Learning Has Always Been Personalized and Individualized (School Is Catching Up)

Blended learning. Personalized learning. Individualized learning. Mass customized learning. Differentiated learning. Online learning.

It seems we are obsessed with adding adjectives in front of the noun, learning. While I have to believe this has been the case for a long time, it has picked up in steam over the past decade as technology has moved from being a learning event to an everyday part of our lives.

The problem with all of these terms is that learning has always been personalized and individualized.

School, on the other hand, is an institution that in many cases advocates and sets up learning experiences to be common, compliant, and consistent.

This was never more apparent then when I was at the Learning and the Brain Conference a few weeks ago.

I was in a session where a teacher asked the presenter, “We are in a school that is implementing blended learning to create a more personalized learning experience for our students. But, a big problem is that our curriculum focus has always been on Common Learning Experience for all students.”

The presenter asked, “What does common learning experience mean?”

“Well, our focus is that if there were twins in my 6th-grade class, and my colleagues 6th-grade class, those twins would have the same learning experience every day, regardless of the teacher.”

“Hmm,” the presenter nodded. “Let me ask you a question, do you think any of us ever have the same learning experience? I mean, there are a lot of people in this room, but don’t you think each will take away something every specific and individualized to their needs and their learning after today’s session?”

The teacher smiled, “Yes, I see this every day as a teacher, and also with my own kids. Their experiences are always personalized!”

The dialogue brought the group to a big epiphany:

What if we focused our efforts on creating common learning quality, instead of common learning experiences?

If every learning experience is by definition, “personalized”, why not focus on the quality instead of the same experience.

Learning Is A Personalized Experience

Last year I stumbled on the work of Peter Nilsson, I was blown away to see the science of learning made so clear. Nilsson is a teacher and school leader who works at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts; and he has read extensively on the field of cognitive science. His 14-part series on “The Cognitive Science of Education” is a must read for any educator (or parent) serious about understanding the way our brain process all this information we get each day. [footnote]This is serious. You need to go read the 14-part series. It should only take an hour or two at the most, but it may just be the most valuable time you spend as a teacher and learner. [/footnote]

Here is Peter Nilsson describing the four stages to learning on his blog, Sense and Sensation:

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So how do people learn? What are the mechanics of memory? Can we distill thousands of articles and books to something that is manageable, digestible, and applicable to our classrooms?

Yes. In brief, the cognitive process of learning has four basic stages:

1. Attention: the filter through which we experience the world

2. Encoding: how we process what our attention admits into the mind

3. Storage: what happens once information enters the brain

4. Retrieval: the recall of that information or behavior

Almost everything we do or know, we learn through these stages, for our learning is memory, and the bulk of our memory is influenced by these four processes: what we pay attention to, how we encode it, what happens to it in storage, and when and how we retrieve it.

Let’s start with Attention. Going back a previous post on why we learn, it all begins with attention. Most of the time we pay attention for two reasons: Interest or Necessity.

Our brain is flooded with information from a multi-sensory world that is throwing sounds, sights, feelings, and everything else at us in rapid succession. With all of this information coming at us we tend to pay attention to things that we are curious and interested about, or information that has a direct correlation to our physical, emotional, or psychological well-being.

Then comes the Encoding. Our senses are being hit with so much information that when we finally process that information we begin to categorize it as a new experience or a connected experience with prior knowledge.

After we’ve successfully paid attention and made some connections (or created new information) we come to the Storage stage. Here we store this new or connected information in our short-term, working, or long-term memory. Where it is stored and how it is stored is associated with how powerful of an experience it is/was, and how often we bring that experience back into our daily lives.

Retrieval is the final stage. This is when we pull information out of the memory to help us in learning something new, or adapting to a situation, or connecting the dots on an experience. Retrieval also allows us to “re-encode” which starts the learning process all over again. It’s like a mini-version of the unlearning/relearning cycle we discussed in the last article.

You can think about how this cycle of learning works in all different types of contexts and experiences. From real world applications like driving a car, to classroom situations like understanding photosynthesis, the more we retrieve information and connect it to new experiences, the stronger our understanding becomes around that topic and idea.

Which is why most of you reading this post have a better sense of how to drive a car then how photosynthesis works. Even though photosynthesis happens every day all around you, it does not impact you, or in other words, it does not grab your attention. Driving a car, on the other hand, is connected to your daily life as an adult for work, pleasure, and all other kinds of reasons.

Our students, just like all of us, tend to prioritize the learning of things that will impact them. It is in our nature to pay attention (and kick off the learning process) with information that is connected to our interests and needs.

School Re-Imagined

Remember all those words that were put in front of learning mentioned at the beginning of this article? They are important because teachers and educators are realizing that school has not been personalized, individualized, or blended for a long time.

For years school was focused on common experiences, compliance in policies and procedures, standard assessments and gradual release of information to the masses.

Learning has never been like that. We’ve always binged learned topics we are interested about, assessed ourselves in what we did with that knowledge, and changed the procedures for learning depending on the circumstance and environment.

Nothing about learning has ever been standard.

Blended learning used to be between learning by listening, or learning by reading. Now it is often used to talk about learning online and learning in-person.

