Personalized Learning: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her compelling reasons for embrace personalized education by everyone in the education community as well as some great suggestions for students, teachers, parents and policy makers. Personalized education is not a buzzword with an expiration date!
Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota. She retired in 2017.
Personalized Learning: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Is personalized learning the latest buzzword, soon to be abandoned in the graveyard of education innovations? Probably not. After all, learning always has been personal. School is a particularly intimate experience, even for the seemingly most unengaged student. Unfortunately, too many students don’t see purpose in what they are being asked to learn, and they don’t see themselves reflected in an ever-expanding curriculum. This is especially true for students who have been minimized in traditional education settings. Nor are students who presumably do well in school acquiring the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed in a highly complex, global society (Wagner, 2008).
Fortunately, personalized learning offers a viable pathway out of the dilemma in which we find ourselves. While the best definition of personalized learning is one that is developed locally, the United States Department of Education defines it as “instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are made available that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated” (p. 7).
As the education community turns its attention to personalized learning, it would be easy to embrace such lofty goals but end up short on substance. How do we make good on the promise that awaits?
Students deserve to be challenged and supported in a way that meets them where they are at. Personalized learning is the only way in which we can provide full access to ideas, opportunity, and excellence for all students. This is simply not happening. Gaps exist, and they are real. What personalized learning offers is the ability to circumvent those gaps and make each individual student’s personal experience the starting point from which all else in school is constructed. When we personalize learning, student voice and choice become the engine that drives motivation and fuels engagement.
We also live in an age of mass customization. Banking is personalized, entertainment options are personalized; we can even customize our favorite brands to suit our personal preferences. We’d be foolish to think people don’t expect the same kind of opportunities when it comes to education.
Thanks to advances in technology, for the first time in history, tools to personalize are available in schools. The tools of old force a certain mindset about school. New tools, on the other hand, create an exciting and virtually unlimited space for a different way of teaching and learning to emerge. Today’s apps, online resources, and robust learning management systems are truly transformative. Students can move at a pace that is appropriately matched to their prior knowledge and readiness for new content. They are afforded a level of individual choice, which not only empowers them but additionally requires a level of engagement and personal responsibility that vastly exceeds simply showing up and occupying a seat in class. And the way in which students can get frequent, individualized feedback helps students, teachers, and parents know just where students are at in their learning.
Finally freed by technology from standing and delivering content, teachers can work more readily with individuals and small groups on more complex learning endeavors. When an individual learning plan (ILP) becomes the focus of a student’s day at school, the student becomes the focus of the teacher. Central to the ILP is project-based learning, where old meets new in terms of how we think about students’ role in their learning.
Students have always completed projects in school. But when students choose their own projects and are required to shepherd them to completion, they become self-directed learners. Choices are guided by a structured framework of standards and learning targets; assessments are determined from the start. A worthy project has a series of steps and stages that are carried out over an extended time. Most of all, a project must be personally meaningful to students and answer substantive questions. This is what makes school relevant for them.
Escuela Verde demonstrates that a vision for personalizing learning is possible. A public charter school located in Milwaukee, it educates approximately 100 urban youth in grades 9-12. Students conduct research to answer complex questions and solve problems and challenges that are personally meaningful and relevant to them. They work closely with their community in a self-directed manner through projects, internships, and overnight experiences.
Personalizing learning is not easy, but it is worth it, says Joey Zocher, who has been at Escuela Verde since it opened six years ago. She feels liberated from tradition. That said, staff, students, and parents need to unlearn most of what they know about school. “You learn as much as the kids do,” she says (J. Zocher, personal communication, November 21, 2017). “You have to ask yourself, are you really willing to share power?” Staff at Escuela Verde guide students in rethinking their role in their learning and guide each other in self-governing their school.
Teachers, whom they call advisors at Escuela Verde, are shifting to truly facilitating learning versus sharing knowledge. “It’s still tempting for teachers to tell rather than guide. It’s different for students too,” Zocher points out. “Kids come in skeptical; it takes time to build trust. The old system is still there, and it’s easy to give up when kids realize it’s hard to hold yourself accountable.” It takes time for students to transition to being self-directed, and not all are successful. Even students who have done well in traditional settings can struggle with new expectations. “It’s messy,” Zocher admits, “but that’s not a bad place to be. Project-based learning is important because it lets kids take ownership.” Escuela Verde also focuses heavily on career and college readiness. “Students are so used to being told what to do, they don’t know themselves, and they don’t know the skills required of a job they think they are interested in.” Staff help them identify their interests and honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses.
