Educators swirl in a sea of buzzwords and sometimes it’s hard to keep track and make sense of this vocabulary. Oftentimes it feels like a new buzzword is just an old buzzword dressed in new clothes. After all, doesn’t “personalization” feel a lot like the push for “differentiation” a few years ago? In a recent EdSurge article, Michael B. Horn clearly delineates nuanced definitions for four buzzwords infiltrating and heavily influencing current educational practice – personalized, competency-based, blended, and project-based learning. Horn also puts these practices on a continuum of “hype,” challenging educators’ conception of what the practice is as well as if the practice lives up to its intentions. Here’s what he boils down:

Personalized Learning –
Horn suggests that instead of thinking of it as a noun, think of it as a verb. Then, the concept becomes an action and a skill set you tap into when the time is right, instead of an outcome that exists on its own, a destination, an event. Teachers are personalizing learning for and/or with students throughout our building. And they’ve been doing it for a long time. This might seem like differentiation dressed in new clothes, but it’s more than differentiating and on the continuum toward individualization. (See Barbara Bray’s 3-column chart distinguishing between personalized-differentiated-individualized.)

One big takeaway is to begin thinking of personalizing learning as a matter of degree instead of a binary “yes, my class is personalized” or “no, I don’t/can’t personalize this.” When planning or reflecting on your instructional sequence or assessments, think, “to what degree am I personalizing this for students?” (Remember – time, place, path, and pace are good starting points, as are varied content and mode of access.) And no matter what the answer happens to be, have a reason for it.

THE POINT – Ground your efforts to personalize in purposeful, student-centered, content-centered decision-making.

Competency-Based Learning –
Simply put, competency-based learning is when students do not move on until they have mastered key content and skills. In our current time-based system (time-based = bells, quarters, semesters, years), competency-based learning seems wonderfully impossible. We all know we have students in our classrooms who do NOT master key content and skills yet move on to what comes next for varied (yet sometimes irrational) reasons. However, there is a set of competencies that most educators agree on as crucial for success within and beyond high school. The Hewlett Foundation has defined those 6 competencies as:

  1. Master core academic content
  2. Think critically and solve complex problems
  3. Work collaboratively
  4. Communicate effectively
  5. Learn how to learn
  6. Develop academic mindsets  

Hmmm… sounds a lot like our Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements and Work Habits work we’ve done at WHS.

THE POINT – Though we aren’t able to claim we are a competency-based institution, we can design curricula around and hold kids accountable to core competencies that will help them be successful in life.

Blended Learning –
Blended learning is a concept that seems easy to define – you blend offline and online learning to learn at deeper levels and/or achieve at higher levels. Blended learning can be a means to a higher degree of personalized learning (kids can move at their own pace and access content any place) as well as a means for accountability of core competencies (platforms such as Summit). Erica prefers to think of blended learning as “tech doing what a teacher cannot, and the teacher doing what the tech cannot.” Conceptualizing it this way honors the art of teaching and ensures that teachers will not (and should not) be replaced by computers. There are moments in all of our classrooms that probably should be replaced by online work. However, there are also moments that require human interaction and collaboration. In an increasingly-connected world, these offline learning experiences should be viewed and designed with the same lenses of citizenship, responsibility, and respect as online experiences.

THE POINT – Blend purposefully, not blindly. When is it effective to turn to a computer? What do YOU offer to students that cannot be replaced by a computer?

Project-Based Learning –
Project-based learning is one of those concepts easier understood by defining what it is not, rather than what it is. It is not learning assessed with a project (project at the end of a unit after all the learning is “done”). Rather is it learning acquired through a project. In PBL, the means is equally important, if not more important, than the end. The Buck Institute for Education is the premier resource for PBL. To search their projects or read more, click here.  

Project-based learning is a mode which can serve all the previously-mentioned “masters.” Blended learning programs often pair a project with the online learning (perhaps as a way to personalize the online experience). Students must also master certain competencies in order to engage in a rigorous project. And, because the project is the vehicle through which the learning is done, a teacher can personalize the learning required for each step of the project for individual students, based on strengths and weaknesses.

THE POINT – Projects are great. But learning through projects, even better. If you’re personalizing and blending learning with that project – you should take your show on the road.

“Moving forward, clarity is important. Confusion and conflation will only hurt educators trying to do what is best for an individual student in a particular circumstance trying to learn a particular concept—in other words, when they are trying to personalize learning for students.”
Michael B. Horn

At Westerly High School, over the past few years, we have all been asked to examine and shift our practice in the name of student achievement, engagement, and satisfaction. However, when we feel like we are working to serve a buzzword, it becomes increasingly difficult to even understand what we are doing, let alone why we are doing it. Hopefully this “digest” helps clarify what has been swirling around us so that we all speak the same language moving forward in our evolution as a system and organization.

Should you have an example of what any of these concepts look like in your classroom or content area, please contact us for a classroom spotlight visit.


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