Reflections on Personalized Learning, Self-Directed Learning, and “Teaching”

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This entry extends my thinking about different forms of customized learning. I originally began articulating my ideas in an approximately 2000-word post in the eLearning Ecologies MOOC community update stream on Common Ground Scholar. (To read that post click the following title: “Teacher/Learner Agency and ‘Customized’ Learning”). The Scholar website comprises community pages (including my post) that are linked to a Coursera MOOC, e-Learning Ecologies. I am in the process of completing my work in the final module. (To earn a certificat for the course, we post four 300-word-minimum “updates” on concepts in the course, posted on either Coursera or Scholar and we must must peer-review similar posts by three other MOOC participants in each each of four units.) I chose to do all of my updates on Scholar because it’s a bit more flexible. I must also admit that was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of “community” on Scholar, although I can’t say that I’ve found it to be as vibrant or helpful as I had anticipated. There are a couple of folks with whom I’ve exchanged comments and agreed to connect as a “peer.” As it turns out, the “peer” status is, in fact, little more than facilitated communication through the website, and it does not provide a good mechanism for the connected co-creation of knowledge. At any rate, eLearning Ecologies is is definitely an xMOOC, not a cMOOC. To be expected, I guess.

At any rate, my Common Ground Scholar update (link above) is on the seventh of seven “affordances” that the teachers, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, lay out in the course. They say that these affordances are important for “e-Learning Ecologies” and that they will shape the future of education. The particular affordance that is the general subject of my post is “differentiated learning,” a term that I find to be somewhat problematic. It corresponds to a designation used in Special Education regarding students with particular cognitive or physical needs, for whom a teacher is obligated to devise a “personalized learning plan.” I understand that Cope and Kalantizis are using the term “differentiated” in a more abstract or general way, without specific regulatory implications. Their intention is to evoke an approach where learners are not all treated the same. However, by employing a label that has precise technical, legal and educational denotations, they obscure that general meaning.

That’s why, in my Scholar post, I speak in some detail to distinguish between four kinds of “customized learning.” (Differentiated learning is one of those terms; the others are adaptive learning, individualized learning and personalized learning. ) The idea that I end the Scholar update is personalized learning, which I then proceed to assimilate to self-directed learning and autonomous learning, as if those labels are approximately the same thing. While it is true that all of these terms suggest a degree of learner agency and a focus on addressing learners’ needs, there are nuances and distinctions to draw among personalized, self-directed and autonomous learning. This ISTE webpage is helpful for drawing some of those distinctions:  “Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning.”

As one thinks about personalized learning when grouped together with individualized and differentiated learning, what jumps out about those terms? It’s the adjective in the form of a past participle. That linguistic construction suggests the passivity of the learner. It’s like the passive voice, where the agent is not, grammatically speaking, the actor in the sentence. That is, it’s not tantamount to saying “the learner personalized his or her own learning.” Rather, it’s: “The learning was personalized.” By whom? We don’t know. Yet what seems abundantly clear is that the learner is not in a leading role. It is implied the the personalization was done by someone else for the learner. In this, it is analogous to “differentiated learning” and “individualized learning.” Who does the differentiating or the individualizing? In the case of the former, it is clearly the teacher who discerns and adapts instructional planning according to the needs of the learner. In the case of the latter, even if the learner has some control, particularly of pacing, she or he is not really striking out on a unique, individual, path that she or he decides on. The teacher (or corporations of teachers) will draw up the map and plot the navigational charts, determining the learning trajectory, including each and every stop along the way. For that matter, even the fourth form of learning  that I mentioned, adaptive learning, agency belongs largely to those who create the learning content (activities, tasks, tests, standards of assessment, etc.) and to those who create the algorithms that manage the adaptive system.

