PERSONALIZED LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS

Robert Amenta and Robert E. Lowery

An increasing number of schools are rethinking their educational philosophy, on the realization that students have their own will, their own mind, and their own way of thinking. If students are not sufficiently motivated to challenge their own knowledge and encouraged to take charge of their own learning, there usually is no growth, no gain in personal esteem, and no success for the school. As Peter Senge states: "Personal mastery goes beyond competence and skills, although it is grounded in competence and skills. It goes beyond spiritual unfolding or opening, although it requires spiritual growth. It means approaching one's life as a creative work, living life from a creative as opposed to reactive viewpoint." i

Schools today are moving in the opposite direction from personal and creative mastery to a more standardized group approach. The emphasis is on standardization and national testing. School districts are devoting considerable effort and resources to aligning their curriculum standards with their state and national tests. Teachers are under great pressure to raise test scores and to devote more time to test preparation skills. Reading and mathematics have become “mega subjects” at the expense of those disciplines not currently tested by national exams. Although reading and mathematics are extremely important, a curriculum so limited will have disastrous effects for the future.

This retrenchment is based on the assumption that all students can and will learn the same material at the same time. This notion is based on traditional scope and sequence concepts, and more recently, on national testing standards. The current approach ignores the research and the reality of the classroom where teachers working directly with students must adapt and adjust lessons on the basis of the student's individual strengths and weaknesses. Martin and Jacqueline Brooks, noted constructivist educators, have carefully explained that "rather than set standards for professional practice and the development of local capacity to enhance student learning, many state education departments have placed even greater weight on the same managerial equation that has failed repeatedly in the past:

State Standards = State Tests;
State Test Results = Student Achievement;
Student Achievement = Rewards and Punishments." ii

Originally, assessment systems identified higher-order thinking as a reform goal, but policymakers dropped this goal because it was deemed too difficult to quantify and assess. As a result, most preparation for national tests focuses on memorization of facts.

Personalized learning goes beyond facts and attempts to prepare students for adaptation to new situations. The purposes of schooling must be much broader than memorization and must include opportunities for students to engage in problem-based learning. According to the National Research Council:

Many approaches to instruction look equivalent when the only measure of learning is memory for information that was specifically presented. Instructional differences become more apparent when evaluated from the perspective of how well the learning transfers to new problems and settings. iii

It is the search for understanding that motivates students to learn, and this type of learning is best achieved in a personalized learning environment. After 25 years of experience in school renewal, the Learning Environment Consortium International (LEC) has focused its efforts and resources on assisting schools to develop personalized learning environments. The major tenets of LEC include:

  • Total school design/redesign with personalized instruction as the instructional component.
  • Personalized instruction that can take place in many settings, such as supervised study, small groups, media and resource centers, etc.
  • Students trained to work alone, with one or a few others, in scheduled seminars, and in the community.
  • Teacher-coaching of students that can occur on a one-to-one basis, but more often in a cluster of students who are working in the same area and topic of the curriculum.
  • The practice of personalized instruction that can embrace many learning paradigms and methodologies, such as modified mastery learning, cognitive/learning style-based approaches, authentic pedagogy and assessment, and apprenticeship programs with guided practice, exploration and teacher coaching.

Children become "learning persons" by exposure to caring persons and a rich environment. LEC believes that the schools should focus on helping young people develop their minds and provide the adults and a learning environment where this can happen.

The learning environment in most contemporary schools is the traditional classroom with one teacher and a group of twenty to thirty students. Personalized instruction requires a more flexible environment with small group activities, appropriate large group instruction, and individual assistance in subject area resource centers and community settings Students can receive instruction or coaching whenever they need it. Below are some comparisons that typically exist between what we call traditional schooling and one form of personalized learning environment, the continuous progress curriculum.

Traditional Teacher Role

Teacher A: Has several classes of 25 to 35 students for a semester or a year.
Has a new class(es) of students each semester or year. Responsibilities:

  1. Cover course content in a given time allocation.
  2. Test for levels of student achievement on given content.
  3. Teach all students of various abilities at the same time.
  4. Meet with and report to parents about success/failure of 80 to 100 students.
  5. Keep class attendance records on 80 to 100 students.

