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The Journey Towards Personal Learning

January 25, 2022

"When will we ever escape the rut of outdated pedagogy?" asked an article in the Times Higher Education last week, as the UK Minister for education demanded that HEI's stick to the face-to-face lecture as the dominant model of teaching and learning.

Sigh. This is the same old discussion playing out again and again. All over the world, there is such energy and drive to innovate and reform education, but some things just take time, and what we have now is a fragmented approach where individuals and institutions seem to be at different stages of the journey, some stagnant, some exhausted, some convinced that they've already changed enough to serve a new generation of learners, and we have to wonder where it's all headed.

What are we talking about? Well broadly speaking, you can look at education reform as a journey from a point where the teacher, instructor or lecturer is at the centre of the experience, and progressing to a point where the learner is at the centre, and firmly in control. Where did it all start, and if we are heading towards a more personal learning experience, then what might that look like?

Waystage one: The Teacher Centred Classroom

Whether primary, secondary, further or higher education, we are using these words deliberately and consciously. The whole groups-of-learners-facing-a-teacher thing is pretty much how many people think of a learning environment.

The word "teacher" in English comes from the Old English word tæcan (to show or demonstrate), and that's pretty much the size of it. The teacher shows the learner what they think we need to know, filling our heads with knowledge as "empty vessels".

We have no choice in the subject matter, no voice in how it is taught, and though we can ask questions of the teacher and of others, this is pretty much the only act of agency we possess. No pause, no rewind, just response to stimuli, memorization and repetition. Transferring knowledge to someone can be done pretty well by a text, web page, video or book, and it is a tragic waste of a learning opportunity to have an esteemed scholar reading their PowerPoint to you instead of really lighting a fire of enquiry in you. That's why the back row are snoring.

Though most in K12 have left the teacher-centred approach to at least some degree behind them, many universities still hang on to it. There may be attempts to make it more active, with quizzes, warm up activities, or post-lecture discussions, but it is still essentially the same as it has been for centuries.

As one colleague once said to us in response, "perhaps they haven't changed it because it is working!". Unfortunately, we know from a mountain of evidence that this is neither the best way to learn, nor is it helping learners develop their own passions, critical voices and agency as a lifelong learner.

Waystage two: The Learner Centred Environment

We've consciously dropped the word "classroom" at this point, because learning environments at this stage can be a bit broader, and we really should be dropping these industrial-era words as we start to reimagine what a learning space can actually be.

This is a major shift, and it is the stage at which you are likely to find the majority of mainstream K12 schools and more progressive colleges and universities.

At this point, we as educators do not start by thinking about what we want to teach, and how to support them to learn, but rather how to create opportunities for our learners to figure out what they might like to know and how they might like to learn it.

In the medieval universities of Europe, there was a bit of a blurred line between churches and education institutions, and both looked pretty much the same with a man (beard optional, but recommended) standing behind the lectern and delivering a sermon or a lecture in pretty much the same way.  

During the Protestant reformation in Europe, the new churches of Luther and Calvin saw the ministers move to the side of the stage, acting vicariously between God and the congregation (which is where the word "vicar" comes from) as an intermediary. The idea was that they facilitated but did not control your interaction with the divine, whereas in Catholicism, the priest stood front and centre as the authority and the word; a gatekeeper of sorts.

Student centred education is like this too, though it took another 450 years for educators to move to the side. The educator worked on reducing the focus on themselves, and looked instead at how to create more student-led activities and learning opportunities, where they might support and guide rather than dictate how you progressed in your learning.

It is here you find much more collaborative work, problem-solving, enquiry, experiential learning and a lot of other good stuff, even if the overall structure of the learning journey itself is still pretty rigid, there is at least some flexibility in how learners get there.

Waystage three: The Learner Directed Environment and Personal Learning

It's getting tricky. We are out on the edges here, but we happen to like the view.

This environment is more fluid, and that can be quite intimidating to educators who often have to learn new skills and approaches, but it's exciting too.

Imagine a setting where the learner is free to pursue their curiosity and passions, and the educator helps to scaffold the learning around that in a proactive way. The learner is free to iterate, reflect, ask for help, co-create ways to extract learning from each part of the process, and do so on their own terms. Online, offline, in the formal learning environment or out in the world, and most often a combination of all these things.

Learners at K12 up to university would be expected to work at their own pace, under their own direction; customizing their own learning experiences to fit passions and interests that motivate them.

The educator here is supporting the whole climate, culture and context of learning, but the direction comes from the learner themselves. Believe it or not, this is compatible with most state-imposed curricula, albeit with time to make the transition. It does not happen overnight, but it is worth the effort.  

Some institutions like the Steiner Waldorf schools have been doing this for a long time, though as their educators stay with the same cohort of learners until they are 14 or 15, there is a lot of time to build understanding of what each learner might need to flourish. Other learning environments, such as the Green School in Bali, are already demonstrating solid results and expertise in personal learning approaches.

This is the final step towards personal learning, where the learner is always engaged in what is relevant and meaningful to them, and the learning is built and scaffolded around them. A lot of noise is made about technology as the essential element to support such a complex approach, but people do get a bit caught up in AI and flexible LMS, and forget one essential thing: you can't remove the person from personal learning.

Technology is a tool, and it will be essential for institutions that move to a personal learning environment, but it is not the sum of all things. Teachers at this stage become mentors and guides, and their skill and experience is a critical success factor.

In our NEOchats with Birgit Lao, Ambassador to Estonia's Ministry of Education, she told us that her bold vision was to move towards a personal learning approach for all Estonian K12 institutions by the end of the decade.

Universities, again, are more reluctant to make this shift because of the weight of formal accreditation and the cost efficiency of having cohorts move in lockstep through the same content. Some, however, are introducing personal learning programs for some specific areas, such as Essex County College in New Jersey, which has transformed high fail rates in mathematics by reimagining the entire thing as a personal learning program.

And you?

Where is your institution on the journey, and where are you? Every week on our NEOchats Podcast and Video, we'll be talking to the people pushing education forward, so there's always a bit of inspiration to send you into the weekend. Sign up on Spotify or follow-on LinkedIn to receive notifications, and join us as we explore the journey of education innovation and reform together.

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