The Buffet of Learning: Design for Personalized Learning

Access and Inclusion February 22, 2016

This article is part of a series on personalized learning (part 5 of 6).

Other than the technological tools that are now easily available, what is exactly personal about personalized learning? I have heard about iterations of self-directed learning, differentiated learning, and individualized learning. These terms, overlapping at times, distinguish in time (for instance, having accelerated learning programs versus regular programs), learning paths (for instance, content is released at different times in different sequences based on test results), or strategy (for instance, using multiple media for individual preferences). Most of them vary only in means in achieving the same end. 

Personalized learning is a bigger tent, under which learners not only vary in the “hows” of learning, they also vary in the “what” of learning, for instance, personal goals and the motivation to achieve these goals. 

Traditional teacher-driven learning seems to be mom’s cooking which you will eat whether you like it or not. Differentiated learning gives choices, such as meal number 1, 2 or 3, with a limited selection of fries or drinks. Personalized learning is more like a buffet, where you can choose whatever you eat, at whatever pace you would like, and in whatever sequence you prefer. Or rather, think of a group potluck in which you may have true delicacies from around the globe, which is a better analogy of what we are encountering in this age of abundance, at least in terms of access to knowledge. As people can overeat to hurt their health in a buffet or potluck, the abundance of choice can also be a curse for those not used to making informed choices. 

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Personalized learning does not make educators’ jobs easier, but more challenging. They have to work in at least in the following areas to guide learners towards better choices. Here are some suggestions and ideas I would give as you ponder about personalized learning.


Instituting shared “governance” of learning. Not trusting students to make choices of their own, some teachers become helicopter teachers to constantly hover over students and guide students in every small decision in the learning process. Teachers ought to work with students in cultivating self regulation so that it is possible to delegate learning responsibilities to students. Roger Hiemstra, in his book Individualizing Instruction: Making Learning Personal, Empowering, and Successful promotes the use of “learning contracts” to guide learners towards shared responsibilities.

Creating multiple pathways to learning. Personalized learning does not mean that you have to create a separate learning plan for everyone. Rather, you allow people to make selection from a number of choices in learning strategies or media. While learning styles are meeting increasing challenges from researchers, student would prefer to be given choices and some autonomy to make these choices. While some students may learn better with lectures, some may find it more helpful watching videos, some may discuss with others to learn, or all of the above. It is impractical to cater for individual styles one at a time, but giving multiple options and the freedom to choose motivate learners and make learning effective.

Forming peninsulares of learners. Personalized learning is no excuse for lonely learning. Belonging to a healthy community of learning give students additional opportunities to calibrate their learning, increase their access to diverse perspectives, while also increasing their motivation for learning. While students diversify into individualized learning, also connect them to the bigger continents of learners by building a shared repository of knowledge, as well as a forum for them to convene and discuss. A few schools, such as Chickasha High School in Oklahoma, has started to implement a personalized learning model to let students decide when they “clock in” to school, as long as they register 6.5 hours between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., when the school is open. Students study with digital textbooks and meet with advisors. One concern that I heard is that the mode may damage social learning which should include student-student interaction in addition to student-teacher and student-text interaction. I hope such elements are being considered as the new mode is implemented at Chickasha High and other schools. 

Personalized learning may take away some of the routine tasks from a teacher, it creates new tasks, such as creating rubrics to assess a variety of assignments. Personalized learning is not going to create lazier teachers. It actually requires greater intentionality in course design and facilitation. Are you ready for the challenge?