Personalized Educational Environment

Teacher B: Works in a resource center learning environment based on a continuous progress format, with students of various grade and achievement levels. Responsibilities:

  1. Advise and monitor a group of 20 to 25 students during their total high school careers.
  2. Develop learning guides for assigned subject areas.
  3. Meet with students in small group seminars.
  4. Coach students in small groups and in one-on-one instructional settings.
  5. Evaluate student achievement on specific subject content.
  6. Meet with and report to parents about the success/failure of 20 to 25 students.

The methods of instruction and teacher facilitation vary between traditional and personalized learning models. The instructional process also varies, as follows:

Traditional Program

Example - Mathematics

  1. May be offered for 40 to 80 minutes per day for a semester.
  2. All students take a test at the same time covering selected content.
  3. Instructional time is the same for all students, high achievers and low achievers.
  4. All students complete the course at the same time.
  5. Grades may range from F to A, 0 to 100 percent.

Personalized Learning Environment

Example - Mathematics:

  1. The students complete the course unit by unit based upon mastery.
  2. The instructional time may vary for each student.
  3. Students complete each course relative to individual pace and achievement.
  4. Student take tests when they are ready.
  5. Student grades will vary from credit to A, from 70 to 100 percent. The minimum accepted level is set by school policy.

Student Role in a Personalized Learning Environment

Students come to school with differences in life experience, cultural/ethic/racial
background, family structure, learning style, etc. They also bring differences in motivational preferences, intellectual aptitudes, personality, physical characteristics and abilities, and learning rates.

In the personalized learning environment, the student is appreciated for these differences, and is assumed to have strengths and limitations that are demonstrated within these differences.
A personalized program attempts to meet the needs of individual students. It is characterized by the values of trust, cooperation, respect, honesty and integrity. Student-staff interaction takes place in a variety of locations and utilizes a variety of teaching methodologies.

Teacher Role in a Personalized Learning Environment

Teachers in a personalized environment serve as advisors, diagnosticians, instructors, and facilitators. The teacher is an advisor to students, a facilitator of learning, a diagnostician of the learning process, and a role model. The teacher is first and foremost a person dedicated and committed to students and their work. To be successful, teachers must be innovative and risk-takers, excited about learning and willing to improve. They must have a commitment to ongoing professional development. Typical challenges for teachers under personalization include identifying student needs and learning style, and developing a flexible array of programs in order to provide all students with opportunities for success.
A major organizational component of personalization is that each teacher serves a dual role. All teachers are engaged in advisement which places major emphasis on knowing and helping some twenty to twenty-five advisees as total individuals. In addition, each teacher is a facilitator of instruction, providing students with subject matter instruction and coaching in one or more of the academic disciplines.

For a school to operate in a continuous progress fashion, each student must have an individual schedule or timetable. This scheduling process involves teacher to student discussion and teacher monitoring of student achievement and behavior on a regular basis. The teacher advisor becomes the vehicle for communication between the home and the school. This constant contact between teachers and students over a period of time can promote the positive and humane climate so desired in all schools. LEC teachers have heard students say, "Trust me, give me some power to act and let me be responsible, but don't wash me out if I fail a task." Students want someone to stand by and be ready to support their actions. It is here that the role of teacher advisor is so important.

The Challenge

A personalized school must develop a strong educational vision and commitment to provide all students with opportunities for maximizing their individual talents. Within this vision, it is also possible for teachers and administrators to develop and display their individual professionalism and skills.

The personalized learning environment described here is only one among several personalized strategies and is"…not a model to be imposed on schools but rather a broad blueprint for ongoing improvement in school organization and good practice." v It should be obvious that there is no silver bullet for building and sustaining change. Each school must investigate best educational practice and research and apply them to its own situation. But openness to new ideas and adaptability within one's school culture can increase the probability for success in designing a personalized learning community.

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i Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, New York, NY: Double/Currencv, 1990.
ii J.G. Brooks and M.G. Brooks, In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.
iii National Research Council, How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press, Washington D.C. 1999.
iv James W. Keefe and John M. Jenkins, Personalized instruction: Changing classroom practice. Larchmont, NY, Eye On Education, 2000.
v Ibid.

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