Define the Learning Space!
When you talk about defining learning space, and all its parts, almost everyone, inside or outside of education has an education opinion, or two. You can multiply those opinions by dozens, when you begin talking about personalized learning and other education buzzwords. It can be quite confusing figuring out what personalized learning really is, because everyone seems to think they know. Understanding what personalized learning is more difficult, because of its origins. Most of us, old enough to remember discovered something called individualized learning decades ago, when it was decided that reading groups designated by numbers, or types of birds, was not quite what we should be doing anymore as reading.
The Individualized Dilemma
That leap into individualized learning presented a mind-boggling dilemma for educators in all learning spaces, who had learned how to dish out just the right amount of seatwork in order to hear everyone in three or four sets of class reading groups—on most days. The problem was that no one really understood what individualized really meant, and how it actually should fit. While tossing out the basal readers for classroom libraries was a good thing, it presented an organization problem for educators. How could one teacher manage to touch base with 25-30 students during each reading class? The odds were impossible, and there wasn’t enough seatwork in the world to do it.
Even with centers of activities happening, along with seatwork, teachers struggled to meet student-reading needs. Of course there were plenty of organized binders sharing how it should be done, and at least one specialist telling you it could, and that it needed to be done. But for all the management resources in the world, individualized learning, the way it was presented, was a lot of work, which seemed to get more out of control, as the school week ambled on.
Teaching reading could have been an Olympic sport, because it certainly exhausted many educators, who tried to individualize. But it didn’t end there. Whatever you could do for reading, you could certainly do for mathematics, and other subjects as well. More material was created, developed, and sold to schools as individualized learning programs, but most were management systems that really didn’t make anything easier, other than collecting more paper for file cabinets. Each program had a long name cut short to an acronym, or was named after some educator, who claimed to have figured out the magical individualized route.
In the entire individualized of education craze, the best thing to happen to students was probably those centers with all the interesting activities. I believe that, although they were a bit more work to build and do, centers with activities seemed a way for educators to say to school leaders, that kids still like to get together in small groups to learn. And wonder of wonders, they seemed to be very good at it—and all on their own, too. That collaborative necessity was a sidebar, but it really needed to be more.
There was a jump back into history when computers arrived in computer labs, and then one or two per class—if an educator was lucky enough. When the latter happened, those computers and earliest games made some great centers with some very controllable activities. They seemed to fit. Waiting for a rotation of five centers became torture for students, who just couldn’t wait to get in front of keyboards and screens. Not much dust collected on those desktop beasts, and the student interest in them did not go unnoticed by educators, school leaders, the community, or the education marketplace.
More computers, in the form of desktops, left school libraries and computer labs and moved into the classrooms. One or two computers soon became a bank of three to five, or more. The group computer center times became easier to divide up, and all students had a chance to experience what the new devices could do. And then there was this new idea idea called individualized instruction, which wasn’t new at all. What if every student had a laptop? It worked with slates in one-roomed schoolhouses, so this new age of 1:1 would certainly work with laptops, and it had to be just a easy to do, too. After all, we’d had all that experience doing it in reading—and in math—and everywhere, well this should work as well.
Unfortunately, before you can ever have an individualized, and now, personalized learning plan, educators at all levels need to really know and understand what that means. There are too many definitions, and most of the explanations, while not entirely wrong, lead educators to take students down the wrong paths, and education meandering wastes precious learning time. Many of those early 1:1 programs had problems, and we’ve revisited many of them with all the tablet, laptop, and Chromebook programs.
Giving every student a device is a wonderful thing, but it takes strategic planning beyond saying you’re going to do 1:1, or individualized learning, or personalized learning. We still need to know what that means, and remember that it is only a piece of the learning puzzle, even if it does take up a large part of budget expenditures. Pretending it is an entire plan never works. To plan for only personalized learning is seeing only part of a learning environment. And maybe seeing that is how to really understand what personalized learning is—and what we really should be defining. This is larger than that one puzzle piece.
Don’t Miss Collaboration
I’ve found that no matter what the program, and with or without technology, educators know that students sharing and working together is not only valuable in class, but also valuable in life. In our efforts to do individualized learning, 1:1, and now personalized learning, many haven’t left time for the collaboration part. And that’s the problem. If there isn’t a collaboration part, then educators and students cannot make connections to the world and others necessary to promote change and take great ideas and visions to reality. Education is more than knowing you can work alone, and at your own pace.
The real challenge for students should be figuring how they can use what they know to gather, organize, motivate, and lead a team beyond a single person’s idea, and to the best successful completion of a goal. While you can talk about personalized and collaborative learning as separate and different learning entities, to talk of one without the other shouldn’t be an education option. The reason good learning ideas can fail is that we forget that the best learning happens, and is successful, due to many things, as well as the sum of all the parts—rather than from some individual learning piece, no matter how magnificently fashionable, or trendy.
Define the Right Thing
So, after all this time, we may be at the best time and place to define the right thing. That is, how do you define the new learning space, and what should it look like? I’ll wager that there’ll be some individualized and 1:1, with collaboration in small and large groups, as well as some daily social media, global access to experts, as well as some way, personalized devices, for teachers and students to feedback in order to add active engagement to the majority of minutes in a learning day. Adding more time to the traditional 20 minutes allowed in those center activities that students loved and talked about would be a great start. Let’s define the right thing—the thing that really needs defining. Define the new teaching and learning space, with everything it needs, and don’t leave anything out. That’s the challenge.
About the Author:
Ken Royal is a former educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience. He has written at many of the major education publications, including District Administration, TechLearning, and Scholastic Administrator. Presently, Ken is a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is a Promethean storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.