Education is an odd bird: we all know it could be better, while at the same time it is the best it has ever been in human history. For the last two centuries the world went through a great expansion in learning: our literacy rate skyrocketed from 12% to 88% worldwide, and Primary, Secondary and Tertiary education have all seen drastic growth (in schools and students), breaking records on almost a yearly basis.
Our educative curriculum has also evolved, embracing our continuous growing understanding of the world — and the recent boom of the internet has brought self-education to the masses in new and exciting ways, turning websites like Khan Academy, TED, Wikipedia & Youtube into some of the biggest free knowledge hubs in the planet. Imperfections aside, we owe a lot of who we are to this faulty system, and its growth in reach has been phenomenal.
How we teach, however, has yet to change:
Contemporary learning is still very much archaic. We group students arbitrarily around age, have them go to a physical building 5 times a week to listen to adults speak for about 6 hours, and just kind of hope that all involved parties are qualified enough to keep students engaged and predictably moving through a static educational curriculum.
It works to an extent, but it is not pleasant for anyone — teachers have a lot on their plate, from lesson and assignment planning, to teaching, grading and the expectation of giving hundreds of students individualized attention. On the student side, they are forced to adhere to strict timelines and live under the rule of fear instead of curiosity, with the constant fear of failure looming as they’re assigned labels ranging from A to F at the end of each term.
Today’s educational system is static, generalized and puts less focus on individual self-development than it perhaps should. To make matters worse, students often don’t understand why they are learning the things that they’re learning, which makes certain classes feel arbitrary and purposeless in the face of their personal ambitions (and has a number of neurological implications we’ll soon discuss).
With that being said, what could be done to fix these issues and take education to a new level? What could make education more exciting, fun and practical?
‘Personalized Learning’ refers to a diverse variety of programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and strategies that address the distinct learning preferences, interests, aspirations, weaknesses, or cultural backgrounds of individual students. The result of this is an educational experience that’s more fitting to you as an individual and maximizes what you can get out of each class.
This approach makes intuitive sense, and there has been a rising pool of scientific evidence backing these ideas up every year. A new report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has found that students in schools using personalized learning strategies made greater academic progress. Additionally, countless neuroscience studies have shown the how personalized experiences positively affect how the brain receives information, providing some relevant ideas about how learning works to the synapse-level.
This is a powerful concept, and it shows that for students to learn anything they need to be convinced that the information being shown is important. To properly teach, you must first inspire, and personalized learning is as much about knowing how to teach an individual as it is about how to convince them that the information is worth knowing — and this is hard. Different students respond differently to distinct motivations, but this is why the most popular teachers tend to be inspirational: they don’t just throw information at students for them to process, but they also inspire and awake their class’s interest and curiosity — once a student finds a subject cool, everything changes for their brain.
So if personalized education is so important, why do we barely see it in schools? In today’s system, giving students true individualized attention would require dozens if not hundreds of specialized hires per institution— and even if we did have all those people available, we still lack the proper methods to gather and process personal student data in large scales to create actionable results. Despite these challenges, some schools are still finding ways to explore these concepts to a degree, but the true potential of personalized education remains largely unfulfilled.
Full personalized learning also requires a fluid, flexible and non-linear educational curriculum to be fully idealized — this is the only way you can embrace student’s differences and create distinct learn paths for each one — unfortunately, this just happens to be the antithesis of today’s rigid solutions.