Now, it’s true that there are other ways of thinking about it, for example when personalized learning is part of, say, a personal learning environment (PLE) or similar setup. There, it is the learner who is largely in control of the learning pathways and modalities. Sure, some parameters and functionalities of the personal learning environment are determined by the institution that hosts and facilitates it. Yet, the learner can still choose which lines of research to pursue, which connections to make, which artifacts to display as a demonstration of learning. The learner chooses with whom to collaborate and how to communicate.

Despite the availability of a plethora of personalized tools and approaches, it seems to me that most formal learning in the early 21st century remains almost completely under the control of folks other than the learner. In one sense, such has always been the case, whether in the pedagogy of the Ancient World (tutors who guided the development of individual young men in families of a certain status) or Church-dominated schooling and university education in the late Middle Ages in Europe, which dictated a certain ordered curriculum for all souls in their care, or the nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of production-line education, ostensibly constructed following scientific principles to produce large-scale optimal efficacy in learning. In these earlier learning models, the learner — who is, after all, the one best suited to say whether or not the concepts and information being presented make sense or the skills acquired seem firmly seated and have “stuck” (to echo a recent book on learning) — is treated more as a passive consumer or as a creature to be shaped and conditioned by others than she or he is considered an active agent doing what makes sense to her or him.

Here, then, is why I think that self-directed learning or autonomous learning is a better option in general. First, it is obvious to me that when the learning is meaningful and relevant, it is more likely to be effective and have lasting impact. (A situation that stands in contrast to imposed, obligatory learning that has little direct relevance to the learner’s life and connects in no way with her or his interests.) We learn most effectively and enduringly by connecting new learning to what we already know. Most human beings learn best by allowing our curiosity to draw us into a dialogue of inquiry and investigation, where we explore or uncover new aspects of topics that we are to focus on, which we then investigate or figure out, in order to make them comprehensible and meaningful for ourselves. My credo: Intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation. Self-regulation is better and more effective than arbitrary standards and pressure from others. Enthusiastic engagement stimulates and supports exciting, resonant, durable, meaningful learning more effectively than do fear or anxiety or grades.

Secondly, I believe that learners have a certain insight, a certain wisdom, if you will, about what learning they need to do. A 20-year-old intending to enter into the digital job market is likely to have at least as good an insight into what skills are most important for her or him to develop as a 50-year-old teacher who may not fully understand the implications of the digital economy. At the very least, the real learning needs probably need to take into account the learner’s insights and perceptions and weigh them appropriately and consider them in context. Teachers ought to be guides and coaches who support learning, not drill instructors moving learners through a restrictive, pre-defined obstacle course. Forcing all learners to follow approximately the same trajectory, leading to the same exit ramp seems foolish.

This is even clearer when we have the honesty to admit that the curriculum, that obstacle course that learners must pass through, is generally developed and modified in a haphazard and, frankly, slapdash manner, pushed here by one discipline’s standards and twisted there by some trustee’s personal priorities. In most cases, this process happens without teachers, faculty (whether tenure-track or contingent), psychologists, theoreticians of education, politicians or anyone else actually talking to each other and committing to an overarching design that serves learners first and foremost. Curricula are thrown together in a kind of free-for-all jostle for influence and discipline-focused, obsessive-compulsive insistence on certain processes, canonical sets of knowledge content and bits and pieces of standards and criteria. It is very rare that major curricular elements, courses, graduation requirements, educational frameworks, or teaching philosophies take a long-term, learner-centered, holistic view of learning. Rather, faculty in different disciplines compete for resources and prestige, keeping one eye on their discipline (usually very narrowly defined) and the other on their power and influence in academic governance. In all honesty, this is not a dynamic that makes for optimal learning plans or platforms.

