Neuroscience and Personalized Learning

If we are going to change teaching to accommodate better learning, shouldn’t it be based on science? The first question asked in article was, “Why?” What is the reason for personalized learning? We live in such an individualistic culture, that creating even more self-centered thinking seems detrimental rather than beneficial. If educators are given the task of creating a global classroom that is inclusive of other cultures and thinking, what are we doing moving students into more individualized anything? The goal should be to help students to work collaboratively, as teams, and to work to strengthen their weak areas, not just do what comes easily. Learning should utilize as many senses and as much experience as possible. Personalized learning does the opposite. It narrows learning to one way and allows the student to choose. Most students are going to choose what they like and what comes easiest to them, but all this does is create more rigid neural networks, a brain that is not responsive to learning new and difficult things.

The brain loves short cuts. It will always do what comes easiest. In order create new networks, to learn, neural networks must be flexible to a certain extent. Many need to break a current connection in order to form a new one, and some will need to stay strongly connected. When we do the same thing all the time, the thing we like, the way we like it, we create strong connections in those neural pathways. Think about how you brush your teeth or eat everyday. Try to do it with a different hand or in a different way. It’s much harder, isn’t it? When we encounter something new to learn, it is at first difficult and hard. A very young child does this naturally, they focus on trying new things everyday. They work at learning. They are open to trying new things, and consequently they make millions of new neural connections.

The school that I have worked and observed in has a couple of teachers who have incorporated individualized learning. One teacher does it completely, she allows the students to sit wherever and however in the classroom and work in whatever manner they choose and then assesses them in that same manner. Another teacher does a more project-based learning class that allows a lot of student-directed learning with some teacher direction and input. The project-based class, I think is great, especially if the students have a class or two that are different like this, and then other classes that are maybe more traditional. The totally individualized class, is terrible, because in this the students are being catered to and their brains are not being stretched or strengthened. Learning should be interesting, and it can be fun, but it should not be easy. This creates a lazy brain. If a student has all their classes completely student-directed and individualized, what if they choose to lay on a couch and watch videos all day and to get assessed this way? What happens when they have to read some text in a report and analyze it? Write a report? What happens when they have to sit and listen and interact face-to-face in a meeting? What about when they have to read and perform in a science laboratory setting working with a partner? They will fail. They will not have created the necessary neural networks to aid them in these tasks.

The goal of education is to enable student learning. This is best done by keeping the brain guessing, working, and flexible. Utilizing many different types of experiences is the best way to educate. When a student comes into a class and doesn’t exactly know what to expect, the brain is alert. When each class is a little different, offering different ways of doing things, this is great. So maybe the individualization needs to be at the teacher level instead of at the student level! If a teacher wants to teach through project-based, place-based, experiential, lecture and demonstration, hands-on manipulation, real-world skills, etc., awesome. Students would go through the day having many different experiences and working different areas of the brain. They may like some and dislike others. That’s okay. I think the main problem in education is that many students just don’t have good home support and weren’t stimulated as a young child, so learning in general is difficult for them. These students need a lot of support, but it doesn’t help them to make it easy for them. All this type of teaching does is make the statistics look good because when we make learning easy and assessment easy, all the students “succeed,” but none are really “learning.”

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