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What 21st Century Learning Should Look Like

Individualized, Personalized, and Differentiated Instruction
Individualizing and Differentiating Learning in New York’s School of One

Figure 1 depicts a model of 21st century learning powered by technology. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, which often consists of a single educator transmitting the same information to all learners in the same way, the model puts students at the center and empowers them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions. A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies form the basis of what all students should learn, but beyond that students and educators have options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to individual goals, needs, and interests.

Figure 1. A Model of Learning

In this model, technology supports learning by providing engaging environments and tools for understanding and remembering content. For example, game-based courses use features familiar to game players to teach core subject content such as history. Technology provides access to a much wider and more flexible set of learning resources than is available in classrooms and connections to a wider and more flexible set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom. Engaging and effective learning experiences can be individualized or differentiated for particular learners (either paced or tailored to fit their learning needs) or personalized, which combines paced and tailored learning with flexibility in content or theme to fit the interests and prior experience of each learner. (See sidebar for definitions of individualized, differentiated, and personalized learning.)

An example of individualized and differentiated learning can be found in New York City’s School of One pilot, a 2009 summer program that allowed students learning mathematics to learn at their own pace and in a variety of ways. On the basis of its initial success, the School of One concept will be expanded throughout 2010 and 2011.

Personalized learning supports student learning in areas of particular interest to them. For example, a student who learns Russian to read the works of Dostoevsky in their original form and another who orders a surgical kit on eBay to practice sutures on oranges are learning things we would never ask all students to do. But these things are important because they are driven by learners’ own passions.

Within specific content areas, although standards exist for what we expect all students to know and be able to do, the model also provides options for how the learning can take place. Among these options is working with others in project-based learning built around challenges with real-world relevance. Well-designed projects help students acquire knowledge in specific content areas and also support the development of more specialized adaptive expertise that can be applied in other areas (Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Technology also gives students opportunities for taking ownership of their learning. Student-managed electronic learning portfolios can be part of a persistent learning record and help students develop the self-awareness required to set their own learning goals, express their own views of their strengths, weaknesses, and achievements, and take responsibility for them. Educators can use them to gauge students’ development, and they also can be shared with peers, parents, and others who are part of students’ extended network.

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