Monday, 8 April 2013

Choice Is Only One Part of Personalization

Providing choice to students is a common method of personalizing the learning experience. However, one of the main goals of personalized learning is to encourage our students to be creative, and in this context, choice can actually hinder this goal. More important than choice, students need to be given control and ownership if creativity is to be fostered. 

Choice often provides students with the illusion of control, when in fact they are simply choosing from a series of fixed options. In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford discusses how we have “too few occasions to do anything, because of a certain predetermination of things from afar”. Using examples such as the customization of cars, where users simply pick from a list of accessories, or the Build-a-Bear shops that allow children to create a stuffed bear to their liking, Crawford argues that the user merely chooses from a series of predetermined alternatives. In these examples, users may have choice, but they are certainly not being creative. According to Crawford, this approach encourages reliance and passive consumption.

Many assignments in school follow a similar model to accessorizing a car or the Build-a-Bear, where students simply pick from several choices provided by the teacher. If this approach creates students that are reliant or passive, they will undoubtedly struggle to take ownership over their learning. What is the solution?

While it is unrealistic to provide a blank slate to students for every assignment, it is important to realize that creativity will be stifled when assignments become too prescriptive. Students need to be given the opportunity, and freedom, to explore. Furthermore, it is the role of the teacher to encourage students to take risks and to take advantage of opportunities. A personalized approach that incorporates blended learning provides students with tremendous flexibility in how and when they learn. Students need to take advantage of this flexibility but they will most likely need encouragement, a little push or insight before they will carve out their own path. In order to facilitate this change the teacher needs to know their students’ strengths and interests and create structures that encourage self-reliance and individuality. If we want students to take control over their learning, teachers need to lead by example and give students control, rather than send them down rigid pathways.

Erin Millar, in a Globe and Mail article, writes about a high school in Edmonton where students were given responsibility for launching a café on school grounds. Students oversaw every detail, from selection of furniture to which brands of coffee would be offered. In the end, a tremendous amount of student creativity was observed. While the students obviously had many choices to make in launching the café, it was the control and ownership over the project that promoted creativity, not the choice.  

Kyle Acres
Learning Technology Adviser

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