After an absence from my blog, recent academic discussion that I have been involved in has prompted me to reflect upon my understanding and opinions about Personal Learning Spaces.
One’s personal learning space is something that can be highly individualised, but often one that is not consciously decided upon. It is only when we reflect on our own preferences for learning that we then begin to notice the key features that we required in order to be successful lifelong learners. The personal learning space is designed around what our students need in order to demonstrate self-direction in their learning, self-efficacy and self-reflection. For younger learners, these are skills which may only be in the earliest stages of development, but they are crucial skills which their teachers should encourage and support.
Each learner, whether they be a child, teen, or adult, will have reasons which motivate them to learn and offer them a sense of self-direction. Sometimes the motivation will be a desire to avoid failure. Other times, it will be a desire to achieve the end result (e.g. mastery of new learning, a new skill, etc). It may be linked to a learner’s belief of the value the new learning gives them once it’s achieved – is it personally relevant? Whatever it is, it allows a learner to take responsibility for their own learning experience (Smith, 1996, n.p.).
Learners will also have a level of belief in their own ability to succeed which may vary from task to task, subject to subject, and even day-to-day. A learner’s ability to begin a task with the necessary amount of self-belief that they will succeed may be linked to prior success in that area, comments or feedback they have received in that area, or their own perception of the cognitive challenge that lies ahead. I have also found that this area can fluctuate greatly when influenced by seemingly unrelated factors such as life-pressures, social struggles and/or times of stress or duress.
The final area that I am concerned that doesn’t get factored in enough is to teach our students (and ourselves!) to become reflective learners. Students need time to consider what they have learned, to make connections to prior knowledge, and to express their understanding of their new learning to themselves and to others. However, often teachers find themselves finishing up lessons without having included any time for reflection (for their students or themselves) and soldiering on to the next timetabled activity in order to keep up with time constraints.
Given that these factors are all highly personal for each learner (hence the name ‘Personal Learning Spaces’), how does one teacher ensure that they are encouraging and fostering these skills in all of their students? My personal belief is that it comes down to keeping it personal and knowing your students.
A teacher will find it difficult to foster a sense of self-direction if the tasks that they assign for younger students unless they are engaging, relevant to their real lives and have value. In some cases, some learners may need more explicit scaffolding in order to develop self-direction skills, whereas others will need minimal assistance. However, teachers will know when they’ve hit the ‘sweet spot’ in lesson design because their learners will be positively engaged in their own learning and require minimal assistance or external motivation in order to keep going.
I believe this is even more true for self-efficacy. The relationship that you develop with your students will allow you to gauge their self-belief as it changes day-to-day, task-to-task, subject-to-subject. Having a genuine relationship, rapport and understanding of what your students believe about themselves as learners who can succeed is crucial. This knowledge allows teachers to ensure that their students will be faced with tasks and activities that will be challenging, but will still allow for success on some level. We don’t want to be bombarding students with unrealistic tasks which will chip away at their self-belief. We can only avoid doing this when we have genuine relationships with our learners.
As for reflection, this is something that our young learners will need to be explicitly taught. As teachers, how are we factoring reflection into each of our lessons? What questions are we teaching our students to ask themselves about their learning? What do we know about their lives in order to make their learning relevant? What connections are we encouraging them to make with prior learning? When are we ensuring that we revisit the learning pathways we have guided our students along?
So, although ‘Personal Learning Spaces’ asks us to consider something that may vary for each of our learners, it is important that each teacher considers their influence on each component. Just as adult learners would be reluctant to invest time and effort into an activity that serves no purpose, that is not relevant to their needs, and appears unrealistically impossible, so too will our students. As teachers, we have to ensure that we keep things personal with our students in order to create harmony between the lessons we design and the development of the skills they will need to become successful life-long learners – self-direction, self-efficacy and reflection.