The outcome of the crashing and grinding of these pressures, these tidal movements, all enacted by right-thinking, well-intentioned folks, leads to a mishmash that sometimes works for learners, sometimes motivates and transforms learners, but more often does not. Sometimes they produce life-sustaining toolkits, but more often they do not. Sometimes, they promote real engagement with the real world, with high levels of critical thinking and solution-producing skills. Mostly, though, it’s a muddle that serves a small number of learners very well. I submit to my fellow faculty and fellow teachers that we ought to be more focused on learners’ need for self-determination and self-fashioning than on our own need to affirm our authority or to control the classroom, the curriculum, or the Academy. After all, many teachers’ only real authority is based on disciplinary competence, but not on a deep and committed understanding of the complex process of learning. Teachers teach. They don’t necessarily foster learning. On the other hand, learners need help developing their learning. They need support, succor, encouragement, guidance. But not diktats.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot force learning. Whether we are aware of the fact or not, whether we admit it or not, we can’t really teach students. At most, we can inspire learners to follow the learning paths that we propose, to do the activities that we organize, to engage with the ideas, theories, values, frameworks and information that we present. In the end, though, it is the students who do the cognitive work of learning, of knowledge creation, of skills practice. Most of the ones who teach — including me — are not better equipped than our students to manage, assess or quantify their deep and durable learning. Most of us don’t know how learning, memory, or cognitive processing works. We don’t really understand what learning means to our students or what it feels like to the individuals we teach. Heck, most of us can’t even offer them very good advice for overcoming learning challenges. And since in the real cognitive work of learning, learners must forge meaningful connections for themselves, “teaching” is little more than the context in which our students do their cognitive work. If we are honest, we will recognize that our classroom context, our performance as teachers,  is far from optimal for supporting resonant, meaningful, deep-seated and durable learning. We can’t do the cognitive work for them, so why do we put ourselves in the driver’s seat and tell our passengers to shut up and enjoy the ride, whether it makes sense to them or not, whether it proves useful to them or not, whether it takes them along a road they want or need to explore or not, whether it seems worthwhile and interesting to them or not?

I acknowledge that education (whether primary, secondary or, in my case, postsecondary) is not only about personalized learning or self-directed learning. I know that there are other values that must enter into the process, including economic utility, disciplinary standards of truth-finding and truth-telling, specific skillsets for certain kinds of endeavors, and a contribution to the broad social good. I know that nation-states and potential employers have needs that must be met. I recognize that institutions have a moral obligation to obey laws, to follow rules and to heed the advice of state or federal departments of education, accrediting agencies and so forth. But the simple fact of the matter that all of those layers of obligation and rules, institutional imperatives and prescribed processes… are far removed and, in many cases, unconcerned about what ought to be at the center of the enterprise: learning. When we talk about assessment, are we truly thinking first and foremost about how meaningful and impactful learning is for students? When we devise general education requirements and lists of courses required for completing a particular major, are we really thinking about helping students engage in the process of knowledge creation? Are we truly, in our heart of hearts, motivated by a desire to create a love of learning, a desire to inquire, investigate and critique? When we talk about “promoting critical thinking,” do we really know what we are talking about? Are we truly willing to allow learners to exercise their critical judgments? Do we take seriously their questioning of our authority to dictate curricula?

I think that we (teachers at my own and other universities, scholars who lecture in the classroom and grade students, teachers in high schools, members of boards of education, the Secretary of Education and the plethora of undersecretaries) …we have a long way to go before we can honestly say that “learning” is at the heart of what we do. Whatever our rhetoric or our marketing message, most of us truly do not taken the autonomy and the intellectual merit of learners seriously. We believe that we are more qualified than they are to judge the effectiveness and the value of their learning, when it’s just untrue. Yes, we are qualified as disciplinary specialists. We are qualified as organizers and presenters of information. We are highly qualified as experts who can create testing artifacts that give us a sense of control over the learning experience. But are we truly, sincerely, honestly and effectively focused on learning per se? Not so much. If we were, we would give learners a hell of a lot more say in their own learning. We’d figure how to be truly effective as the “guide on the side,” supporting learners, advising them, and guiding them. But lecturing? Meh. Giving short-answer or multiple-choice or essay tests based on what *we* think they should know? Bof. That’s not learning. That’s “teaching.”

I simply don’t want to “teach” any more.


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