Personalizing Learning, Teacher-Student Relationship

Personalizing Learning - what's old is new again

April 14, 2021

By Michael Maser

Education has long been enmeshed in an obvious but elusive binary, the Teacher-Student relationship, leading to different views about how educators consider teaching and nurturing learning. The dominant view—that of modern education—has been impersonal: students strive to meet curriculum goals normalized to pre-determined standards. Another view sees each student possessing distinct personal characteristics and a unique learning history. Based on this, educators adjust their pedagogical approach so that learning tasks more personally engage this student or that one. 

The Teacher-Student binary is still prevalent across education, presenting challenges for educators wishing to encompass both options. In this short piece, I reflect on 30 years in education pondering this scenario and now researching it for my PhD studies. 

I was swept up into the binary nature of the Student-Teacher relationship during my first high school teaching job. My contract was unequivocal: I was to meet curriculum guidelines and grade and sort students. Personalizing learning for individual students didn't enter into it. Yet I hesitated, especially when reflecting on my own learning experiences. I saw individuals in those faces in front of me, and as I got to know them I modified my pedagogy to attune to each individual student, if only just a little. I can't say it was a grand success, but I believed it made a positive difference.

From this experience, my interest in personalizing learning was set in motion, and I haven’t wavered since in my commitment to it. I helped found two BC schools oriented to personalizing learning and pioneer approaches. At first, though, the experience was very isolating for me and my colleagues. Innovating in education can be a challenging proposition.

Times have changed. Personalized learning is a rising tide in many educational jurisdictions across North America. In British Columbia, “PL” is an important element of the revised K-12 curriculum as overseen by the Ministry of Education, guiding educators to consider different approaches to personalizing learning. These approaches are framed as “Universal Design for Learning,” “Differentiated Learning,” and “Response to Intervention”—approaches based on criteria drawn from learning sciences, whole-child approaches, and ways to optimize flexibility to individual learners. PL approaches are aided by IT developments that afford “anytime, anywhere” learning, as well as by social media platforms and other developments emerging as fast as you can imagine them. 

One might think PL is a remarkable new approach to supporting learning, but personalized approaches date back to at least the Victorian era. In the late 1800s, British homeschooling advocate Charlotte Mason crafted a series of manuals to engage students' personal interests in literature, social studies, nature, and more. 

In the early 1900s, personalizing learning was steamrollered by standardized approaches to schooling advocated by industrialist Frederick Taylor. But philosophers like John Dewey urged educators to learn about students' lives and take them into consideration in education planning. Dewey's pleas, and those of others supporting forms of personalized learning, resonated in BC in the 1930s, 1960s, early 1990s (following the “Sullivan” [Royal] Commission in 1987), and of course, more recently.

Since beginning my education career in the 1990s, I like to think I've played a small role in advancing personalized learning in BC. Now I'm eager to move beyond my pioneering, practitioner role to that of researcher. Scant research exists about personalizing learning, so I hope to provide insights to better understand what it is and isn't, when it might be helpful, and how educators might consider adopting it in their praxis. I hope my research also provides insights for students and parents who may have heard of PL and think it might be a good fit or a worthy experiment. 

My research plans are to complete a phenomenological exploration of PL in the coming year— following several students, educators, and parents—and deepen my understanding of this experience for them in their learning lives. I'm excited to begin this next phase of my educational journey. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted education in ways I could not have imagined. That said, I've noted many reports profiling how the pandemic has occasioned a shake-up of standardized schooling and prompted many to recognize students of all ages as persons with unique learning dispositions, interests, quirks, and gifts. Research into personalized learning can make an important contribution to understanding this most recent development.

About the author:

Teaching mainly in BC, Michael Maser is an award-winning career educator who first adopted personalized learning in the early 1990s. He has never looked back since, especially after co-founding two innovative schools grounded in personalized approaches. His PhD research at SFU comprises a phenomenological study of personalized learning in various BC schools.