to figure out what they want to work hard at. Student engagement is the watchword here; the theory is that if sufficiently motivated, students will become more self-directed learners and be more willing to persist through challenges and setbacks.
While this view of personalization usually includes project based learning and real-world experiences, it may or may not integrate technology.
Both of these views of personalized learning were explicitly articulated and explained by educators in the schools we visited. But there was a third perspective that seemed more implicit in some schools’ designs, and appeared focused on ownership and motivation. This was personalization in the sense of making learning personal. It relied on students seeing their learning as a process of progressing toward goals they have set for themselves, rather than something being forced on them by others.
These three perspectives on personalization aren’t mutually exclusive, but they aren’t mutually dependent, either. We saw some schools where students had very little choice about what they were learning, but were encouraged and supported in setting their own goals and reporting to teachers and peers about their progress, with the goal of cultivating a deep sense of ownership over the work. And we saw elements of school designs based on solving real world problems that were practically agnostic about academic content.
At Summit Denali, we saw different perspectives embodied in different elements of the school’s design: meeting kids where they are during personalized learning time, voice and choice through expeditions, and making learning personal through personalized learning plans.
Maybe this is really the lesson to take from such a diverse set of schools: that there is no one right interpretation of what it means to personalize. Different views solve different problems. The important thing is being clear about what problems you’re trying to solve, and to proceed accordingly.
Matthew Riggan is a co-founder of the Workshop School, a project-based high school within the School District of Philadelphia.