By Yong Zhao, University of Kansas
School education has for a long time been one size fits all, criticised for its inability to meet the needs of all students. Reform measures have generally failed to improve learning in even the most basic subjects of math and reading. Students have often been left out of attempts to improve.
Then COVID-19 happened. School closures forced the entire industry to create new ways of teaching and learning. Caught in the chaos, students, teachers, administrators, policymakers and parents all had to adjust, inventing new policies and practices in just days.
Not surprisingly, results varied. With the disruption came the possibility for schools to rethink education. All teachers and students have now experienced remote learning, the resources to support it have grown and new more innovative ways of teaching and learning have emerged.
Many schools have been eager to return to ‘normal’ but normal no longer exists.
If remote learning can take place globally, there is no need to constrain students to the traditional classroom where teachers are the only knowledge authority. Students could personalise learning based on their own interests and strengths using globally available resources. A student in Vietnam could join a French classroom for language lessons; or an Australian student could join a Japanese art class.
Personalisation of learning is not only about students being the owner of their learning. It also sees the learning process shift to problem-based, where learning starts with identifying problems worth solving and ends with solutions to the problems. Students learn for a purpose and exercise self-determination. This process enables students to develop an entrepreneurial orientation, emphasising solving problems for others and the world.
Personalisation of learning is not learning alone. To solve problems, students must work with each other. And in the age of global learning, students can collaborate with students in other schools, other states, or other countries. This global collaboration makes it possible for students to learn from, with, and for others on a global scale.
This doesn’t mean local schools are unnecessary. Schools deliver vital in-person contact and interactions with peers and adults, where students can get guidance and support in their pursuit of strengths and passions. More importantly, students need a local community to learn how their unique talents and strong interests can be of value to others.
Personalisation of learning requires schools to be flexible with curriculum, student organisation, and teacher instruction.
Modern schools could divide curriculum into three parts: national and state common courses for all students, school specific courses for all students, and personalised learning for individual students.
Schools can also be flexible with how students are organised, without necessarily placing all students into subject-matter based classes based on biological age.
And teachers could be encouraged to change their roles from instructor to personal consultant and project manager, focused on the growth of students instead of prepackaged curriculum content.
Education reform in the past has been slow and difficult. But COVID has demonstrated schools can be nimble when required. The lessons COVID delivered educators could drive an education transformation.
Yong Zhao is a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas and a professor in Educational Leadership at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia.
The author declared no conflict of interest in relation to this article.