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Transforming 'Personalized Teaching' to UDL Principles in 'Distance Learning' Situations

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

The use of technology in schooling solved a personalization challenge in educational settings.

But... is it working?

What educators think of 'personalization' prior to solving the problem using technology?

Take a minute to reflect on your daily habits. Pick anything from drinking your coffee, going to work, casual telephone conversations to friends and more.

Everything we do stems from our perceptions.

It works the same way in teaching.

Now reflect specifically on one (or more) occasion which indicates a change of habit due to new information on human cognition, neurobiology, or knowledge of 'science of learning'.

Do not read on unless you stop and reflect. It is important.

Personalization is appraised by those who think that every student is special and learn in a unique way.

Following that, teachers must build a different learning plan to meet their students' needs. Being 'only humans' teachers fail to do so and need assistance. Technology-based teaching can overcome the gap and make it happen. Like a 'magic teacher wand'.

Technology holds promise to allow adaptivity, self-paced learning and collaboration among learners.

Various digital learning systems are available around the world today. They offer various learning contents, high quality LMS systems (Moodle and more), and collaborative project opportunities. Those systems may have self-paced course structure or follow massive online courses (MOOCs) which enables enrolled students to collaborate and enjoy peer support.

Digital learning systems best suit learners with high learning skills, digital literacy, and self-regulation habits. Those students usually keep 'on track' and know how to get help if needed.

Most of the learners today still do not have the competencies to learn via digital platforms, however due to covid-19 digital learning have accelerated.

Why learning with digital support systems is not easily adopted by teachers and students?

According to recent cognitive science research, three different networks involve is learning:

Affective network- Feelings towards learning (motivation, and growth mindset)

Recognition network- Perception of new knowledge and experience and its cognitive processing

Strategic network Self -regulating, managing suitable learning strategies, and learning environments (including materials, teachers, and colleagues).

These three networks work synchronically in every successful learning situation.

UDL – Universal Design for Learning is an approach that gives practical ideas for educators to build learning environments that help students excel and succesfuly combin the three networks in classroom settings.

The questions that can be asked - is it possible to create such learning environments? Who makes them? How can educators be persuaded to use them? How will students receive them and what will be the response of parents and the community?

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, awareness of our perceptions on the one hand, and on the other hand a willingness to learn what science has to say about the human mind - will lead us to reflective observation and behavioral change.

I believe that learning environments that lean on cognitive science research can be created by existing means - physical and digital.

I would like to bring here an example of studies on the brain that underlie the concept of UDL and appear in detail in the new book published by the University of California

The book presents a new study on neurobiology published in the Nature and use an fMRI device * capable of measuring neuronal activity in the brain while a subject performs different actions. The researchers sought to learn about the cognitive benefits of learning on the autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) examined in certain assignments compared to a control group of non-autistic individuals examined in those assignments.

* The device enables the detection of brain activity in different areas of the brain - the device indicates activity in the area by coloring it.

When the researchers studied the diversity of autistic participants' brains, they were suprized to learn about activation of a brain area specialized in processing visual information in a task that non autistic subjects did not require when performing the task. Further more, the autistic subjects were successful in the task far beyond other people.

That is, if the prevailing assumption was that a person with ASD scores lower in certain learning tasks compared to non-ASD individuals. Now new studies are beginning to challenge that assumption.

If we apply the UDL approach, it turns out that even in cases wherethere are large differences between learners, it is very difficult for us to predict success in the task, since each brain uses its resources differently, sometimes unexpectedly, to solve problems. This is what they call diversity.

Holding a conservative view on your students, not recognizing their unique brains, will make you miss the opportunity to promote their learning. Alternatively, practicing the perception of diversity can change your teaching.

So what? What does diversity mean to teachers? And how will it help change education?

We can change the way we look at the human minds, both as learners and as teachers. The differences between people are not only expressed physically, but in the understanding that the three cognitive networks of each of us have evolved as a result of specific experience and learning. This development and plasticity, which occurrs every second of our lives, is unique. It strengthens certain bonds in different ways. Not only that, but, many studies show us that these systems are constantly evolving and are never static.

