Thursday, July 26, 2012

Learners Making Sense of their Learning

Thought Leader Interview: Darren Cambridge

Darren Cambridge, Ph. D. is the Senior Consultant, American Institutes for Research and Director of Connected Educator. We asked Darren some questions about Personalizing Learning since that is one of the main topics during Connector Educator Month this August.

1) Why personalize learning?  
Learning is already always personalized. People learn differently based on their strengths, passions, dispositions, etc., whether or not they are taken into account by the institutions that are tasked with helping them learn. So, a first obvious reason we need to personalize support for learning is that learning is always personalized by the learner. Even is the most standardized environment, people learn--or don't--based on large part on their identity. There are lots of other reasons, of course: It's likely to motivate deeper and and more powerful learning, it's more likely to generate products of learning that have meaning and make a difference in the world, it's more fun, and so forth. 

Ultimately, though, for me personalization is strongly linked with what it means to be a democratic society. In a genuine democracy, at least as envisioned by the tradition of deliberative democracy and publics theory, institutional power needs to be responsive to the needs and desires of the people within it. That goes for governments and citizens, but, also, I think, for students and schools. We need to provide an opportunity for students to articulate their authentic identities and take those representations very seriously in making decisions about what's taught and how. A school needs to be a deliberative system where students have a meaningful opportunity to participate. 

2) What do you see as the difference between Personalization, Differentiation, and Individualization? Please refer to our chart.
I think you capture it very well. I might quibble a bit about how differentiation is handled--there are certainly times you might want to group learners and give them shared goals even in a truly competency-based system, for example--but the terms are so often used interchangeably that a bit of oversimplification isn't really a problem. It all comes down to putting the students' distinctive identities first and organizing what we do to maximize their role in shaping the learning environment. 

It is worth emphasizing the individualized and/or differentiated instruction is certainly an improvement, often a dramatic one, over the standard model. The question is, I guess, does shifting to one of the other two open the door for true personalization or diffuse energy that would move us in that direction? 

3) What is your vision for personalizing learning?
Over the last 15 years I've done a great deal of work with eportfolios. They've stayed compelling for me for so long because they offer a means for individual learners to share and shape their unique history, commitments, and aspirations through authentic of evidence of their experiences integrated across context--formal and informal, in and out of school, across subjects, and so forth. But that individual portrait of the learner isn't done in isolation. Rather, it's often framed in terms of a shared language about what we value, whether that's a set of learning outcomes, professional standards, competencies, or values. These shared categories serve as boundary objects that allow us to connect individual experience with collective action. 

I love the idea of enabling learners to make sense of their learning using more and more varied evidence. One of the things that intrigues me about the growth of learning analytics is that, done right, it could give students new ways to see patterns in their learning and to discuss them with teachers and others who are supporting them. We see this already outside of school in, for example, the quantified self movement. For teachers, too, learning analytics could help them more efficiently see patterns that allow them to understand and respond to individual student learning and identity. Data-driven decision making and personalization need not be at odds if computers' amazing ability to find patterns in complex data sets is used as a heuristic for sense making and decision making, rather than as a brute force replacement for engaging and honoring human experience and expertise. 
"I love the idea of enabling learners to make sense of their learning using more and more varied evidence."

4) How do you see schools moving from traditional instruction to Stage One and beyond?
I think it's got to be both bottom up and top down. Teachers likely can take steps towards personalization independently in their own classrooms in all but the most regimented schools, and without some of that local innovation, a larger scale initiative is likely to go no where. However, to move beyond just isolated practice, leaders need to identify where personalization is begin, nurture it, and put policies into place that help it spread. I think there's the same relationship between building and district or state level leadership. Top down initiatives are only likely to be effective if personalization is taking root at the school level in some places, but making it standard practice likely requires systemic support and policy reform that LEAs and SEAs can offer. 

Another key factor is assessments. There are so many incentives currently to be driven by test results, that I worry that mainstream personalization may not be possible until we institutionalize the kinds of innovative assessments that are being developed to align with the principles of personalized learning. I'm not optimistic that that will happen anytime soon, although it's possible the growing opposition to high stakes testing may accelerate change. 
I don't think we'll get what we need from PARC and Smarter Balance. The early word on their plans suggests that the resulting assessments may make individualization easier easier but not necessarily personalization.  

5) What type of school culture is needed for personalized learning?
I think you need to move toward a school culture that's democratic, caring, inquiry-focused, genuinely social, that enacts participatory leadership. There needs to be a tolerance for messiness and frankness and a willingness to constantly be iterating towards something that works. Building trust is huge, and that takes time and lots of reflection in dialog at all levels.  

6) How do the roles change for teachers and learners in a personalized learning environment?
As I moved towards increased personalization in my own teaching at the university level, students gained a great deal of agency but along with that came responsibility, and that's a real change for students used to a rigidly teacher-driven environment. I think many educators getting started with personalization as surprised when students resist--Aren't I making it possible for them to do what matters to them, and should they be head over heals about it?--but it take a while to unlearn expectations about how school is supposed to work. It's likely even more of a challenge in K12 than higher education. For teachers, it of course means given up some control, but, when that's done genuinely and with a sustained commitment I know teachers who wouldn't say they develop a richer and more rewarding relationship with students. 

7) How do you see leaders needing to be prepared to lead the change to a personalized learning environment?
Leaders have to be willing to give up some control, question assumptions, honor complexity, and productive engage the inevitable backlash. I worked for many years on promoting the scholarship of teaching and learning, and the key shift from being just a good teacher to being a scholar of teaching is to begin to take an inquiry approach to teaching: What do I want to better understand about how kids learn what I'm teaching, and how do I design my practice so that I gain more understanding and measure what what works in a way that helps me understand why? The same shift has to happen for leaders: Leaders need to see cultivating the shift to personalized learning as an inquiry process. What does it look like for these students, for this school? What do we need to understand better and how can we direct our innovation is a way that helps us gain that understanding? 

8) How do you envision Communities of Practice supporting personalized learning environments?
I think they have can play a role within such learning environments in at least two ways, and I think they can also work across them. First off, communities of practice work according to principles strongly aligned those of personalized learning: Their agenda is set by the members, knowledge is co-created out of sharing individual practice in a social context designed to support that sharing, and the definition of success can be reframed according to the path the community takes together. So, they are a logical space for making personalized learning social. Second, communities of practice can create one of the spaces for deliberative dialog mediated by rich representations of individual experience about what and how students should learn and how schools should work. In the best COPs, members develop a really strong understanding of each other's histories, dispositions, strengths, etc., that can enable the deliberative decision making process to take greater account of the whole person. Finally, communities of practice, particularly online communities of practice, can link educators across schools, districts, states, and globally. Doing personalized learning pervasively and well is still pretty new in K12 in the United States, and we need to figure out ways to circulate and articulate promising practices as well as reduce the isolation of early adopters. The research suggests that online communities of practice are one powerful means for doing that. 

Darren Cambridge 

Darren Cambridge, Ph.D., is senior consultant at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, DC, where he serves as project director and principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators initiative. He was previously a faculty member at George Mason University, a director at the American Association for Higher Education, and a fellow with EDUCAUSE.

He co-leads the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research and serves on the board of the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning. He has developed technical specifications IMS Global Learning Consortium and open source software through the Sakai Foundation. His work appears in a range of scholarly journals and books. He is author of Electronic Portfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment (Jossey-Bass, 2010), which won the MacArthur Foundations’ Digital Media and Learning Faculty Prize in 2012.

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