Personalized learning used to be going to a library and picking out the books you were interested in reading and learning more about. Today, personalized learning is working through playlists of content and information and tailored activities.

The shift we are seeing in schools, classrooms, and learning environments around the world right now is a renewed focus on learning, and less of a focus on school.

That’s a big change for a lot of educators who were brought up in this school environment, taught in this school environment, and prepared to teach in this school environment.

But, if you are struggling or know someone struggling with the shift back to learning, remind yourself that we’ve always learned in personalized, individualized, and blended ways. It’s time to embrace the notion that school should be a lot more focused on learning quality and a lot less focused on a common learning experience.

What are your thoughts?

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  • Drazen says:

    Cool findings. I’d like to share approach based on children learning styles (learning dispositions, talents and etc.) which influence cognitive process – Attention and bit less Storage. If we match children learning style it is far more likely learning quality is better? One example how to include talents as attention grabbers and embed individualized/personalized interests into lessons in lower grades is toolGabriel’s Seeds.

  • Keesa johnson says:

    Thank you so much for all of this! It was a great share.

  • Catherine Day says:

    I really dig the point you make about learning always being personalized. I can teach the same material to two different students. Yet both will take something different out of it. What makes it great or poor for them is how I do it. What’s imperative is that I reach them both. Have to make the learning experience relevant and enjoyable. This way, both students take away what they need to learn in their own way 🙂

  • Angela Krebs says:

    I love that your focus is on the learning our students are doing. It seems like such an obvious thing and yet we’ve overlooked that learning has always been personalized. Unfortunately, even in this new education environment in which we shift focus from “doing school” we continue to use archaic methods of assessing students. Why is their learning differentiated and personalized but their assessments standardized? Our students don’t all fit in the same box, so why do we continue to try to force them to?

  • Thanks for sharing! What resonates with me most, is that schools and learning are two different things. Many schools stand in the way of true, personalized, individualized learning. A shift must be made in schools across the country to ensure that schools are doing what’s best for students.

  • Bettye Freeman says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post. It makes a lot of sense that we need to focus more on the quality of learning than the common learning experience. We have to get back to the basics personalizing learning so our students can feel the importance of learning and also individualizing learning so our students will know that they play an important part in their daily school experience. Also thank you for the diagram on how people learn.
    Great Article…

  • Samantha Madison says:

    The idea of structuring learning in a manner that is personalized based on the interests and experiences of the learner is an interesting one. Though it is not emphasized in traditional public school settings, the idea of making learning into a personalized experience is one that is highly valued in other types of schooling. Montessori schooling is one such style that places this idea in high regard. Within Montessori schooling, children are given a sort of structured freedom to choose the activities that interest them and explore these interests without interruption within a carefully prepared environment (Edwards 2002). The theory behind this value is that through exploration of topics that interest them, children will be more motivated to learn and be able to retain more of what they experience. This fosters a general interest in learning and promotes motivation when the child moves on to different topics. Angela Lillard found that Montessori students performed better than students with traditional schooling on tests of executive function, the ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems. It was also found that, at age 12, Montessori students produced essays with “significantly more sophisticated sentence structures” than non-Montessori students (Lillard & Else-Quest 2006). This seems to indicate that their are benefits to a Montessori style of teaching. Proponents of Montessori schooling indicate that the ability for each student to personalize his or her learning is a key component in the system’s success.

    Certainly, one can observe from personal experience that it easier to retain information that we find to be interesting or information that is personal to us. The phenomena of episodic memory, the memory of autobiographical events, indicates that events with personal meaning are more easily recalled than events that have no meaning to the individual (Tulving 2002). Juliani stated that attention is one key component of memory. Perhaps episodic memory is more easily recalled due to the greater attention we give to our own lives and experiences than we give to other events.

    Examples such as Montessori schooling and episodic memory seem to indicate that a personalized learning environment might improve schooling. This article, however, does not provide examples such as these to support its main point. It is stated that individualized learning might be a superior teaching style than a common learning experience, however, no supporting research is provided. Juliani’s idea is mainly speculation based on the science behind memory.

    In addition, though Juliani’s idea sounds compelling, it would be very difficult to implement in the classroom. It would take a tremendous amount of time and resources to personalize the curriculum of every child within a school system. In most public schools, teachers are given a curriculum and the goal of making sure each child knows that information. Due to standardized testing, there is little room for adjustment of that curriculum (Willingham Lectures 2017). I believe that the majority of public schools do not have the time or money that it would take to allow for personalized learning for each student. If a personalized system of learning is truly proven to be superior, perhaps it would be beneficial for more school systems to make a transition to an environment similar to Montessori schooling. This style would allow for children to explore topics of their interest and create a more individualized learning environment.

  • Brandi Jones says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. It makes so much sense. For the past three years, I have been trying to create an environment in my public school classroom that supports learning through experimentation. It is difficult. I could not do it without a support system. I often borrow lab equipment and materials from outside sources. After reading this post, I am determined to stay on this track. I can see now that the strategies I use support individualized learning while providing common resources and opportunities to all students in class. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel like I am on the right track. Thanks a bunch!

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