Bobby George


Individualized Learning Isn't About the Individual


Individualized Learning Isn't About the Individual

There’s a widespread conception that individualized learning is solely about the individual. That by personalizing education, we’re only focusing on the individual needs of the student, outside the constructs of a larger community. Community, so the theory goes, suffers at the hands of the individual.

When we think of Socrates and Plato, or Plato and Aristotle, or Aristotle and Alexander the Great, we’re mired in imagery of individualism. A teacher instructs a student, a student then goes on to instruct their own students, and everything happens in isolation, removed from any sense of community.

Learning may participate in universal conversations, but the perception is that individuals participate in singular conversations. There is a master and a disciple, a clear hierarchy where the autonomy of the student is subsumed by the authority of the master. When the student becomes the master, the hierarchy perpetuates itself further. Any interactions that transpire outside this relationship are relegated, not to collective participation but to perceived individualism.

Picturing traditional education, this is exactly how we envision it. There is no Socrates or Plato or Aristotle, let alone the space to indulge in personalized learning. Instead, we find ourselves carefully seated in neatly organized, alphabetical rows. The teacher stands at the front of the room, easily accessible to the eyes of her seated students. She shares a single, often mandated, curriculum. Do Plato or Aristotle make the list?

Traditional education is a panopticon of learning. The lessons are for everyone, and everyone is expected to pay attention, despite their interests. If their interests lead them astray, the teacher carefully directs their wily exercsions back onto the proper path. Ironically, perhaps, it is the teacher who is individualized in traditional education. The role of the institution is to individually train the masters.

What happens to the students?

If individualized learning happens in the traditional model, by which we mean students are afforded personalized learning opportunities, it’s either the case that the student is advanced and can use some extra work to keep motivated and inspired or the student is lagging behind, and needs special care. In both of these scenarios, the students are typically escorted from the room, assigned to a separate, more specialized mentor and space. To this day, many of us wonder if we were ahead of our peers or behind.

When we imagine individualized learning, which is largely pioneered in communal type settings, often exhibited in Montessori classrooms throughout the world, an entirely different panorama presents itself. The panopticon is fragmented into a new perspective and appreciation for education, for the student and teacher. There are no hierarchies, only a commitment to learning. The environment itself is prepared as a community. Responsibility is a communal effort, not an individual one. In Montessori environments the students and teachers take care of the environment, the way the environment takes care of them.

There is no teacher who stands at the front of the room, orating the lessons of the day. There are no desks, adroitly organized in rows. Instead, there is a cornucopia of students who are free to move and explore their interests, learning at their own pace, in a mixed-age classroom, based on their individual needs. Who thought children of a certain age learned the same? The role of the teacher is also displaced, from that of the master, to that of the student, from individualizing their own roles, to individualizing that of their students. If there is an institution of personalized learning, it consists of empowering students.

Picturing a traditional classroom, we often think of community. There is a community of learners following their teacher, participating in lessons. Picturing an individualized learning environment, in this case a Montessori classroom, something else happens. We envision students working independently, irrespective of their peers. What this perception fails to appreciate is the communal nature of personalized learning.

What is at work here?

What role does community play in individualized learning? Is individualized learning really only about the individual? In our estimations, nothing could be further from the truth. In personalized learning environments, such as Montessori, there is an entire ecosystem of collaboration, a dynamic that is often unspoken, yet always present. The teacher, referred to as a guide, follows the student. The student actively participates in the community. The community is dynamic. It’s not predicated on competition, where the students are encouraged to usurp their peers. It’s predicated on collaboration, where the children naturally strive to surpass themselves, supporting their friends in their efforts. This is a rich and vibrant community that helps to foster and strengthen the entire community.

Whereas in traditional education the individual student is not essential to the functioning of the classroom and only the teacher is essential, with individualized learning there is a paradigm shift. The individual student, while working independently, is part of the larger community and quintessential to its flourishing.

The vocabulary that has been adopted to describe personalized learning environments often focuses on the individual: self-driven, self-motivated, self-disciplined, to name a few. What are similar terms for community? Despite these characterizations, we’d wager that individualized education is primarily concerned with community. How the community functions reflects on the individual. How the individuals function within the community reflects upon the learning environment. No one is excluded from an inclusive approach.

What is at play is a new type of community, one that is free minded, open, willing to experiment and create, committed to thinking, feeling, and uninhibited by the self.

Bobby George