Personalized Learning and Gifted Students

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Personalized Learning and Gifted StudentsOne of the most recent buzz phrases in education is “personalized learning.” Having been in the field of education for 30 years now, I’ve heard a lot of these buzz phrases (“whole language,” “new math,” “outcome-based education,” “performance-based education,” “new standards . . .”). All of these initiatives were supposed to be the magic potion that would raise student achievement, close the achievement gap, and prepare kids for college and careers.

Most of my professional development focus has been on differentiation and gifted education. As I read through the materials on personalized learning, I had to keep asking myself, “How is personalized learning different from differentiation?” Are we repackaging differentiation as personalized learning to increase the market value of books and professional development? Additionally, to date, I’ve not seen any substantial evidence or research that makes a distinction between personalized learning and differentiation. Same stuff, different box?

In 2014, a group of philanthropies (including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and school and technology advocacy groups (including the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Silicon Schools) came together to create a four-frame working definition of the attributes of personalized learning. This definition is intended to “help educators design student-centered instructional models.” As of the development of this definition, no schools have fully employed all its traits. The recommendation is to begin somewhere and grow from there.

I view the definition as a framework that can be used to involve students in ownership of their learning processes. The framework includes what, when, how, and where students learn—very similar to the what, how, and why of differentiated instruction. For gifted and advanced learners, the personalized learning framework can give options for tailoring their learning pathways.

For purposes of this post, I’ll highlight at least one idea for gifted and advanced students within each of the four frames of the personalized learning working definition.

Learner profiles outlines the students’ awareness of their strengths, needs, motivations, goals, and feedback. Motivation to learn is most often propelled by how a student sets goals. Psychologists call this a learner orientation toward goal setting. There are four types of learner orientations:

  • Mastery approach: those who set goals to increase their personal best
  • Mastery avoidance: those who are fine with being “good enough,” thus their goals are set to a minimum
  • Performance approach: those who set goals to beat others or be number one
  • Performance avoidance: those who set goals so as not to fail

In most cases, our current schooling process is based on ranking and ordering of students: GPAs, AP test scores, and class ranks. This competitive mentality sets in play the performance approach mindset for many of our gifted and advanced students. We should be encouraging the mastery approach goal-setting orientation—measuring personal achievement as a scholar and a caring individual.

Personal learning paths defines how students achieve high expectations and standards of the disciplines. Gifted and advanced learners move at a pace very different from the general population. Allowing gifted and advanced students to personalize the pathways they will take to achieve the standards of each discipline will encourage them to have great ownership of their learning and to explore in more complex and relevant ways. This could include students meeting standards through mentorships or internships or through taking college courses while in middle school or high school. Experiential learning, such as spending a summer working as a camp counselor or math tutor, could count toward credits in a child development course or community involvement requirement. Personalized learning paths allow gifted and advanced students to engage in authentic opportunities that will produce meaningful products with value to others.

How each student progresses toward mastery is called competency based progression. This involves continuous ongoing assessment and individualized advancement. One of the most often cited complaints by gifted and advanced learners is the lock-step pace of curriculum and instruction. In the personalized learning model, students would set goals (based on standards of the discipline), define mastery (based on proficiency criteria), and seek out ongoing feedback and assessment. Gifted and advanced students could demonstrate mastery early, move into more advanced learning experiences quicker, and seek feedback and ongoing assessment from professionals in their preferred fields of study. Students would not be limited to the constraints of the K–12 system and would be involved in genuine expert learning.

The fourth frame is flexible learning environments. The needs of students and their design of learning drives the where, when, and who. The learning goals a student has set will define where the learning will happen (online, through mentorships or internships, in the workforce, on a college or post-secondary campus, in an art museum, on an international trip). Students are not limited to the K–12 school times; learning can take place over the summer, on weekends, or in the evening. The who includes who will be involved in the learning (such as professionals in the field, classroom teachers, school administrators, college or university professors, theater directors, fashion designers). It also includes working with other students in small or large groups. Gifted- and advanced-level students thrive on these kinds of open opportunities to learn differently, apply skills in authentic and meaningful ways, and engage in collaborative conversations that expand their thinking and world perspectives.

My take on personalized learning is that it has the components of differentiation. However, the framework provides us with another articulation of how to successfully address the learning needs of all students. For gifted and advanced learners, we may now have the license to allow them to pursue their learning passions in a variety of authentic, relevant, and meaningful ways.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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