To sum up - every brain is unique and flexible. Each interaction of the brain with a stimuly involvs the integration of the three different cognitive networks. This alters the brain after each interaction! Always, at any age.

And if we use the metaphor ... science about cognitive networks suggests that we perceive the different minds of learners as we perceive their fingerprints, moreover - it suggests that we must treat this "fingerprint" as something that changes all the time, is not fixed.

A human brain is as special as a fingerprint. But unlike a fingerprint - it keeps changing.

There are some practical tips to help learners change their brain based on cognitive science.

Learning how to learn is a very popular course by Barbara Oakley (available on the Corsera platform). This course incorages learner to inentionally focus their attention on learning in order to be able to change the connections in their brain (and learn something new). Oakley teaches the enrolling students that a good night's sleep after learning allows the brain to transmit the new information and organize it in long-term memory (it is very important to let the brain rest).

During the learning day Oakley suggests engaging in exercise or creating short breaks between learning segments in which the learner concentrates in order to organize the information in long-memory.

In addition - Oakley suggests to base learning on practice and question solving as well as memorization.

Memorization - allows the brain to work better in problem solving because it directs the short memory to dealing with the problem instead of wasting energy on identifying its components.

If we take the important knowledge that Barbara Oakley gives us about learning and build learning environments based on it, we will convince teachers to apply the research-based approaches in everyday teaching and encourage parents and students to be our partners - can we succeed? Maybe that's not enough?

What else should we know?

If we are already dealing with our misconceptions, I want to address another prevailing perception that affects education in the most basic and profound way - I mean the "average learner".

We invest enormous resources and build entire education systems around the world while grasping "average learner" perception - but the average learner does not exist in reality.

Todd Rose's Ted talk presents a lovely story about the absence of an average learner. He argues that there is no such thing as an "average pilot" either. Check research- nothing. Does not exist. Don't you believe me? Enter and watch-

Long post, thanks to those came this far!

I hope I have already convinced you that we have been deceived (yes, me too) by the education system.

We educators hold the following two misconceptions-
Misconception 1: Technology can enable us to implement personalization - education tailored to each and every one

My critique - this approach binds the system to a perception of top-down no less than the traditional approach. In fact, it's like duplicating one teacher times the number of students and calling it - innovation. In practice, these environments are closed and dictate every detail in learning and assessment.

What is lacking in the application of personalization through technology: students' partnership and their initiative to learn (one should start treating learning as a natural thing that one should try not to interfere with, instead of something I need to get someone else to do against their will). The second thing that is missing is a deep understanding that learning is a slow, error-ridden process that takes place within social contexts and has meaning for its participants (regardless of any curriculum).

Misconception 2: We design the learning environments for the "average learner" - and in this way - all learners will be able to realize their full potential.

My critique- we miss all learners this way. Both the struggeling ones and the outstanding ones and everyone else. In Reggio Emilia's approach, listening to the child's thousand languages ​​is the center of educational endeavor. Listening. How simple.

The UDL approach also presents a solution. In this approach, the learning environment is very diverse and addresses the three cognitive systems of the learner that I mentioned at the beginning of the post - the emotional, perceptual and strategic, and also learner at the 'margins' - the struggeling and outstanding. Their argument is that such an approach - to the margins - allows all learners to actually implement the most appropriate strategies for them in every learning situation.

Think of a learning enviroment as serving delicacies at a "buffet" instead of designing a personalized dish for each diner served by a waiter.

These two conceptions - 'personalization through technology' and 'the average learner' (only) - have no grip on reality nor has research evidence.

For example - in Sacramento - personalization for students who have difficulty occurs through face-to-face learning with teachers in small groups - HUB labs.

These perceptions need to take on a new face, especially now, during the greatest crisis the education systems have ever had. We must break free from them and look for a better way.

Well, ask me - what is the solution?

I came across three interesting solutions. Two of them very recently,

I will expand on them in the following posts here on the blog.

The first is the slow education

The third is research-based principles for learning with multimedia

If you have any more ideas, I would really love to learn!

Good luck 21st century teachers

Feel free to write me here the solutions you found and put into practice today


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