All learning is personal. Regardless of the information we encounter, experiences to which we are exposed or examples we see, we only learn if we make a connection, experience some type of interaction or identify a context within which to place the experience. Every day, every minute and every second of our lives we encounter stimuli that could result in learning. Yet we only notice, engage and absorb a small portion of what we could learn.
In reality, the same stimulus might engage one person and go completely unnoticed or be rejected by another. Unless we are open and ready to learn; learning is not likely to happen. Herein lies the reason why the most compelling lecture, the most creative experiment or amazingly clear explanation typically engages only a portion of the class and generates learning for only a portion of students.
This dynamic presents a challenge to educators. We must create the conditions and environments that will offer the very best chances for individual learners to notice, engage and learn what they need to be successful. We can no longer “sow” information like the farmer of yesteryear and hope the “seeds” of knowledge will take hold and grow. Our challenge is to assure that learner connections and engagement occur with the highest frequency and greatest depth of meaning and purpose that can be mustered. This combination of increased frequency of learner connections and greater depth of engagement holds the secret to dramatically increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our educational efforts and system.
The research documenting the power of this approach is three decades old. Repeated research studies conducted by Benjamin Bloom and his graduate students at the University of Chicago showed that on average a personalized approach to instruction could dramatically improve the level of learning – two standard deviations or an average of 98% improvement – compared to traditional whole class instruction. Even more impressive, 90% of learners performed at a level equal to the top 20% in traditional classroom environments. (Bloom – Two Sigma Problem – Ed Leadership, May 1984) Unfortunately, at the time, Bloom did not see how it could be scaled. Thirty years ago we did not have access to the sophisticated technology tools available and under development today. Additionally, in the intervening years we have learned much about the brain, learning and teaching that promises to make personalized learning at scale within reach.
Still, we must start with a deep, rich understanding of the characteristics, learning preferences, interests, learning history and readiness of the learner. Without this understanding we cannot hope to increase the frequency and predictability of engagement and connections learners experience with what they are to learn.
Armed with this information and the active participation of the learner, we can dramatically increase the predictability of our efforts to engage learners in ways that result in connections, interactions and context building and new learning. In fact, we can co-design and construct with students a learning path that accelerates progress and deepens understanding for each learner.
This frame for thinking about learners and learning represents a fundamental shift from traditional, legacy education approaches. In this frame the learner is not a receptacle to be filled with information, knowledge and skills. Rather, the learner is seen as a resource to inform, accelerate and enrich his or her learning. Individual learners are seen as key resources to be understood and tapped to design strategies and experiences that will result in learning that has meaning and purpose, and that leads to mastery.
Further, the thinking frame of the learner as a resource positions us to consistently gain feedback on the effectiveness of the learning experiences we design and instruction we provide. After all, unless our actions make a positive difference to the learner, they are not effective. If we do not have access to what is working from the perspective of the learner, we cannot calibrate and otherwise adjust in ways that improve the effectiveness of our instruction and predictability of the learning outcomes we seek.
So, what does all of this mean? If we hope to dramatically improve learning quality and accelerate the rate at which learners progress, we must start by designing learning environments around what will be effective for the learner – and we must include the learner as a resource and active partner in this work. We know from research conducted decades ago that this approach holds the promise to make a dramatic difference in learning for virtually all types of learners. Our work is to scale this approach and support it with the strategies and tools to move it to the level of a system; not just an exception or “boutique” innovation without the capacity to reach all learners.