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Learning Library Blog Thinking about personalized learning? Your 6th graders are way ahead of you
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Thinking about personalized learning? Your 6th graders are way ahead of you

By Nicole Krueger
November 21, 2017
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Personalized learning may seem like a pie-in-the-sky dream in many schools, but it’s already happening more than you think — and often behind the teacher’s back.

Don’t believe it? Start asking your middle school students what they learned at home last night. It’s a simple question, but it can reveal volumes about how today’s pre-teens are using technology to learn on their own.

“You will be amazed at all the things they’re learning,” says Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow. “You’ll see the breadcrumbs where the kids went home and looked stuff up to get some additional information. Or they found something in the news and looked it up because they wanted to understand more about it.”

That’s because, contrary to what many adults believe, middle schoolers aren’t just using technology to play games or watch funny videos. They’re using it to direct their own learning, creating for themselves the kinds of personalized learning experiences educators know they need but may not be ready to deliver.

“They’re already doing it. They are not waiting,” Evans says. “As we’re having yet another conversation about personalized learning or trying to define what personalized learning is, these kids are already doing it. They may not be able to do it in the classroom because we’re clamping down on what they can do, but in their personal lives they have already personalized or individualized their learning experience.”

The results of the 2016 Speak Up survey show students in grades 6-8 are actively harnessing technology outside of school to direct their own learning. More than one in three use the internet daily as an all-purpose study guide, while 69 percent do it at least once a week. All in all, eight in 10 students are regularly going online to conduct self-directed research, engaging in learning activities such as:

  • Visiting websites to discover more about topics that interest them—77 percent
  • Watching videos to learn how to do things—75 percent
  • Practicing on online writing sites—38 percent

What’s interesting about the survey results is that when researchers compared data from the past several years, they found that today’s middle school students are more likely than their older peers to use digital tools to drive their own learning beyond the classroom walls. It could be a sign that increased teacher training and technology access in schools is paying off, creating a new generation of self-directed learners.

“When you look at today’s middle school students, they not only grew up with more technology at home, but they grew up with teachers who were being better trained to use technology,” Evans says. “In kindergarten or first grade, their teachers were better trained and had better access to technology in schools than their older siblings had.”

As a result, middle schoolers are not only more adept at using technology to direct their own learning, but they almost feel like it’s their right and responsibility to do so, she adds. Nearly half of middle school students say they learn best when they get to control when and how they learn. They appreciate the fact that technology allows them to:

  • Learn at their own pace—59 percent
  • Fit their learning to their individual style—51 percent
  • Take more ownership of their learning—43 percent
  • Continue learning at home—36 percent

Technology also helps draw out their passions, which in turn motivates them to continue learning on their own. In a study on how 1:1 mobile technology extends learning beyond the classroom, a group of Chicago fifth graders received Android tablets while their teachers were coached to ask questions about what they were learning at home. One girl came to class each day and reported on a different animal she had researched the night before. Another student, whose parents couldn’t afford piano lessons, downloaded a keyboard app and taught himself to play the piano on his tablet.

“There’s a lot teachers can learn by looking at the purposes behind student usage of technology and how to incorporate that into the classroom,” Evans says. “For today’s students, especially middle school students, learning is a 24/7 enterprise. To respect and honor that in class is a wonderful way to open up a conversation about not only how to use technology, but how to use it purposefully.”

Make your voice heard. The 2017 Speak Up Survey is open until Jan. 19, 2018.


 Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.