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Friction, Resilience, and PBL for Effective Personalized Learning

Oct 26, 2023
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When an educator considers the topic of personalized learning, they likely don’t think about bees. However, bees have a lot to teach us about resilience and how that can be affected, particularly lessened, by personalized learning.


Nearly 80 percent of the world’s almond production takes place in California. This means beehives need to be shipped to California from all over America during narrow windows of favorable weather, which is believed to be causing an epidemic in their population. The control placed on their pollinating process may be causing them to become less resilient to change.


Does Personalized Learning Eliminate Resilience?


Considering these circumstances and outcomes through the lens of education, personalized learning comes to mind. Personalized Learning is an educational approach that customizes the learning experiences of each student according to their individual strengths, needs, skills, and interests. 


When implementing personalized learning, educators continually consider a student’s knowledge, age, preferences, and unique abilities to ensure that students are always matched with content that is “at their level.” Much like the bees, we “ship” students to the precise location within the curriculum where they need to work.


The process increases student engagement, supports student growth, and empowers teachers to help those most in need. Less commonly acknowledged, it also hopes to minimize “waste,” the amount of time spent by students dealing with concepts and processes that are either too elementary or too challenging for the level at which they are working. 


While it is certainly efficient to control student navigation through academic content in this way, they still need time and opportunities to experiment, evaluate success, and even fail. So how can we make sure that we are meeting students where they are, while also allowing them to become critical, creative thinkers?


Introducing Friction to Build Resilience


Businesses and industry foster resilience in efficient processes in a variety of ways, and these organizations can offer some useful models for educators. One I’d like to share is the idea of “introducing friction.” In the business world, friction usually refers to snags in the smoothness and ease of a customer or production process. 


The idea of introducing friction is that, while moving toward efficiency, we begin to drive out friction, but some of that friction is good. It would allow the process of learning how to adapt, persevere, evaluate, and survive. 


Similarly, taking personalized learning approaches so far to make the learning process too smooth and efficient for students ultimately leads them to miss out on valuable experiences. In education, “adaptation” is the highest form of knowledge according to Daggett’s Rigor/Relevance Framework®. 


This indispensable ability is a clear connection between schooling and business efficiency models.


Friction and Project-Based Learning


When implementing friction in an education setting, we want to be sure to implement productive friction. The activity should require creativity, reflection, and revision but also add value to the current process. 


In a personalized learning curriculum, a student’s core learning experience may be determined and heavily controlled, but strategic project-based learning (PBL) experiences, well-designed and inserted at the right times, can hand back some of that control and be a meaningful addition to the student’s learning. 


In general, PBL begins with a complex problem that requires sustained student inquiry throughout the duration of the project. The end result is usually a presentation of the problem, the process, and the solutions. 


Because self-planned learning is typically removed from personalized learning, strategic PBL can present productive friction, as students will need to identify for themselves what they don’t know, discover resources, and evaluate those resources in light of their own learning goals.


We are racing toward targeted education for all, and we are building strong, intuitive processes that consider student assets in the curriculum. This is leaps and bounds from where we have come. 


However, as we move forward, we must continue to look for ways that students can not only inform their prescribed learning tasks with their current knowledge but also eventually consciously participate in the personalization of their own learning experiences. 


As you and your students continue your own personalized learning journeys, I encourage you to keep this quote from renowned educator, philosopher, and critical pedagogy advocate Paulo Freire:


“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”




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