Sunday 20 August 2017 News Updated at 01:08 PM IST
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Towards a better version of schooling - Deccan Herald
Towards a better version of schooling
Rahul Raghavan,
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Process in personalised learning, educators spend a lot of their time observing the children learning individually guiding them when they need help and documenting their observations digitally. DH photo
Young children have a natural, voracious appetite to learn new things. We don’t need to teach children their native language inside the walls of a classroom; they absorb it just by being exposed to it. In fact, the progressive educator John Holt began his bestselling book How Children Fail in 1964 with words from the psychologist William Hull: "If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.”

The majority of students today are bored, disinterested, sullen and fearful. Yet, outside school, these same children develop deep personal connections with their areas of interest and cultivate great expertise. This emotional bond with the object of learning automatically increases retention, curiosity and depth of knowledge. Sadly, however, inside the one-size-fits-all environment of today’s schools, the individual passions of young children are rarely harnessed.

Over the last few years, a new wave of entrepreneurs and educators are reimagining what a school should be using a more child-centric approach called personalised learning. Personalised learning has become an increasingly popular trend globally, attracting investments from luminaries like Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen and Mark Zuckerberg.

So what is personalised learning? Personalised learning is an approach to education that fundamentally shifts the relationship between the teacher and the student. In personalised learning, the student defines and owns his own learning plans based on his interests and abilities, while the teacher serves as an observer, facilitator and guide. In practical terms, this creates a highly customised approach that values each student as a unique individual.

To each her own
Each student works on a customised, curated lesson plan on their individual laptops rather than blindly following a prescribed textbook with the teacher and the rest of his class. These lesson plans are created by educators with students and their parents, taking into account the student’s academic level, interests and aspirations. This helps students truly involve themselves in what they will learn. Consequently, they take ownership of their own learning goals (rather than having the goals dictated to them by the teacher). In turn, the approach also enables educators to truly discover and foster their students’ passions.

In personalised learning, educators spend a lot of their time observing children learning individually, guiding them when they need help and documenting their observations digitally. Thus, when a new educator works with a child who has been with the school for years, she has a rich, textured portrait of an individual to serve as the foundation for the new relationship. Further, individuals with similar interests or complementary skills can easily be paired to work on group projects, so that they can learn from each other.

Assessments are treated very differently in personalised learning. In our schools, exams have become tools to 'brand’ children as smart or not, as opposed to being used as inputs to help children improve. In personalised learning, students only progress to more complex topics after they have demonstrated a high level of competency. Assessments are treated as inputs for educators to prioritise their time with individual students for one-to-one help. Further, students who have demonstrated their understanding are not held back from progressing quickly. In personalised learning, it is common to see students of the same age studying topics of vastly different complexity across subjects.

Thus, the concept of a 'class’ where all children progress together is completely dissolved in personalised learning, which instead respects and celebrates the individual’s abilities and interests.

Further, mixed-age environments are essential for the personalised learning experience - it is only in today’s schools that individuals are lumped together based on their age; in personalised learning, children of a range of ages interact and work together, learning from each other and collaborating in teams.

No restrictions
Personalised learning respects the fact that learning can happen anytime and anywhere. We all know that learning does not necessarily take place in small chunks of 40 minutes; yet, from the time of the industrial era, our schools have deemed it fit to have up to 10 periods of classes a day where children keep switching from one subject to the next. How then can our children ever build their attention spans to become engrossed in any single topic?

In personalised learning approaches, flexibility is paramount. Students have the freedom to work individually or in small groups, and have the power to decide how best to allocate their learning time to meet their learning goals. Further, educators employ different resources suited to different learning styles, rather than using the same prescribed textbooks for all students.

Unfortunately, the classroom agenda in schools today is dictated by teachers who feel bound by rigid textbooks, timetables and administrators. The student’s learning experience is treated as secondary to the convenience of adults. It is little wonder then that they become bored, disinterested and passive recipients of knowledge. Instead, if students are involved in making choices about their learning journeys, they can transform to active learners with high ownership in learning outcomes.

Technology helps create the backbone to personalised learning: from helping educators document their observations of students’ progress to creating personalised learning plans for each student with rich digital portfolios.

Yet, as the great British educator Ken Robinson once said, "Learning happens in minds and souls, not in databases of multiple-choice tests.” In this spirit, rather than being a mere application of technology, personalised learning truly celebrates the creativity and independence of both the educator and the student. This is an idea whose time has come for India to embrace.

(The author is co-founder, PEP School v2, Bengaluru)