Personalization, personalized learning, and personalized mastery learning have been used to describe a vast range of initiatives, ideas, and platforms over the past few years — it has become the “next big thing” to reform education. Over nine years ago, Aveson Charter Schools opened its doors to create a Personalized Mastery Learning (PML) experience where teacher and student work in partnership with one another.
What is Personalized Mastery Learning and what has Aveson learned in its almost decade-long journey to pioneer and refine the PML vision?
In its most basic definition, Personalized Mastery Learning is when together, a teacher and a student define what is learned, how learning happens, and when mastery is reached. To visualize this definition, we use a continuum to show how it works.
On one end of the continuum, teachers make expert decisions on what is best for their students. On the other end, the conditions exist for students to drive their learning. In practice, most decisions lie in the middle – shared by teacher and student. This collaborative effort creates an environment where students enjoy the freedom to explore personal areas of interest and teachers can teach to the precise needs of their students. Teachers continually ask and answer questions like “Who needs to learn this skill?” and “How can we use what my students are curious about to help drive what they’ll learn next?” Students leverage interests, passions and previously mastered skills to decide what they’ll learn.
Comparison to Other Instructional Approaches
Let’s look at the description above in relation to other instructional approaches: individualization, differentiation, and blended learning.
Teachers drive instruction through teacher-created tasks and related lesson plans.
The student is in charge of the pacing rather than the content or product. Students can replay videos, take practice problems or questions, and receive instant feedback on their work. Individualization typically uses technology to provide a self-paced instructional path for a given topic. Personalized Mastery Learning, in contrast, requires students to take charge of not only the pace but also the nature of the challenge itself and the active direction they take. Engagement does not come from how quickly a student races through the material; it comes from how relevant, interesting, and worthy the topic is.
Differentiation requires teachers to tailor content, process, product, and/or the learning environment for individual students in the classroom to make it more likely that each student will succeed. Carol Tomlinson (1999) describes the hallmark of differentiated classrooms: “teachers begin where students are, not the front of a curriculum guide. They accept and build upon the premise that learners differ in important ways.” Personalized Mastery Learning has students envision the investigation, idea, or challenge, and allows them to have a significant influence on the “what” and the “how.” The larger aims of a given course or program are fixed, but the content of the exploration is shaped by the individual tasks.
Teachers and/or students generate task design based on identified software platform or series of learning experiences.
While blended learning can be a component of any of the three instructional approaches explored above, it does not, in itself, equal Personalized Mastery Learning. This is a classic example of confusing ends and means.
Blended learning is a vehicle. It is an approach that can help us to achieve something. It can liberate us from using the classroom as a delivery platform and allow us to engage in other, deeper learning enterprises. But, by itself, blended learning is not personalized. In fact, it is a delivery platform for very standardized, “box sets” of learning content and assessments. This is true whether we’re speaking of Khan Academy modules or the growing sources of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). These are very standardized content packages delivered to a crowd of largely faceless consumers via the Web.
It is in how students and teachers use blended learning as a contributor to (and not synonymous with) a personalized learning approach that is important. Although we agree that technology is a powerful tool to aid in the consumption and production of knowledge, it is not a substitute for the deep thinking, problem solving, and reflection that are at the heart of every powerful learning environment.
The Power of Personalized Mastery Learning
Essentially, the benefit of Personalized Mastery Learning is the opportunity for the student to have a voice in his or her learning. Through conversation and collaboration with teachers, students gain a deeper understanding of their learning as they partner with their teacher to build knowledge and skills rather than be a passive recipient of information. Personalized Mastery Learning both encourages and nurtures learning by finding the right balance on the continuum and ultimately creating passionate, empowered learners.
This post was written by Kate Bean, Executive Director of Aveson Charter Schools & the Personalized Mastery Learning Network, Sebastian Cognetta, Director of Aveson Charter Schools & the Personalized Mastery Learning Network and Allison Zmuda, author of Learning Personalized: The Evolution of the Contemporary Classroom.