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Personalizing Learning is Humanizing Learning

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Topics: Education Equity

A recent editorial called for educators to pause on personalized learning, and instead, “humanize” learning, noting that ”no amount of personalized learning will fill the soul-sized black hole we create when we fail to recognize a child’s humanity.” The statements on how many of the privileged miss the boat on inclusivity and culturally-informed practices are spot on. Equity and inclusion are what we are missing in education. This is true and this is exactly what personalized learning aims to do. It also got me thinking.

So much of what we do when we work with educators to implement student-centered practices is about shifting mindsets to better serve all learners. We want to help teachers and school leaders build their capacity and form the kinds of relationships that do exactly what the editorial calls for: personalizing learning is humanizing learning. There isn’t a systemic personalized system out there that doesn’t have a strong culture grounded in relationships. The notion that you can personalize learning without this doesn’t work, and it isn’t true.

There isn’t a systemic personalized learning system out there that doesn’t have a strong culture grounded in relationships.

The bigger truth: we are always going to be learning about what this means because it requires us to put ourselves out there. To get somewhere in this work where we are really impacting student learning we have to be willing to be vulnerable and courageous.

Why do we need another term? Why is the education industry so prone to surrendering on one term, and replacing it with another, when we realize that we aren’t on the same page? Isn’t that part of the problem? It isn’t the word, it’s that we aren’t doing it right. It’s admitting that we are learning, too. What we call it isn’t as important as what we do: the structures we put in place to make for more equitable learning environments, the supports we provide teachers in taking risks to better understand and serve the unique needs of each of their students, the shift in mindset that values student agency and ownership over their learning experience versus a one-size-fits all model.

“Personalized learning is just that: it’s about the person. When a learner feels like a critical partner, when they can rely on others when they need it and support them when they don’t, they recognize the value they bring to a community. They want to give back.”

Robin Kanaan
Director of Teaching and Learning, KnowledgeWorks

Many people in the education field have different definitions for what “personalized learning” looks like right now, and that’s because we’re still figuring it out together. When we construct meaning together, we are reenergizing our vision. We are discovering that our initial thinking wasn’t on the mark, and then adjusting it. That’s called learning. Isn’t that the point? And while we can argue that our students are paying the price, they’ve been waiting for over 100 years and they will continue to wait until we get it together. At least with personalized learning, the intention is there: we are shifting to humanizing learning, to being more student-centered.

Jargon jumping isn’t the solution. I wonder what would happen if we could have a national vocabulary with shared understanding. While districts could still personalize the terms and their processes for getting there, we could at least get past the notion that the use of the word is the issue rather than what is really going on: our beliefs, our implementation, our vulnerability.

What do we mean when we say personalized, competency-based education? It’s pretty simple, actually. We mean learning.