5 Shifts to Learner Roles in a Personalized Learning Environment


(This article originally appeared in the AWSA Update Bulletin)

by Jim Rickabaugh

The process of transforming learning in our schools from an industrial, assembly line model to a modern, learner-centered and learning focused approach involves much more than adopting an expanded set of instructional skills and strategies. It is not just one more thing that educators are asked to do. In reality, this transformation is about approaching the work of learning and teaching differently and implies some fundamental changes in the roles learners and educators play in the educational process.

We have written in previous columns about the rationale for personalizing learning and the corresponding shifts in instructional practice these shifts imply. In this column we will focus on learners and the shifts in role they experience as learning becomes a personalized, purposeful experience for them. However, it is important to remember that these shifts are less either/or and more matters of degree. It is about engaging in this work differently.

In the traditional system adults are expected to plan lessons, determine the pace of learning, decide the activities in which learners will engage, determine the path learning will take and decide how the learning will be measured. The problem with this model is that learning is a self-constructed process. Learning is not done to people. It is a process in which we must engage actively and intentionally. If someone else is making decisions about learning on our behalf and basing them on the needs and readiness of a group, inefficiency and uneven effectiveness are unavoidable.

Make no mistake: educators remain crucial to the learning process and still manage key elements of the learning cycle. The key difference is that learners begin to play a more active, influential role in decisions and options concerning the path they will take in their learning and the standards they will meet.

Shift #1: From being skilled students to becoming skilled life-long learners.
Traditionally, the education system supported students to accumulate facts: names, dates, places, titles, etc. This is understandable – when the current school system was designed, information was scarce and not easily accessed and society moved at a slower pace. Learners were asked to develop the skills and habits necessary to be successful in a teacher directed classroom, such as listening, taking notes, and completing pre-set assignments. However, classroom-based learning is only one of many contexts within which learners need to be able to learn once they leave formal education. The world for which we are preparing today’s learners will demand more than mastering content. Today information is generally free, easily accessible and of little value unless applied to build understanding, accomplish a task or solve a problem. This shift focuses on helping learners to build and practice a broader set of skills that will be needed in their career and life.

Shift #2: From having minimal input into their educational path to co-creating the path they will take.
In most schools learners make few important decisions about their learning. This shift positions learners to co-construct the path their learning will follow. Once standards to be achieved are clear and learners understand what they need to learn, they play active roles in setting goals for their learning, planning the activities that will help them achieve their goals, including activities in which they will engage and resources they may employ beyond what the teacher will provide. They also participate in determining how they and the teacher will monitor their progress and the ways in which they will demonstrate that learning has occurred and their goals have been achieved.

Shift #3: From being compliant learners to committed learners.
As learners increasingly have a say in the learning path they take and share responsibility for monitoring their progress, they naturally come to feel ownership and commitment for the results. Consequently, they are more likely to value and use what they learn in school and beyond. We know that the richest learning occurs when learners are interested in, passionate about and committed to mastering new skills and concepts. This growing sense of ownership also creates more openness to taking on new learning tasks and risks.

Shift #4: From experiencing “delivered” instruction to experiencing instruction as a shared responsibility between learner and educator.
Traditionally, we have thought about instruction as something that educators “deliver” to students. This process is based on the metaphor of learners as empty vessels to be filled by the knowledge of teachers. This shift recognizes that learners are key resources for their own learning and they can bring insights, resources and ideas to contribute to the instructional process. Educators offer frameworks, content, activities and support while learners can identify additional activities, processes and even content of interest and use to them to supplement and customize the instructional process.

Shift #5: From summative assessments designed to determine if learning has occurred to summative assessments that are demonstrations of mastery.
The traditional education system too often has left open the question of whether learning has occurred until the administration of a “high stakes” assessment administered after the completion of instruction. As we shift our focus increasingly to the learning process at the individual level, learners should be participating in ongoing formative assessments, receiving feedback, and reflecting and applying experience and new information. This makes the learning process much more visible. As a result, there is no reason for learners to engage in summative assessment activities until it is clear that the intended learning has occurred. In this shift, the final step in assessment becomes more of a demonstration and celebration of learning than a stress-filled, high-risk activity.