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

By AJ Juliani, 8 comments

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. 1

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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  1. 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.