What does “personalization” mean?

“Personalization” is a hot topic; every school, state and district seems to be promoting its efforts to personalize education. Still, it’s not clear that everyone is approaching this in the same way. It’s worth asking: what does ‘personalization’ mean in our school or district?

The State of Rhode Island’s Office of Innovation has looked at how 10 different organizations, from the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation, has defined personalization, and found that certain “key phrases” appear throughout the defintiions, including:

  • competency-based progression
  • meets individual student needs
  • standards-aligned
  • student interests
  • student ownership
  • socially embedded
  • formative assessments
  • flexible learning environments

Each school needs to come to a decision about what aspects of personalization they have in mind.

Just as importantly, schools need to think about whether their initiatives are really meeting their definitions of personalization. Many Learning Management Systems claim that they can help you personalize — but often the only part of the definition they mean is that students can go at their own pace. In these environments, students use the same curriculum in the same order in the same way . Students don’t have much choice in how they interact with the material – the only thing they can control is how fast or how slow they move through the lessons.  The concepts of “student ownership” or “student interests” are low on the priority list.

Teachers are the critical factor in creating a personalized environment in schools – because they are the ones who get to know the students well. The concept of “meeting individual needs” is very different from a human perspective than from a computer’s.  (Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick talk about the importance of other components in personalization, including student voice, co-creation, social sconstruction and self-discovery in their recent book Students at the Center.) The teachers who know their students well are the ones who can help a student see a problem from a different angle, or make a different analogy, or can connect today’s issue with something that student has accomplished before. And that’s just how teachers help students interact with the material — teachers are even more critical in understanding student motivations, things going on outside of the classroom, and in being a part of the school community. (Consider the heroic efforts teachers in the Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico are making right now as their communities are rebuilding from the recent hurricanes.)

Technology has a place to help with personalization – but ultimately, personalization starts with teachers who are committed to understanding their students, and schools committed (as Debbie Meier put it), to ensuring that no child is anonymous.

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