This is a hard term for me to included in my ongoing list of problematic terms simply because I have been such a supporter of the concept it represents. Nonetheless, I fear that "personalized learning" is a flawed term. It is flawed not because the idea of crafting a plan with the educational and motivational needs of an individual in mind is a bad idea, it is the idea that what is being personalized is learning. Let me explain.
Aside from the popular theory that learning is social (which I a little more than partially buy into), isn't for the individual and their acquisition of new understandings really always a personal endeavor? Can one person really personalize the learning of someone else? Or can this only be done by the individual? And, how can such an act be done consciously without foreknowledge of the content of said learning? Don't I personalize my learning when I choose what books to read, which videos to watch, what classes to take, or what places to go for myself? If these things are done for me is what the person putting together my agenda doing really personalizing my learning or are they personalizing my agenda? Isn't it up to me as a learner to decide whether or not to accept that agenda?
Don't get me wrong, I know there are times when a person really needs, and sometimes will willingly submit to, a plan laid out for them. But, as far as education goes, that custom-made plan is not personalized learning, it is really a customized agenda. For there to really be personalized learning the learner has to have the agency to decide what it is that they are doing, what it is they are paying attention to, what it is that they are busying their mental faculties with. In fact, no matter what kind of path we lay down for the learner, be it customized, individualized, standardized, or scripted they will always personalize their own learning because no teacher, curriculum developer, lecturer, or programmer can dictate the course of the integral organ involved in the process of learning. No one can grab the attention of a learner without their choice to pay attention, no one can make a learner think without the learner choosing to do so, no one can make someone reflect on something without the learner choosing to reflect on their own, and unless you employ the kind of inhumane contraption used in the film A Clockwork Orange no one can force another to open their eyes and see something they do not choose to.
Regardless of posters hung in some schools stating that "failure is not an option," failure is always an option. It is always a choice. So is learning. We choose what we pay attention to and in so doing we personalize our own learning. We also personalize our own learning through differing experiences. Every student comes to a classroom with different experiences, memories, and backgrounds. These things are what makeup a person's prior knowledge and that prior knowledge will further act to personalize the learning of students in any classroom. We often learn different things from the same stimuli because we all approach it with different background knowledge and therefore our learning is always personalized.
We really need a new term to describe what we mean when we say "personalized learning."
This post is eight in my "war on words" series. Other terms in this series are: "best practices," "child-centered," "value added," accountability, "data-driven decisions," "learning objectives," and "21st Century."