Personalized learning is an approach to education that focuses on adapting lessons and learning experiences to each learner. It is a term used in contrast to creating a single lesson and presenting that same lessons to all students in the same way and at the same pace. What role might personalized learning play in the Lutheran school and classroom? How does it fit with our mission, values, and goals in Lutheran schools? Is there a compelling why for considering personalized learning in our schools?
From a biblical perspective, we know that our students have many things in common with one another and rest of humanity. Every student in our class is loved by God. As we are reminded in 1 Timothy 2:3–4, “God our Savior . . . desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” From Romans 3:23, we know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We even know some of the things that every student in our class desires, as Proverbs 19:22 says: “What is desired in a man is steadfast love.” These and many other passages remind us that, when it comes to the content of our faith, these truths apply to all people, across time and location. We are rooted in absolute truths that do not change or adjust according to individual differences or preferences.
At the same time, we also know that each student in our class is a unique child of God. This is evident in the way they look, but as we get to know them, it doesn’t take long to recognize that their differences are far greater than simple appearance. We know that they come to us with different experiences, challenges, strengths, gifts, abilities, and interests. We also know that each student is being prepared for a set of current and future vocations, even if we do not know the details about some of those vocations.
The more we get to know each student in our classrooms, the more we realize that what works well with one student does not necessarily work well with another. A firm word to one student will be heard and experienced differently depending upon a student’s temperament. Even as a parent, I’ve learned this lesson. I can use the same tone and the same words to my son and daughter with completely different results. This same thing is true in the classroom. In the Gospels, we even see this truth applied by Jesus as He interacts with different people. His message was consistent and unchanging, but how He communicated that message, and which lesson He elected to share to a person at a given time, varied. He spoke to people differently and focused upon different lessons. Consider His words and approach to the woman at the well, Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, each of the disciplines, the thief on the cross, and countless other interactions recorded in the Gospels. So we see how a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning is likely to have mixed results among diverse students.
At the same time, we also know that there were certainly plenty of instances when Jesus spoke a single message to a small or large group of people. The words of the Sermon on the Mount were not personalized to the unique needs of each person. Not every lesson or experience needs to be personalized. In fact, the Scriptures are full of examples that assure us of this fact. We don’t each get our own personalized set of Ten Commandments. We each study and learn from the same Christian Scriptures. Our God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Perhaps all of this reminds us about the truth in Ecclesiastes 3:1 that “for everything there is a season.” There is a time to personalize. There is also a time to teach a single lesson to an entire group. As such, the Christian educator persistently prays for wisdom about such matters.
Having stated all of this, personalized learning certainly has a valuable role to play in the Christian classroom. To demonstrate its role, consider this simple illustration. Imagine that you are in a large room with two exits, one on each side of the room. There are round tables and chairs throughout the room with several people sitting at each table. If there was an emergency in the room, what would be the best way to get everyone evacuated as quickly as possible? Would you make everyone get in a single-file line and follow you out of one door? Or might there be wisdom in letting each person take the closest route based upon where he or she is sitting in the room? Perhaps the first method would be more orderly and that might be important, but it would probably not be the fastest.
In my illustration, getting to one of the exits represents reaching a learning goal. Students in your classroom right now are at different places in their learning as it relates to that learning goal. Some are only feet away from that exit or very close to already reaching the stated learning goal. Others are much further away. The best or fastest pathway to the exit will vary by student because every student is at a different place in the room. That same thing is true about individual students and a given learning goal. Personalized learning is simply recognizing this fact and planning accordingly. Our intent is not just to present content, but to help each learner reach important learning goals. That is where and why personalized learning comes into play.
If this interests you and you want more information on both the why and how of personalized learning, watch for the upcoming CPH book The Pedagogy of Faith, in which David Black has an entire chapter dedicated to this topic.