Ironically, the way that children learn best is not new information. This concept isn’t some breaking news story that is challenging everything we have always known about learning. Educators have always worked with these principles in mind. The understanding of how children learned best grew roots back in the early 1900s with the work of a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky. His theories help solidify the need of a teacher or facilitator in a Personalized Learning Environment (PLE). He believed that all functions that children have appear in two separate phases, “first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level.” This concept strengthens our understanding of why constant check-ins and anecdotal observations guide so much of a teacher’s planning and instruction in a PLE. Teachers must first notice or create an environment where a student experiences a learning opportunity, and then they can intervene and model appropriate strategies to make sure that when that same student encounters a similar challenge he or she has the understanding of how to approach the task. In Fulton County, we associate this sequence with the Personalized Learning Principle of Just-in-Time Direct Instruction.
Along with Just-in-Time Direct Instruction, the act of Co-planning Learning supplies the perfect balance. Once again, this isn’t new information or a new process. The work of John Dewey encapsulated this belief dating as far back as 1899. Dewey rejected the fact that external rewards served as sufficient motivation. He understood that intrinsic motivation is what fueled the learning process. When a child feels included in the process of their education, then you see a different student emerge. You see a student who sees value in their work and efforts. A student who now is developing skills that they can transfer outside of the classroom. This intrinsic drive is a sustainable motivation in contrast to one that is dependent on grades and other types of rewards. That kind of external motivation can often put a period on a child’s experience.
That is where the work of Carol Dweck builds so beautifully on Dewey’s research. She elaborates on his concept and introduces the idea of reinforcing a child’s self-image of having a Growth Mindset versus a Fixed Mindset. This Growth Mindset helps children as they continue to take ownership of their learning behaviors. It allows them to partner with teachers and see that as they set, monitor, and reflect on learning goals that the process of learning can eventually belong to them. This environment is an empowering one to establish inside of our schools as opposed to models where students feel as if learning is something that teachers dispense when they feel it is appropriate for the entire class.
In the more recent past, attempts at personalization and doing what was best for learners sometimes got muddy. There were paradigms that came along to help teachers differentiate the way that they delivered instruction or asked students to demonstrate their understandings. You might remember teachers asking you things like, “Do you learn best by seeing the information or by hearing it?” Or maybe you remember filling out surveys that pigeonholed you as an “Intrapersonal Learner” or labeled you as being “Mathematically Minded.” The issue that we see with this is that it limits the child. Someone labeled as being “Verbal/Linguistic” according to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences would naturally shy away from tasks that required Mathematical thinking. Or even worse, a person who identified themselves as an auditory learner would lose out on the skills developed in the other lobes of the brain such as problem-solving and understanding language. The same goes for a visual learner who now is focusing all of their brain power on the parietal lobe and neglecting the temporal lobe that facilitates memory.
That is why teachers are diverting from this practice and focusing more on Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. These guidelines focus more on the what, how, and why of learning. These guidelines focus on how students access and process information, how they express what they know and understand, and how each student engages with the content and concepts within a lesson. These more certain pathways into the essence of a learner help teachers as they facilitate the process of learning. It is this attention to detail that has led us out of the efficiency model that has dominated our schools since the Industrial Revolution to our Personalized Learning Environments that are more effective means of working alongside children.
Imagine the sketches of Renaissance put into the hands of aerospace engineers of today. The whole time DaVinci knew what a gyroscope needed to fly. Now the men and women at Lockheed Martin can take his ideas to a deeper level. This evolution of belief is the legacy of personalized learning as a model for how learners learn best as described 100 years ago by the likes of Dewey and Vygotsky. It is this legacy of partnership and support. A legacy now coupled with the science of metacognition and motivation. We have traveled beyond opinion and belief. We are no longer committing to work with children based on beliefs. We have emerged in a place of science. A place where if we ignore the work in front of us we could be guilty of malpractice. Educational Malpractice.