Personalized learning is a hot topic in the field of education right now. Aside from some remote exceptions, the concept has struggled to gain broad adoption. Conversations with those working across the sector echo what we’re hearing from thought leaders – that there are some critical barriers hindering progress. The Industrial (or “Factory”) model has become so ingrained that many adults have the perspective, “it worked for me, so why change it?” Those who do see a need for change feel too overwhelmed navigating through resource, administrative and policy constraints. It’s tempting to wait for others to change first – to generate proof that it can be done. For some, there’s a lack of clarity on what personalized learning really means and how to implement it.
It may seem like largely unchartered territory to transform education – particularly public education – and move toward a more individualized approach. But if we broaden our view, there is a lot to be learned from other industries that have successfully embraced personalization. Think about entertainment. Companies like Netflix and Pandora tailor their suggestions to the preferences of each user, continuing to refine their understanding of you over time. Online retailers often include a section at the bottom of product pages with headings like “Others who purchased this item also bought.” Even more prevalent for most Americans today is our interaction with social media and professional networking sites, which curate our feeds and advertisements based on our activity history.
There’s a lot that education can learn from these seemingly unrelated industries. Design Thinking, which focuses on creative problem-solving, highlights the importance of truly understanding the user experience. Begin with empathy and stay focused on the end user. Observe how your perspective changes when you keep them at the center, rather than relying on your own assumptions. One approach to help unlock this new lens is through an analogous experience or inspiration. Learnings from completely disparate experiences can help you view your context with fresh eyes, and allow you to draw novel connections to the end users of a learning experience – students, parents and teachers. Other industries have also provided a blue print for how to best leverage new and emerging technology to enable more individualization, such as the interactivity of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home.
While learnings from other industries can inspire change, more is needed to sustain it. From Dr. John Kotter’s research, we know there are a few strategies that will increase your likelihood of success:
Clearly articulate the why. It’s not enough to say, “our current model isn’t working.” People follow leaders who communicate a vision for the future – one that is compelling, that captures people’s hearts and minds and that serves as a North Star. With this broader vision – which should be framed as an opportunity, rather than a crisis to be avoided – you stand a far better chance of bringing others along the journey with you to create sustainable change. Leaders can’t drive change alone. You need the power of many.
Bring the outside in. Transformation efforts can be overwhelming, particularly if you feel like you’re starting from scratch. There’s no need to recreate the wheel. Learn from other industries and the pioneers in education who have begun to innovate and experiment with personalized learning. This approach hasn’t taken over the Industrial model, but some schools and districts have started to rethink how they design the student experience. What have they done that’s working? What missteps did they make that you can avoid? What barriers have they overcome and how? Talk to others, do some research and be encouraged to discover the pockets of success that exist.
Leverage diverse perspectives. Education reform often falls to administrators, policy makers and funders. While these voices are important, they are missing some critical perspectives. Find ways to engage students, teachers and parents in conversation to understand what their ideal learning approaches would look and feel like. Perhaps invite people from the technology sector to help you think through how to optimize innovative solutions – they may be similar to solutions being implemented in other contexts. Bringing more unique vantage points together at the onset will lead to more creative solutions, and most likely, broader buy-in.
It’s easy to get mentally tangled in the uniqueness of your own context, but there’s often much to be gained by looking to others – whether that’s industries, stakeholders or peers. As the conversation around what’s next for education continues to percolate, it’s time for passionate leaders who believe in the power of personalized learning to find ways to innovate and act. Articulate why change is needed and learn from others within and outside the field of education – then, start somewhere, however small. Seed a success that others can be encouraged by and replicate, scaling change across the system.