From Icebergs to Classrooms: Recognizing the Need for Personalized Learning

Seven years ago in a dimly lit school auditorium, I watched polar bears, majestic and vulnerable, struggle to find rest on icebergs that were tragically smaller than their bodies. The narrator implored action to save our planet before 2040 to prevent the ice from melting away. It’s seven years later, and the urgency has only escalated—UN reports state that we have just seven years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.

As I reflect on this, it strikes me how despite the profound relevance of climate change to my generation, it was never a part of our school curriculum. This disconnect between what we were learning and the pressing issues of our time was a lost opportunity for engagement and education.

Growing up, my schooling experience was quite traditional and uniform. I remember sitting in a classroom where the teacher taught in a one-size-fits-all manner. Not only did I struggle at times to keep up with the pace of the class and experience teaching methods that aligned with my learning style, but I also yearned to dive deeper into subjects that piqued my interest, like climate change. This lack of alignment often left me feeling disconnected and unengaged.

It wasn’t that the teachers weren’t competent or the curriculum wasn’t comprehensive; it was the lack of personalized attention, both in terms of catering to my learning style and exploring my individual interests, that made the educational experience less fulfilling. For example, I find that structuring my study sessions around individual exploration and visual representations of information suits my learning style, as opposed to engaging in group discussions or auditory lectures, which can potentially distract from my process of logical analysis.

Personalized learning, as I’ve come to understand it, addresses these very issues. It’s an educational approach that tailors the learning process to the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student. This concept, though simple, is revolutionary in its potential to transform education. It recognizes that each student is different and that these differences can and should be used to facilitate more effective learning.

Personalized learning not only offers greater flexibility, but also significantly contributes to mental health and academic achievement. Data from Challenge Success on over 30,000 high school students shows higher levels of engagement when students have interest in the content, have their learning personalized, and feel that “what I am learning about is relevant to my life.” This type of learning shifts away from traditional, sometimes stifling, educational methods and embraces a more student-centric approach.

This shift can help mitigate student burnout, a growing concern in our current education system. Students can avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed with course material that doesn’t match their learning style, and instead focus on areas where they excel and that resonate with their interests and styles. Such an environment fosters adaptation, versatility, and flexibility, which are qualities essential in today’s ever-changing world.

A striking example of personalized learning showing tangible improvements in academic achievement is evident from a 2015 study involving 11,000 students across 62 schools. These students, who were part of personalized learning programs, demonstrated greater gains in math and reading compared to their peers in more traditional settings. Interestingly, the longer they were exposed to personalized learning practices, the more significant their academic growth.

However, the transition to personalized learning is not without its challenges. One of the primary obstacles is resource allocation. Schools often operate under tight budgets, and personalized learning can require significant investment in technology and training. Additionally, teacher training is crucial, as educators must be equipped with the skills and knowledge to adapt to varied learning styles and needs. Curriculum development is another area that needs attention, as it must be flexible enough to cater to diverse interests and abilities.

They learn at their own pace and in ways that align with their individual styles and interests. Researchers have proven that this approach can increase engagement, motivation, and success rates. By tailoring education to the unique needs of each student, we cultivate not only a sense of belonging but also well-being in the classroom. Personalized learning, therefore, is not just a pedagogical choice; it’s a pathway to nurturing more fulfilled and capable learners.

Herold, B. (2016, October 19). Personalized learning: What does the research say? Education Week.

Pontual Falcão, T., Mendes de Andrade e Peres, F., Sales de Morais, D. C., & da Silva Oliveira, G. (2018). Participatory methodologies to promote student engagement in the development of educational digital games. Computers & Education, 116, 161–175.

Jackie is a student at Columbia University passionate about improving the educational experience for herself and her peers. She advocates for more student involvement in shaping educational policies and practices, and believes that balancing academic rigor with other aspects of life is essential for student success. Some of Jackie’s other interests include environmental science research and engineering, writing and sustainable filmmaking, meeting and collaborating with go-getters, rollerblading, and exploring nature with her cat. Don’t hesitate to reach out to her.

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