Whole Child Education

Why is Personalized Education So Important?

Sal Khan, founder of the online education platform, Khan Academy, traces the beginning of his journey into ‘disruptive’ education in his book The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined.

Khan’s niece Nadia failed her math exam in sixth grade. After a string of setbacks, Nadia finally ‘accepted’ her failure and concluded that she could not do well in math.

‘Khan Academy’ opened by offering Nadia distance learning.

Khan’s strategy was to pinpoint her final weak link and to find out what knowledge or concepts she was missing, rather than blindly loading her with more excercises.

After a period of testing and evaluation, Khan found that the reason Nadia had failed the test and was stuck in her learning was because she did not understand the concept of unit conversion, such as the conversion of miles to feet, in calculations.

Once the problem was solved, Nadia’s struggle with math was relieved. A few years later, Nadia was admitted to Sarah Lawrence College to start her pre-med studies.

Not every student is as lucky as Nadia, who had a mentor to help her solve her problems. Where traditional schooling is most criticized today is that it treats children in the classroom as a ‘collective’, regardless of individual abilities. That’s not to mention the lack of positive development of their individual personalities.

As a more future-oriented view of education, personalized education is increasingly advocated for today. Its greatest value is that it respects every child and treats them as a unique individual, providing every opportunity for students to feel, think and act by themselves.

The essential difference between personalized education and the traditional classroom is the change of focus. In a traditional classroom, teachers focus more on ‘teaching tasks’ – how to impart knowledge to the collective of the class. As Khan points out, when 60 per cent of students get a score of 85, a teacher will consider the task to be completed.

However, in personalized education, teachers focus on the progress of each child, determining whether they have really acquired the knowledge and skills needed in order to avoid the failure Nadia experienced in her sixth-grade math.

Shanghai Huaer Collegiate School Kunshan fully implements personalized education.

Emphazising personalized education is to give students adequate time and space to connect with nature, society and real life, broadening their horizons and giving play to their creativity. Behind the personalized classroom is the idea that students explore knowledge freely. With the learning materials as the guide, students can improve in their knowledge and skills through exploration. What they finally harvest goes far beyond the content of the teaching materials and helps them improve the depth and breadth of their knowledge.

For today’s topic, we invite Zoe Zou, principal of the Elementary and Middle Schools at Huaer Collegiate, to talk about the implementation of personalized education and how to facilitate children’s success to the greatest extent.

The starting point
Knowledge and skills as standard

What is personalized education? How can we carry it out? We should start from its starting point.

People unfamiliar with personalized education tend to believe it means allowing children to follow their own will, which is actually a big misunderstanding.

As an educational model, personalized education not only possesses a strong theoretical basis, but has also been rigorously and systematically designed. It has taken shape after a wealth of practice both inside and outside the classroom.

The starting point for personalized education is to establish standards. Personalized education emphasizes the combination of knowledge and skills. With respect to knowledge, educational content should be closely related to the requirements of the syllabus. The knowledge and skills of each grade and learning stage should be the goal of education.

During the teaching of knowledge content, we will use six levels of learning, according to Bloom’s classifications of educational objectives.

The focus on higher skills is an important difference between personalized and traditional education. In the traditional teacher-centered classroom, students usually focus too much on the memorization and understanding of knowledge, conducting a handful of applications and analysis activities. They generally have few opportunities to proactively evaluate their knowledge and use it creatively.

In the personalized classrooms at Huaer Collegiate, however, we create a positive environment so that students can better understand and remember knowledge through experience, discussion and application. This supports them to achieve the learning objectives at all six levels.

Goal design
Personalized positioning and navigation

If the simultaneous development of knowledge and ability is the starting point of personalized education, then the role of the educator is like a guide, helping each student move steadily forward on the knowledge roadmap.

Helping children with self-positioning is critical. The first problem in traditional education is giving every student the same starting line regardless of their differences. In personalized education we identify differences.

The identification of difference does not mean giving the child a label, but it instead allows the teacher to map a child’s knowledge and abilities so that everyone knows where they’re headed next on the learning journey.

In the personalized education, we develop a ‘knowledge map’.