EdVisions is proud to have played a part in assisting Escuela Verde on its journey and applauds the progress it is making. “Personalizing learning is important because it meets students where they are at.” So says Krissy Wright, Professional Development Director at EdVisions, which offers a multi-faceted approach to supporting schools who want to personalize (K. Wright, personal communication, November 10, 2017). Their approach starts with their Ed°Essentials, but the similarities from one school to another end there. “We have our model, but it’s counterintuitive to say schools must follow it, all or nothing. We personalize support by helping teams know where they can begin based on where they are at and weave our practices into what they are already doing.” When one part of the system changes, the rest of it is affected. EdVisions’ focus on tying all of the parts together is what sets their type of support apart.
Wright stresses that creating a small learning community and a robust advisory model are key elements to personalizing. Projects stem from the advisor/advisee relationship, and they encourage schools to carry that through to the personalized learning plan. EdVisions’ Hope Survey is useful in assessing student engagement, hope, belongingness, and academic press, and it provides insight into whether a student has a growth or a fixed mindset about their learning.
Wright also acknowledges that the challenges and barriers to personalizing learning have a lot to do with unlearning what has been past practice. A growth mindset and a shift in practice are necessary for making it through some difficult transitions for all concerned. “Staff need to learn how to work alongside students. We assist teachers in taking ownership of personalized learning and how they can model it for students. When the staff operates in a democratic environment, they model those practices for students too.” Resources are yet another challenge. Many schools don’t have funds or time built into their schedule to support the cost of field study, and it can be hard to find community experts to work with students on the wide array of projects they have selected.
So how do we make personalized learning doable, meaningful, effective, and sustainable? A whole host of things must occur, but some starters include the following.
- Rethink course design and favor student-centered over content-centered approaches.
- Modernize pedagogy and shift the art and science of teaching to one in which the teacher supports, rather than controls, learning.
- Iterate. Start small and embrace failure; expect your skill and ability to personalize learning to evolve over time.
For Schools and Districts
- Start with a clear theory of action. Engage staff in deep planning around why to personalize, how it can and should look, and what the intended outcomes will be. Communicate your theory of action widely, frequently, and clearly.
- Provide robust, committed, and sustained training and support. How a teacher personalizes learning will look different from one classroom to the next; give teachers expressed license to experiment.
- Invest in the right tools. Personal devices, online access, digital and adaptive curriculum, and learning management systems all are necessary to making the logistics of personalizing manageable.
- Recreate learning spaces that are flexible, purposeful, and suitable for students to move and learn freely.
- Own your learning. Accept responsibility to direct it in partnership with your teacher.
- Make choices that matter. Jamie Casap, Google’s “Education Evangelist” likes to ask, “What problem in the world do you want to solve?” What would your answer be? Start your learning there.
- Challenge yourself. Contribute to making school a place you and others want to be.
For Parents and Community
- Let schools be different. Learning won’t look like it did when you went to school. Trust that new ways will enhance, not jeopardize, student success.
- Accept technology for the tool that it is. Keep in mind that screen time enables more time to be spent on hands-on, real-world projects that include working independently and collaborating with others.
- Let your children struggle. Failure along the way will only make them stronger.
For Teacher Preparation
- Help teacher candidates break free of limiting views resulting from their own experience as a student in a traditional model and insist they are able to distinguish their role from delivering content to facilitating and supporting learning at a deep level.
- Immerse teacher candidates in experiences that incorporate new teaching strategies that specifically focus on the integration of technology as an accelerator of learning.
- Provide teacher candidates with training in how to design flexible learning spaces that work best for student learning.
For Policy Makers
- Change school funding models from generating revenue based on seat time to funding the true cost of educating students in the 21st Century.
- Fully fund the cost to create technology-enabled teaching and learning.
- Allow schools to move to proficiency and competency-based models for awarding credit.
U.S. Department of Education. (2016). Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education. Washington, DC.
Wagner, T. (2008). The Global Achievement Gap. Perseus Books, NY.