Redesigning Learning for Learners

Teachers have long understood Socratic instruction to mean that the teacher asks questions and the student answers, learning through further questions and mentorship. However, as John Smallwood reminds us, those who use the term “Socratic” can forget that such teaching takes place in the form of dialogues, often in a one-on-one situation. Today’s online teaching affords instructors the ability to focus their work on each student’s strengths and weaknesses. This runs counter to the traditional teaching in classes of thirty or so students, some of whom may excel or lag behind others because much of the teaching is aimed at students of so-called “average” ability.

We’re Learning Too 

Next week, I will be representing Hekademia at the Digital Curriculum Strategy Discussion, hosted by Union County Public Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the past few years, Union County has successfully delivered a 1:1 program and implemented a more comprehensive competency-based program.  I’m really looking forward to hearing more about their experiences. Learning about their “One Size Fits Me” philosophy has led me to reflect on the various ways educators personalize learning in the classroom, and in fully online environments.  This topic has always raised an interesting question for  us at Hekademia and in Virtual High School as well: what does personalization look like in a fully online learning environment? The term personalization has taken on several different meanings, but here are a few ideas from a review of several educators’ research:

Student Choice

This is a big one.  As Katrina Schwartz points out, personalization is interpreted differently by educators, but for her, authentic student choice over how to tackle a problem is essential.  Do students have choice between assessments, topics for exploration, and the medium of communication of their work?  We’ve seen some exceptional project-based learning ideas presented at ISTE and FETC in the last year, so I know some schools are excelling in this area. Technology makes it easier to do this: students are blogging about topics that are important to them, building websites, exploring virtual worlds, making movies, documentaries and videos… the list goes on. We know that the more choice we give students, the more interested and engaged they will be in the learning process.  We’ve compiled some of these ideas in previous blogs on project-based learning and ideas from FETC, “Tech Tools to Liven Up the Classroom.

Personalized feedback

Receiving timely, personalized feedback from the teacher is an obvious requirement in effective instruction, but as Grant Wiggins has pointed out in his blog, “Feedback: How Learning Occurs,” feedback is a word we often misuse.  A grade isn’t feedback. Rather, feedback is useful information about performance.   It’s not praise or blame—it is “value-neutral help on worthy tasks.” Feedback doesn’t always have to be provided by a teacher. Wiggins also notes that the activity itself provides feedback. Athletes adjust their performance regularly when they see that their passes are off, or the ball isn’t going into the net. Designing activities that allow students to adjust to the nature of the tasks is a central component of personalized learning. In an online environment, we can give students systems-generated feedback to let them know they are correct or incorrect so they can adjust their strategies while they work through interactive activities.  Such adaptive approaches allow students to alter their methods as they solve problems, mirroring day-to-day life in the workplace.


Educators personalize learning for students by allowing them to move at their own pace, but how do we truly do that in a traditional system when the clock signals the end of the school year? Deanna Kirwin’s recent blog discusses this dilemma and offers an argument for “Going Asynchronous.” Allie Gross highlights this problem as well in yesterday’s blog: “5 ways schools can reduce the need for remediation.” She advocates that schools should be encouraged to work more closely with post-secondary institutions to better prepare high school students for success in their junior years so they don’t have to take remediation courses in the summer before attending college. I think this is a great idea, though I don’t think remediation courses can be considered a solution for personalized learning overall. For remediation to be personalized, it needs to be integrated into the course and part of the student’s learning experience, not an afterthought.

Targeted Remediation

If we stick with the education system’s traditional “cookie cutter” method of pushing students through grade levels in one-year batches, remediation and enrichment will always be necessary. To personalize a student’s learning experience, instruction will need to be adjusted for each individual students as they experience difficulty or excel with the concepts. Some students will need to see a different perspective on the concept (differentiated instruction), while others may need remedial lessons from previous grade levels.  In either case, the intervention should occur when students have difficulty so they can keep building concepts. Timely remediation promotes the growth mindset: “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will.”  Waiting until the end of the school year to enroll them in a remediation course reinforces the stigma of failure, as opposed to acknowledging that failure can be an informative opportunity within the learning process itself, as Ben deGroot proposed in last week’s blog, “Rethinking Failure in Competency-Based Education“.

There’s much more to consider when it comes to personalizing learning—it’s an ongoing discussion that is building as teachers share their ideas and successes online. This culture of sharing has already demonstrated what’s possible in terms of personalized learning.  Learning from the best teachers and researchers next week in North Carolina will confirm that we are implementing positive change for students and allow us to benefit in our work from the newest trends in online education.

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