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Ice Cream in the Jungle: How Do We Personalize Learning?

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Educational buzz words come and go. Remember “the new math,” “whole language vs phonics,” and “emotional intelligence”?

What exactly is “personalized” or “individualized” learning, and is this just another educational fad?

Ice Cream Image“Learning is about biology,” to quote James Zull, Professor of Biology and of Biochemistry, Director of The University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) at Case Western Reserve University, and the author of The Art of Changing the Brain and From Brain to Mind, Using Neuroscience to Guide Change in Education. And although each of us has similar biological systems, we’re also completely unique.  Research in the field of neuroscience has provided significant information on what happens in our brains when we learn, and has helped us to understand how we can use that information to improve both teaching and learning. In a similar way to which the medical profession can adapt cancer and other disease treatments to the particular cell and genetic structures of each patient, we are starting to understand not just the value, but the necessity of adapting teaching and learning techniques to every single learner.

And that is what individualized or personalized learning is all about.  These discoveries have also caused us, though, to reflect upon a basic question: what does learning mean?

Nearly everyone has either heard or uttered the statement “I have forgotten almost everything I learned in college, math class, physics class, French…” – fill in your own blank. Why is that? Did we ever actually “learn” those concepts?

Neuroscience has enlightened us on the concept of “deeper learning,” which is one way of referring to all of the concepts and skills we did NOT forget in college, math class, physics, or French.

But what exactly do we know now, that convinces us that individualized learning is not a fad but in fact essential for – deeper learning? Real learning is about forming permanent memories. How do we do that? On the most basic level, we know three facts:

  1. The brain makes connections. That is what our brains do pretty much 24/7. New information is constantly entering our brains through our senses and the brain instantly attempts to connect that information or feeling or experience to affiliated information or experiences that are already stored in our brains.
  2. The connections or synapses link new information with existing or “old” information. The more we access that information, the more we strengthen what are called neural pathways.
  3. Multiple connections and strong neural pathways contribute to deeper learning.

But how do these facts relate to the need for individualized learning?

I like to use the example of ice cream.  If I were to ask you the very difficult question of naming your favorite flavor of ice cream, you would either answer very quickly (if you have an immediate favorite) or take a bit of time as you sort through your various experiences of ice cream tasting and work at prioritizing your choices. But what would be the response if I posed the same question to a native of the Amazon jungle? Would he or she have knowledge or experience of the concept of ice cream? Would he/she be able to answer or even comprehend my question?

The More You Know, the More You Know

Information we’ve learned or not learned and experiences we’ve had or not had affect our ability to expand our knowledge. This is a key point for teaching and learning as it means that instructors must take into account what the learner does and does not know about the topic, as well as the fact that each individual has unique interests and backgrounds that influence the experiences that are readily accessible to make connections. To do this, an instructor must understand what the learner knows and should do his/her best to adjust the learning experiences in such a way as to allow the learner to make connections to known topics and have some level of choice in selecting the context of the learning experience. By doing so, we are making the learning relevant to the learner.

There are many ways to do this. Assessing gaps in learning helps because it guides us where to begin or where we must back up to find a better starting point.  There are many ways in which human brains make connections. Providing information in a variety of ways– by voice, by sight, in photos, videos, or simulations, using charts and colors can foster the learner’s ability to latch onto a connection. Setting context that is relevant to the learner or providing the learner with choices, allows the learner to establish his or her own starting point.  Establishing learning goals and a pathway toward those goals based on what the learner knows and doesn’t know and providing the appropriate scaffolding along the way, ensures critical connections are made and endure.

Targeting information and helping the individual to make connections based upon his/her particular set of memories and experience is only the first step. In future blog posts, we will explore other cognitive and emotional factors that influence the ways we learn and can provide insights into new ways in which to teach.

If you would like to try a little exercise between now and the next blog post, have some fun thinking about how you would communicate the concept of ice cream to that native of the Amazon jungle.  After that, teaching physics might be a breeze.

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