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Taking the “I” Out of Personalized Learning

by Zak Cohen, Grade 7 Social Studies Teacher at the American International School of Joahnnesburg


Michael Chui, an expert in the field of disruptive technologies, has found that while only ~5% of jobs can be replaced completely by AI, 45% of the tasks performed by workers across all industries will eventually be automated.

In other words, while the jobs of today may still be the jobs of tomorrow, a significant percentage of its activities will no longer be carried out by humans.

This finding has serious implications for education; and, like many educators, when I read this, I grew concerned that the current “grammar” of schooling doesn’t comprehensively or intentionally emphasize the skills and competencies that our students will need to navigate this uncertain but inevitable landscape.


As a classroom teacher, I have sought to leverage my daily and direct work with students to address this challenge by cultivating a personalized learning culture that stresses soft skills over more traditional cognitive competencies. This journey familiarized me with the imperfect and iterative nature of innovation, but what I hadn’t expected was that it would force me to examine the comparative value of soft skills.


And with each new initiative and each new step towards personalizing my classroom, I observed the same consequence of my choices: student collaboration was dwindling.


I am not the first to make this observation. In fact, this observation is being made in faculty lounges around the world – the more we personalize learning, the more individual learning becomes. Of course, one has to break a few eggs to make an omelet, so it’s worth taking a step back to examine whether collaboration is one of those select skills that our students will need to successfully navigate the labor market of the future.



According to LinkedIn, there are over 50,000 professional skills in the world. To find out which are most valued by companies, LinkedIn uses its data to curate a list of the five most desirable soft skills. According to their findings, collaboration was the third most sought-after soft skill amongst companies in 2019.


Research by the World Economic Forum corroborates and expands on this finding. According to the World Economic Forum, collaboration will remain one of the five most essential soft skills in the job market of the future. So, convinced of its value, I began to ask myself what I could do to make collaboration a non-negotiable of a personalized classroom.


The first change made was to go back to my instructional roots by dusting off the Harkness discussion – a teaching method that I had left behind in the name of personalization. Following the daily Do Now, these student-led, inquiry-based discussions precede instruction and can last anywhere between 5-15 minutes, depending on the course and quality of the conversation. Beyond developing collaborative skills, according to Song (2018), there are myriad additional benefits: “…the research shows that collaborative problem-solving prior to instruction …enhances [students’] conceptual understanding and problem solving competencies.”


The second change that I made was introducing a system of collaboration called “flexible grouping.” Flexible grouping is a way for students to make decisions about who they want to work with in a fluid, impermanent fashion. By factoring in the task, level of challenge, and physical space, students can work independently, with a partner, and in small groups all in a single lesson.


This low-tech systems-solution to collaboration is based on paper cut-outs of 1s and 2s. Students use the 1 to signal to their classmates that they would like to work independently; students use the 2 to signal to their classmates that they would like to work collaboratively.


Notice from the images below, within a single class, multiple permutations exist. What cannot be captured in a photograph, though, is the dynamism of the process, as these groups remained in-tact only so long as they were engaged in the same task.



These two examples are pilot programs that have been implemented to reintegrate collaboration back into the classroom. The success of these systems, though, doesn’t rest in the systems themselves. Check out these broader recommendations to increase collaboration without sacrificing personalization:


  1. Take the leap: We can ruminate on change all day, but, knowing the importance of collaboration, we have a moral imperative to act. As Tom Kelly, founder of IDEO, might advise, “Think with your hands.” In other words, act first, refine later.

  2. Encourage feedback: As with all innovation, the process is imperfect, so don’t hold anything sacred. Go to your biggest stakeholder group – the students – and elicit constant feedback. However you choose to do it, be sure that their voices are respected and reflected in each stage of this iterative, recursive process.

  3. Develop routines: Collaboration shouldn’t be a once-off; instead, it’s something that should be ever-present. It’s not about developing collaborative activities or mandating group work on projects, but about coming up with collaborative systems that are flexible enough to accommodate the shifting preferences of our students. Through systems like flexible grouping, students have the autonomy to make informed decisions and blaze their own collaborative path.

  4. Don’t forget to teach: I once had an administrator say that we shouldn’t spend our time teaching students to collaborate, because it comes naturally to humans. I’ve witnessed first-hand that this isn’t the case. In fact, I’d argue that when putting systems of collaboration in place, instruction is essential to student success. You’ll want to teach a wide-variety of skills, ranging from body posture, eye-contact, and voice modulation to providing a list of sentence stems to teach students to disagree respectfully. When ideas are on the line, collaboration is anything but intuitive.


We know that collaboration is a skill that students need to be successful in both the present and future, so how can you bring the ‘we’ back to personalized learning?

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The Core Collaborative

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