Choice for Personalized Learning

By Tim Clark on Fri, 1/22/2016
Picture of member, Tim Clark

Tim Clark
Vice President of Learning Innovation, SAFARI Montage

This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Choice helps students to feel more personally connected to their learning. Making meaningful choices engages students in determining the processes and products involved in their learning. Facilitating student choice involves more than providing options for learning that are predetermined by the teacher that marginally differentiate the learning experience. In personalized learning, the choices are intrinsically significant for each student and assist learners in understanding unfamiliar content by making the material more attainable and relatable. There are particular interconnected qualities of effective choices that teachers should consider when designing learning opportunities.

Qualities of Choice

Relevant – Relevant choices can engage students in learning by empowering them to show what they know by using their own innate or acquired strengths and abilities. A choice is also relevant when it holds particular meaning for the student. This relevancy may be encompassed by the process, the product, and/or the content involved in the learning task. When choices are relevant to students, they may create products that showcase talents, such as particular skills with art or mathematics, or they may choose to focus on an aspect of the topic that they find especially interesting.

Authentic – When learning activities possess real world significance or meaning, they can provide authentic choices for students. These experiences enable students to select from various possible scenarios that will cause them to use specific skills, strategies, or content knowledge in order to solve real problems. Choices that encourage students to utilize what they have learned to delve into meaningful issues or problems and construct original solutions, can motivate students to persevere when tasks are difficult. Students will care more about a topic when they understand and appreciate its broader importance.

Competency-Based – Choices need to ensure that students will be able to show mastery of learning standards regardless of what task they choose to undertake. By completing a learning task, students should be able to demonstrate that they understand a particular concept or skill. Teachers and students need to design a variety of tasks that encompass the targeted learning standards, so that options are equivalent. After identifying the essential skills embedded within the standard, the teacher and student can collaboratively determine what processes or products could show understanding. Considering the complexity of learning tasks will also help teachers evaluate whether or not choices are comparable.

Student-Driven – Students have to learn how to make their own choices rather than solely relying on their teachers to decide for them. They may not be accustomed to making choices because most of their schooling has forced them to be passive learners. I have heard students ask, “Can you just choose for me?” By asking guiding questions, the teacher can help students learn how to choose learning tasks that they find motivating and yet involve the targeted learning standards. Students need to develop an awareness of their personal areas of strength and how to capitalize on those strengths in order to overcome their weaknesses.

Student-Generated – There needs to be an opportunity for each student to develop a personalized learning path, and it would be impossible for a teacher to be able to be aware of every possible route when designing instruction. Therefore, it is necessary to involve students in the design process for personalized learning. By including an option to Choose Your Own among the list of available choices, students are able to tweak an existing task or to develop an original proposal that encourages innovation and individuality. Ultimately, a goal of personalized learning is for students to learn how to make their own choices for every activity as they are presented with learning standards so that they can design their own tasks to demonstrate their understanding.

It would be difficult for a teacher to design dynamic choices for students in isolation; therefore it may be helpful for teachers to collaborate with their colleagues to develop a variety of learning tasks. If teachers are to address the above qualities of effective choices for personalized learning, they have to have a good understanding of their students. This understanding arises from purposefully nurturing a learning community within the classroom. By regularly conferencing with students, teachers can help them set goals and make choices that are necessary for personalized learning. The teacher also needs to model how to make good choices for students and to share their own personal interests and strengths. Being the lead learner and an engaged participant are roles the teacher must practice in the personalized learning ecosystem.