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The 1st Element of Personalized Learning: Learner Profiles

We said in a prior post that Personalized Learning is not easy. But it is what is needed to prepare our children for tomorrow. Any student of culture will tell you that there have been gradual but immense changes in student profiles. Fifty years ago almost no one cared how a person best learns. Besides, there are limits a teacher of 30 students can do, especially beginning in Middle School. In the 'good ol days', teachers lectured. They still do. Students tried to listen. They also asked a very occasional question. It was great for auditory learners, but everyone else (like the author) had to trudge their way through. If we could hear something and then recall it on a multiple choice test, or (heaven forbid!) fill in the blank, we could be an A student. If not, we settled for B's and C's. Teaching today's students - you know, the ones who will be running the world in 25 years - must be tailored to those we are trying to equip. We have an urgent mandate: teaching must become individual, technical, practical, and heavy on leadership and mentoring. As we know, most of this cannot occur in the public school system, although there are a few attempting to breach the edges of it.

This is why plopping our children down in front of a computer screen, letting them work their way through the various levels of information will mostly yield undesirable results, aka, they will routinely fall behind and grow to hate school. And thus, the hard work of Personalized Learning must begin.

For review, the five elements of Personalized Learning are:

1. Learner Profile

2. Personal Learning Path

3. Flexible Environment

4. Individual Mastery & Competency

5. Student Voice and Choice

In this post we will consider the first element of Personalized Learning, the Learner Profile.

The Learner Profile is a thorough, data driven process, requiring the first few days of school to begin and then additional data is added as more information surfaces through observation, interaction, and conversation. It is time well spent for the sake of the student. It guides us in creating a learning path for each student and to set preliminary goals. As a result, the student is not wedged into a cookie-cutter routine that fits one student better than another.

The first part of the Learner Profile is typically done through conversation. Our desire is to understand a student's interests, strengths, skills, and how they can excel. As an ongoing discipline, we help the student connect what they are learning with what they care about. It answers most students' burning questions: "Why do I have to learn this? What good will it do?" These are also the most commonly asked questions among the 24% of students nationally who drop out of high school each year. It's a good one that deserves an answer.

We also try to learn a student's barriers to learning. They can be varied. Most common are difficulty focusing or concentrating. Perhaps they concentrate better alone, more isolated, with music. This student would have trouble in a typical classroom of 25-30 students. Perhaps sitting still is not their thing. Brilliance could be stifled by stillness. So, they need to move. Or it may be that they can't learn unless they are simultaneously solving a Rubik's Cube (I wish I could solve one). We don't need to change a child with barriers. Everyone has barriers. They may or may not grow out of some. Wouldn't it be better if they become confident in their own skin and help them discover how they can excel in spite of difficulties? That's called character.

This first part is informal, conducted mainly through conversation. Besides those mentioned above, some other areas that help us understand the student are their hopes and dreams, what they dislike or avoid, previous educational experiences, pets, what is it about school that makes it hard or easy for them, and what makes them happy or sad? There are others but clearly, this is not a one-time conversation. Some emerge through experience with the student.

These will tell us how the student can grow and learn. It is a vital part of Personalized Learning and one that is mostly impossible to incorporate in the public school setting.

The second part of the Learner Profile is the collection of data. This is done through testing, past report cards, and conversations with parents among others. These data indicate what level the student is at in a variety of subjects. In a standardized method of learning, an eight year old will be given third grade material, whether they are ready for that or not. We use a Personalized Learning framework so if that eight year old has a fourth grade reading level and a second grade math level, that's where we start for each subject. Also, because we are not anchored to a 'same-standard-for-all' framework, we look for gaps in their learning, and fill them. That accelerates the learning process overall, especially in cumulative subjects like math. Initial collection of data begins this process.

These two parts combine together to create a personalized learning path for each student. In the next blog about the 5 Elements of Personalized Learning, we will discuss the creation of that learning path.

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