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Personalized Learning a Path to Innovation?

February 23, 2012   

Jonah Lehrer posed an interesting question in the article “Cultivating Genius” in Wired this month (March, 2012):

            “How can we increase the pace of innovation?”

In examining some of the hotbeds of innovation and talent over the centuries – Athens between 440 and 380 BC, and Florence between 1440 and 1490 for example, he posits that it is not just coincidence that so many new ideas, innovations and artistic masterpieces arose from these locations in these short periods of time. One element he identifies as having a significant influence is education.

“All of these flourishing cultures pioneered new forms of teaching and learning. Medieval
Florence saw the rise of the apprentice-master model, which let young artists
learn from veteran experts. Elizabethan England made a concerted effort to
educate its middle-class males.”

Fast forward to early 21st century America, and consider what new forms of teaching and learning have the potential to create the same kind of innovation surge. I believe that Personalized Learning, especially when enabled through access to technology communication tools and robust networks has this potential.

At the Model Schools Conference in 2010, I was able to hear about New Hampshire’s bold educational reform efforts. The state board of education eliminated seat time – imagine – the demise of the Carnegie Unit!  But that is not all. They also made it possible for students to earn credit for work that they do outside of the classroom. So, if a student is a gymnast, for instance, they may not need to take a PE class if they can offer proof to a teacher-coach that they achieved mastery on the required standards. Or, if a student volunteers at the local science museum, they could earn credit in a similar manner. Or – if they work as an intern with professionals in various fields, there would be more opportunities to earn credit . The final piece of this reform package was to switch to standards-based grading.  Our presenter estimated that within 5 years, schools would begin to look very different as a result of these changes. Students wouldn’t be grouped by age, and not all would be in school every day.  Teachers would shift more into the role of coaches.

To me, this is the power of personalized learning. Students learn what they want, when they want, how they want.  The school district and state would still guide student learning through the standards, but the path to mastery would look different for every child.

Could this be the impetus for a “hotbed of innovation” in the future, as change takes hold? What do you think?