By: Jeff Heyck-Williams

One of the big buzzwords in education reform at the moment is personalized learning.  While the term means lots of different things to lots of different people, my first introduction to the idea was at schools where personalized learning meant large rooms with kids in front of computers working on their own individualized playlists near each other but not really interacting.  I have come to appreciate that personalized learning can be much more than what these students experience.  At its best, personalized learning is learning experiences defined by a deep understanding of each learner’s profile, multiple paths to the same common goals of student success, and flexibility with the pace at which learners demonstrate mastery.  A vision for schools that we should all be striving towards.

However, that initial experience with students spending large parts of their day working on computers on individualized playlists has given me pause.  It has given me pause because in our effort to personalize learning, we have lost sight of what is core to the learning experience.  As both renowned educational philosopher, John Dewey, and developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, have suggested, learning is a social activity.  However, in the name of personalized learning, students are not interacting around the content that they are learning, and thus they are losing the greatest benefit of a school, the learning community.

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At Two Rivers one of our core values states that we “Learn Better Together.”  We believe that our work is improved by considering multiple perspectives and making meaning together.

There are a few practical implications to this core value.  First, students need to have meaningful experiences and dialogue about what they are learning if we want them to develop deep and lasting understanding of concepts.  This is why we work collaboratively in discussing literature, solving math problems, and developing projects.

Secondly, we aren’t so naïve as to think that students already know how to work collaboratively together.  Rather we recognize that collaboration is a life-skill that must be taught and nurtured over time.  For this reason, we spend time teaching students how to work together to solve problems.

Finally, we believe that collaboration cannot best be mediated through a screen.  While technology affords new ways to collaborate over space and time, we continue to have a need for face-to-face human interactions.  Students learn to read social cues and develop deeper collaboration and communication skills only through day-to-day personal connection with other people.

In our rush to grab onto the next thing and actualize it in our schools, I hope that we don’t forget the central role of collaboration and social interaction in learning.  While I am all in favor of personalized learning, it cannot be implemented at the expense of personal connections in the learning process.