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We must personalize learning

César Coll notes that if schools have to generate competences for life in the 21st century, we need to change the model.

We interview César Coll, emeritus professor of Evolutionary Psychology and Education from the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona. He stands for personalized learning and notes the model must change, and go from a transmitting and memory methodology to a learning based on the students’ practical experiences: “We need for everything we learn to have a personal value and some sense for the one who learns. It has to join the student’s identity, life, and it has to help students to understand the world they live in and to make future projects”.

Psychoeducational research proves there are didactic strategies that promote learning with personal value and sense for the student.

César Coll (Benicarló, 195) is emeritus professor of Evolutionary Psychology and Education at the Faculty of Psychology of the University of Barcelona. He has taken part in several educational innovation and reform processes, and has conducted studies related to the educational influence and interaction in contexts of training and school education. He has co-directed, with Bernat Albaigés, the Bofill Foundation report L’Estat de l’Educació a Catalunya. Anuari 2020, which was recently presented. Coll is one of the experts that advises the current Ministry of Education to set the bases of the new school curricula (which covers everything primary and secondary education students learn and its assessment). Also, he is member of the Research Group on Educational Interaction and Influence (GRINTIE) and is a member of the teaching staff of the postgraduate degree on Psychology of Education.

As a clear mentor in the field of Psychology of Education, we ask him about the keys in an educational model change, which is taking its time to arrive here.

Before we start, what do we mean by personalized learning?

We are talking about a series of teaching strategies that aim for all students to find personal value and a sense or meaning in everything they study. Learning should join their identities, their lives, and should help them to understand themselves, and the world they live in, and to make future projects.

You say it is necessary for students to stop seeing the school and high school a place far from the world they live in. Do you think students believe everything they are told in class has to do very little with the daily life?

Yes. We see in all studies that there is a growing sector of students who feel there is a great distance between what they do and learn in school and what they do and learn —and how they do it— outside these institutions. The key is to find these connections and to link the studies to their interests, worries and activities in their daily lives.

You say training competent pupils involves helping the students to reflect on what they learn and the meaning of these studies. What should we do to motivate this reflection?

Luckily, educational and psychoeducational research showed there are identified didactic strategies that help students to make such connections. We know, for instance, we should work considering the interests of the students. Another valid strategy is to link what students learn in different moments and places. These strategies promote meaningful studies with personal value for the students. And these are not sophisticated, it’s all about putting the students at the focus of the learning process. Everything starts with the students, their expectations, interests and purposes.

How did we reach this change in paradigm?

As always, in education, we reached this change through two paths. On the one hand, research results, which confirmed the efficiency of certain ways to proceed. And on the other, with teachers’ experience and practical knowledge in class. There are teachers that have been personalizing learning for years, in some way, intuitively.

Regarding the teaching staff, you said that teachers’ work has never made as much sense as now. Why?

For a few decades, and in recent years in an exponential way, the activity contexts in which people learn have multiplied. New spaces surrounding technologies have been created and they offer opportunities and resources to learn, outside of formal educational institutions. Now, what we need is to move towards a model of interconnected and distributed education, and that must be done by education professionals. Teachers are the ones who can do this and help students to maximize the use of resources and learning opportunities, regardless of their origins. That is why we say that we should stop focusing on school and start focusing on learning journeys. Paths in which school studies are an important part, but not the only one.


Emeritus professor César Coll, in his office at the Faculty of Psychology.
Emeritus professor César Coll, in his office at the Faculty of Psychology.


Speaking of the context in which the students live, we need to talk about the new technologies: are we taking enough benefit from teaching-applied ICT? Is there a gap between students’ knowledge of new technologies and teachers’ knowledge of ICTs?

Regarding the first question, the answer is no. It is urgent to exploit the full potential of ICTs. In the educational field, we have not fully integrated them, as we have, on the other hand, in the rest of the aspects of our lives. Regarding the second question, in my experience I do not see that difference. Children and young people use ICT for social practices that are meaningful to them, that is, to chat, to search for things they find interesting, etc. But teachers use them for the same reasons. Young people are digitally literate for certain practices, which are the same as those of teachers.

The Bofill Foundation report L’estat de l’educació a Catalunya. Anuari 2020, which you co-directed, has been recently published. What are the conclusions of the report?

The report has two parts. The first one analyses the indicators of the state of education in Catalonia regarding 2020. The second, presents proposals on how to deal with detected weaknesses. The first one we mention is a funding deficit, which has existed since the 2008 crisis and that now, with the pandemic, has worsened. Secondly, the report notes that we have a segregated school system, which separates students due to social and cultural origins, and which affects particularly vulnerable classes and specially immigrant students. Last, the report detects a lack of adaptation to the school curriculum, everything teachers try to teach in school which related to the current world. There are many necessary competences in the 21st century that are not sufficiently represented in the curriculum, and on the contrary, there other contents that, despite being interesting, are not as urgent or as relevant as they were in the past.

I heard you differentiate between essential and desirable learnings. Can you give me an example?

Knowing how to use new technologies to access information, to confirm it and to communicate is absolutely essential. Like reading, writing and expressing oneself. This is not about instrumental learning. Other essential learnings are team working, asking for help or the satisfaction for a good job. These are essential because, either you learn them when you have to, or they become too difficult and can strongly influence other future studies. However, knowing by heart the capital cities of all the states of Africa is interesting, but if I don’t know the name of the capital city of Tanzania, I will look it up on my phone and I will know it. Does that mean I should not know them? No! I wish I knew them, and many other things. But these are not essential, these are desirable to know. Basic education must guarantee essential learning acquisition to all students and must offer, the more desirable studies the better. But putting it all under the same name leads us to overwhelming syllabuses that prevent us from having a personalized learning.

Let’s talk about your role as advisor in the educational reform for the Ministry of Education. The reform wants to bring a competence-based approach to learning. What does it mean to learn by competences?

The idea is simple and ground-breaking at the same time when it comes to traditional planning. It’s simple, because it shows us that we learn by doing things, acting on our reality and changing it. It’s about being able to make certain things in certain situations, using the necessary knowledge to do so. And these are not void competences but related to cultural and social practices. A skill can always improve and can be activated in many contexts.

Some believe that the change in methodology will lower the competence level of the students.

This is absolutely false. Competence learning is not incompatible with knowledge. There is no one who is good at physics without having a good knowledge of physics. But people will need to know not only about physics but also how to put them into practice and make others see them as competent.

Last, does the reform the Ministry is working on include measures to solve problems such as school segregation, attention to diversity or skipping lessons and school dropouts?

The new law considers these aspects, but let’s be honest: these issues were also stated by LOE and LOCME. The problem with laws is always the same. I think it offers ways to solve these problems but the law will or will not reach its objectives, and will or will not change the reality, depending on educational policies that are put into practice when applying the law.

The following podcast contains the full interview:

Coll is a member of the Research Group on Educational Interaction and Influence (GRINTIE).
César Coll in the Faculty of Psychology.
César Coll in the presentation of the report by the Bofill Foundation