For example, in the first grade, math can be detailed into more than 200 points of knowledge and skills, while English learning can be detailed into more than 150 points. The learning of literacy includes learning letters, phonics, sight words, rhyme, two-syllable words and other skills. To learn pronunciation, such as the short sound of the letter ‘a’, students should not only be able to read, but also pick out words containing the sound from a word card or fill in the blanks with the right letters.

So it is with ability in math. Many parents believe that first-grade math is just counting, adding and substracting numbers. It is, in fact, much more than simple computing, requiring the perception and application of numbers and understanding relevant concepts such as measurement, time, currency, classification, etc.

Many children I have taught, especially those in the first and second grades, just memorize concepts – under their correct answers lies a lack of rigorous logical reasoning.

Therefore, children, especially in the lower grades of primary school, should be required to explain their thinking when asked to calculate. This is not only develops their logical thinking skills, but also exercises their language competence, so as to gradually improve the accuracy of their expression.

We will first use a standardized evaluation to get to know a child’s true levels of knowledge, finding their starting point on the learning map: what concepts does he/she understand? What are his/her abilities? To what extent has he/she mastered each concept? What are the blind spots in the concepts that he/she thinks he/she knows?

After the evaluation, the teacher will divide the children into groups and determine their learning goals and plans. Finally, the learning experience will be further optimized according to each child’s specific requirements.

The whole process is like real-time navigation. The final destination is for children to learn knowledge and increase their abilities. Instead of leaving them behind at a pace of learning that is unsuitable to them, they should be encouraged to find their own rhythm, make explorations and accept challenges, thus constantly unlocking and transcending every link on the learning pathway.

This grouping is not a consolidated a hierarchy, but a dynamic process.

For example, a child may have strong reading skills, but is weak in mathematical logic. After confirming this, the focus of the teacher’s strategy will be to help the child find out what concepts he/she does not really understand. If this problem is solved, the child may make great progress in math in a short time. The teacher will get real-time feedback through evaluation, thus being able to adjust the child’s study plan.

Personalized classroom
The highest level of knowledge

Personalized education not only gives children a roadmap of academic progress, but also also helps them with the learning of each knowledge point. In a personalized class, the teacher should ensure that each child achieves the highest level of learning, making sure that each child not only remembers the knowledge, but also fully understands it and can use it innovatively.

In a typical personalized class, the teacher will first present or explain a concept. The whole class are asked to do it and then they are divided into groups, after which, they do it in a different way. Finally, each person will do it individually or explain it.

The form may vary depending on the subject matter, but the basic principles are the same.

Scientific grouping helps students better understand the content and unlock the next challenge. For example, in English learning, the teacher will adapt the text based on the students’ English abilities in order to make the text comprehension and analysis challenging but not daunting. Thus, students will be interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of the text and participating in learning.

Take fifth-grade English as an example. Being able to read a very difficult text does not mean the student possesses strong English skills. The strategy of reading is dismantled into knowledge ability points, including using key details to determine the main idea, understanding the novel’s theme and the author’s intention, comparing the order of the text structure and causal relationship, paying attention to sensory details, understanding figures of speech, differentiating the narrative point of view and reasonably forming inference, for example.

The purpose of grouping is to have students work with materials they can handle, while the purpose of education is that no matter what text material is used, students can develop analytical skills, thinking, and logical reasoning so as to make creations.

The process of knowledge exploration is the priority of the personalized classroom. The purpose of students’ learning is not studying the materials given to them by teachers, but taking them as a starter to expanding knowledge and deepening thinking.

Following grouping is combining students and teachers often create opportunities for different groups of children to learn from each other. Whether it is a mathematical concept, English reading, or science class, students should explain their understanding to partners in their group and then to other groups. In this way, they can constantly improve the accuracy, rigorosness and consistency of their language and expressions.

During the process, every child has the chance to listen and speak, supplement his/her missing knowledge, ask questions and conduct discussions. While enriching and improving the understanding, they also develop their thinking, communication and cooperation skills.

This link seems to be simply a process of expression, but in fact, it is a very useful thinking exercise, especially when a child is in a team whose members possess complementary abilities. Different point of views can trigger a child’s multi-angle thinking.

This moment-to-moment, multi-perspetive communication means that personalized education helps children think critically.

As Sal Khan says, education is not simply an artform, it also has scientific rigor.
Personalized education is the art of education rigorously designed to promote every child to become their better self.