What is personalised learning?

Daniel Greenstein
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America is called a melting pot for many reasons. Each individual carries unique traits: culture, family, learning styles, interests, skills, life experiences, and more. We’re all at our best when we can tap into those characteristics that make us unique. That’s especially true when it comes to education.

A single dad looking to earn a college degree while raising an infant may need a flexible learning environment that allows him to learn at his own pace—and on his own schedule. A high school senior who hates physics, but loves skateboarding, might need a trip to the skate park to better understand speed, velocity, and momentum.

Learning becomes even more powerful when it’s personalized to each student’s needs, interests, and circumstances.

Think about personal trainers at a gym. The best trainers don’t come in with a preconceived plan that looks the same for each person. They tailor it to the needs, goals, and skills each person brings. From there, a trainer creates a custom workout plan for each client and makes adjustments along the way.

The same concepts are being applied in education. Educators, colleges, and schools have, for decades, been drawing on research to tailor education in ways that engage each student as an individual learner on his or her own learning path. “Personalization,” the research record shows, improves students’ learning outcomes, and new technologies give us ways to help even more students learn and grow.

We’re all at our best when we can tap into those characteristics that make us unique.

We’re still exploring the power of personalized learning—and the impact it has on a student’s ability to progress academically, think critically, and move toward a college degree and a successful career. But some schools, like Rio Salado College and Summit Public Schools, are trailblazing personalized learning strategies. Their initial, promising results are pushing the education field to develop new teaching methods to help students take ownership of their learning.

This week, we’re featuring teachers, professors, students, and Gates Foundation staff, who will share how new personalized learning innovations and programs are making learning fun, effective, and relevant for students, in both K-12 and postsecondary education environments.

To kick everything off, we asked our education partners to identify what they’d like parents and students to know about personalized learning. Here’s what they told us.

1. Students are at the center
At its core, from kindergarten through postsecondary, personalized learning is focused on the individual student. Teachers, professors, advisors, and administrators are all working to help each student advance along his or her learning journey.

2. It isn’t new
Personalized learning has been around as long as great teaching has, but innovative approaches and new technologies are emerging that make this more possible than ever. We have some truly powerful tools to help educators do what they do best: teach to the strengths and interests of each student.

3. Personalized approaches can strengthen the bond between teachers and students
Here’s one example: Organizations that make learning technologies are partnering with colleges to develop online educational programs that tailor learning to each individual student. Elyse King, a student at Arizona State University Online, told us she felt a stronger relationship with her online instructors than she did in the traditional in-person college environment.

4. Learning is complemented by technology, but not dependent on it
Educators engage students with rich, diverse learning experiences using a variety of methods. At Nolan Middle School, for example, teachers restructured the layout of their classroom—providing learning stations where students can choose which subjects to work on, join a small group discussion, or get some one-on-one time with teachers. Technology is used to help assess student challenges—freeing up teachers to spend more time getting to know their students, explaining difficult concepts, and trouble-shooting when students don’t understand the material.

5. Students set the pace
Where they need help, they get it; when they master something, they move forward. Students tell us they love the flexibility. In college, for example, they can quickly get through a subject they had a solid grasp on, like history—freeing up more time to focus on a challenging math course.

Educators, whether they oversee 30 third-graders or 300 college students, can tap the same personalized approach to education. In doing so, schools and universities could transform their students’ academic journeys—putting them in charge of their learning, and empowering educators to support and coach them along the way.

Published in collaboration with Impatient Optimists

Author: Dr. Daniel Greenstein is the Director of Education for Postsecondary Success in the United States Program. Vicki Phillips is the Director of College-Ready Education.

Image: A student attends a class at Samsung Art and Design Institute in Seoul May 2, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.

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