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Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning

By Dale Basye
January 24, 2018
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Words are meaningless unless all concerned agree on their specific definitions. Even if there is a general consensus on terms, what those terms actually mean in the real world has a tendency to evolve and morph without warning.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the field of education. In fact, there are so many “terms du jour” thrown around, tweeted and traded these days that their intrinsic value is often questionable, and confusing. Take the terms differentiated, individualized and personalized. What can we make of these three near-synonyms? Short answer: Plenty!

Modern classrooms are teeming with students of varying interests, backgrounds, abilities and learning needs. To engage these students, learning must be every bit as diverse as they are. In the ISTE/Intel Education book Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology (which I wrote with my colleague, Dr. Peggy Grant), we teased out the crucial nuances that distinguish these terms in an attempt to demystify the approaches they refer to so that educators may better initiate more effective learning techniques.

Differentiated learning

Within the context of education, differentiation is a type of learning where instruction is tailored to meet the learning needs, preferences and goals of individual students. The overarching academic goals for groups of students are the same, yet the teacher has the latitude to use whatever resources and approaches he or she sees fit to connect with a student or use practices that have proved successful for similar students in the past.

Regardless of what a teacher decides to differentiate — whether it’s subject matter, the learning process or even the environment where learning occurs — differentiation is an awareness of and active response to students’ varied learning styles. It involves exercising flexibility in assessment, grouping and instruction to create the best learning experience possible.

Here’s how differentiation works: A teacher responds to a student’s unique learning needs through the learning process, the educational content, or the specific learning vehicle or product, based on a student’s interests, learning profile or readiness.

According to Jennipher Willoughby, a freelance writer and former science and technology specialist for Lynchburg City Schools in Lynchburg, Virginia, teachers differentiate by providing different paths to learning that help students make sense of concepts and skills. They also provide appropriate levels of challenge for all students, no matter their competency. Conversely, teachers do not differentiate by developing a separate lesson plan for each student in a classroom or by merely “watering down” the curriculum for some students.

It’s about connecting the dots: linking the academic goals of the curriculum with students’ diverse interests and capacities. This takes really knowing the students in your classroom and adapting your curriculum where possible. This also requires the development of a comprehensive plan for how you will use resources and how much time it takes to facilitate differentiated learning and to assess results.

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Individualized learning

Instruction calibrated to meet the unique pace of various students is known as individualized learning. If differentiation is the “how” then individualization is the “when.” The academic goals, in this case, remain the same for a group of students, but individual students can progress through the curriculum at different speeds, based on their own particular learning needs. This approach serves students who may need to review previously covered material, students who don’t want to waste time covering information they’ve already mastered, or students who need to proceed through the curriculum more slowly or immerse themselves in a certain topic or principle to really “get” it.

The term individualized instruction was coined nearly 50 years ago. Initially, the approach included any teaching strategies that met an individual student’s needs, but — in practice — the term describes students working through set materials or curricula at their own rates. With individualized instruction, learning strategies are based on student readiness, interests and best practices. All of this is meant to help each student master the skills they will need as defined by established academic standards.

Personalized learning

Perhaps the most confusing term of them all is personalized learning. Some misuse the term, thinking it refers to a student’s choice of how, what and where they learn according to their preferences. Others confuse it with individualization, taking it as a reference to lessons that are paced at different rates to accommodate different students.

Really, personalized learning — at least in our understanding of the term — refers to the whole enchilada: learning that is tailored to the preferences and interests of various learners, as well as instruction that is paced to a student’s unique needs. Academic goals, curriculum and content — as well as method and pace — can all conceivably vary in a personalized learning environment.

Unlike individualized instruction, personalized learning involves the student in the creation of learning activities and relies more heavily on a student’s personal interests and innate curiosity. Instead of education being something that happens to the learner, it is something that occurs as a result of what the student is doing, with the intent of creating engaged students who have truly learned how to learn.

This method is obviously a far cry from the way that most teachers are traditionally trained to interact with students. Personalization, in addition to responding to students’ needs and interests, teaches them to manage their own learning — to take control and ownership of it. It’s not something that is done to them but something that they participate in doing for themselves. For teachers, personalized learning is about facilitation more than dissemination.

Since the most effective (and unrealistic) application of true personalized learning would require one-on-one tutoring for every student based on their interests, preferences, needs and pace, personalized learning is often conceived of as an instructional method that incorporates adaptive technology to help all students achieve high levels of learning.

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Putting it all together

Technology — when employed properly and meaningfully — can help educators deliver differentiated, individualized and personalized instruction. It can help facilitate timely interventional responses, involve parents more in their children’s learning, empower school leaders with data to support teachers, and either break down problems or make those problems more complex, based on the individual needs of the student. It’s up to savvy teachers to connect the appropriate tools with the right students — and, in the case of personalized learning, allowing students to make suggestions and control their own academic experiences.

Modern learning is the ultimate collaboration between teacher and student. Much like a doctor, the teacher must assess each individual’s needs, then prescribe the right solution for that person by crafting an appropriate curriculum and delivering it in a way that is meaningful. At the same time, students know on some level what teaching-learning style works best for them, and they must contribute to the creation of their personalized curriculum. Today’s educators can better harness the tools required to address a vibrant spectrum of learner differences and create profoundly dynamic educational experiences in their classrooms.

This is an updated version of an article that publish on Aug. 5, 2014. 

Dale Basye is the author of the books Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology, Get Active: Reimagining Learning Spaces for Student Success and the Circles of Heck series for Random House Children’s books. He is interested in creative ways of personalizing learning to meet the diverse needs of today’s students to help them become better equipped to deal with the challenges of the digital age workplace.