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March 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 6
Getting Personalization Right
One of the biggest challenges in a personalized-learning environment is meeting the diverse needs of students while staying true to curriculum content and standards. One size does not fit all, of course. Some students are not interested in the content, and some are not academically ready for the skills being covered. As a teacher, I have had to give up control as the sole resource in the room and train students to move one another forward in their tasks. Students use their strengths to aid their classmates with higher-level thinking. As they collaborate and question one another, they fill k—nowledge gaps better than I could ever imagine possible. They also clear up misconceptions faster and in real time without having to wait for the teacher. This is the power of a personalized-learning environment that propels students to success in academics and 21st-century skills. Teachers are no longer the experts in the room but rather the facilitators of student-centered communities—fueled by and for students.
—Kandi Horton, 7th and 8th grade personalized-learning teacher, Wheatland Center School, Burlington, Wisconsin
A monumental challenge is building capacity among leaders. Many schools and districts, including ours, have great managers. They mitigate concerns, fill openings with capable individuals, nurture safe learning environments, craft and pass along district directives, and skillfully spin countless other plates amid a great deal of scrutiny.
However, systematically transforming the learning environment from a legacy model to one that is learner-focused requires spirited instructional leaders—those who can champion the vision by empowering others and challenging the status quo. These leaders inspire desired change by example. They lead professional development, frame provocative questions, seek solutions, and generously share their learning experiences with colleagues. Teachers gravitate to these leaders because of their genuine partnership in the work.
To build this capacity in leaders, we have reallocated meeting time and resources for professional development of leaders, encouraged site visits, promoted participation at noteworthy conferences, and used instructional rounds to facilitate ongoing dialogue. We have also hosted a personalized-learning summit within our district and invited colleagues from surrounding schools to visit our schools and classrooms.
—Brian Beresford, teaching and learning supervisor, Eastern Carver County Schools, Chaska, Minnesota
If personalized learning is done well, it means that we account for every single student. This, in itself, is a difficult feat. Because students' abilities vary within each classroom, it's difficult for teachers to manage a true personalized-learning approach on a daily basis. At our school, we believe that students should be able to work at their own pace, speeding up or slowing down as needed.
We use a blended learning model that leverages technology to aid in personalization. Our teachers curate eight weeks of content complete with assessments, performance tasks, and assignments using the Understanding by Design backward-planning model. This content is housed online in a learning management system. Because the curriculum is prepared in advance, teachers are freed up to work with small groups of students to target specific needs. Teachers anticipate possible misunderstandings of the curriculum and prepare small-group workshops that may be mandatory for students who are not meeting mastery and optional for those who are exceeding expectations.
—Christine Levinson, assistant principal, USC Hybrid High School, Los Angeles, California
Some of our greatest challenges were crafting a coherent vision statement and educating stakeholders about personalized learning. To address these issues, we partnered with the Lexington Institute and Education Elements to develop our vision statement and create a graphic representation of what personalized learning means to us. We also expanded our collaborative network of leaders and teachers by creating a personalized-learning council that keeps us true to our core values. Every campus has a seat at the table during our personalized-learning conversations. Our council members are charged with pioneering new ideas, seeking out teachers who are receptive to taking part in pilots, and spreading their enthusiasm about personalized learning across the district.
—Chris Summers, director of curriculum and instruction, West Oso ISD, Corpus Christi, Texas
The biggest challenge I've faced with personalized learning is the specter of end-of-course grades. Personalized learning is severely limited when a semester grade, given at a fixed time, becomes a permanent part of a GPA. I have tried to develop a system of badges that students can earn, each certifying achievement of certain criteria. The goal is to do away with fixed grades altogether. If comparative ranking is required, it should be based on the quality of achievements or certifications that students have earned over several years of study.
Although our school still requires grades, I have been able to validate a diverse set of interests and activities in my engineering materials class. One student gets credit for refurbishing an old truck while another is accredited for following a set of directed lessons involving plotting and interpreting data in Excel. By focusing on student engagement and learning rather than grades, I've been making some headway in implementing personalized learning.
—James Happer, instructor, Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School, Burnsville, North Carolina
A key component of our blended learning and personalized-learning classrooms is for students to learn at their own pace. However, one of the biggest challenges we've faced is knowing what to do for students who moved much too quickly or slowly. We want to ensure that these students don't end up too far ahead or behind the class at the end of the term.
Our solutions are not flashy, but they make sense for our students and teachers. We created a minimum pace for students, allowed more time throughout the day for students to catch up, and provided pathways for students who have already mastered content to move ahead (after they have demonstrated knowledge).
We are continually looking for ways to personalize learning, and although we've resolved this challenge, there are still many others we must address to improve learning outcomes. We'll keep working on it!
—Deagan Andrews, director of instructional technology, Greeley-Evans School District 6, Greeley, Colorado
Implementing personalized learning can be challenging when students have a strong desire to adhere to expectations of their cultural upbringing. Because I work in an international bilingual school that uses an inquiry-based curriculum framework, this can be difficult to balance. Students will often want to please their families and meet their local society's expectations. For instance, students feel obligated to use ideas that are provided to them instead of following their own curiosity and natural inquiries. In an English language learning environment, this means that students prefer to aim for perfect grammatical structure rather than to convey their thoughts on a topic. By sharing my philosophy of education and meeting with parents about their expectations, I try to help parents understand the benefits of promoting a love for language learning in their children.
—Jade Choung, grade 6 teacher of English as an Additional Language, Beanstalk International Bilingual School, Beijing, China
A challenge that we face in schools and districts across the United States is not an inability to change, but too much change that isn't focused or sustained. In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins states that "the signature of mediocrity is not unwillingness to change, but chronic inconsistency." Too often we abandon initial work for the "next thing." As a consequence, staff feel initiative fatigue and take on the mindset that "this too shall pass."
In Eastern Carver County, we have been working intentionally to align all of our work—including professional development, evaluations, school/district improvement plans, and technology integration—to personalized learning. Our goal is to make it clear that personalized learning is not one more thing; it is the thing. When a new idea emerges, we'll question how it aligns to our work with personalized learning. If it doesn't align, we shouldn't be doing it.
—Clint Christopher, associate superintendent, Eastern Carver County School District 112, Chaska, Minnesota
The greatest challenge we've faced with implementing personalized learning is changing students' mindsets (and teachers' mindsets, too) about how learners gain knowledge. Students were used to receiving every piece of new information directly from the teacher, so it was difficult for them to move away from being "led" through instruction. We are working to overcome this by creating opportunities for students to grapple with content while also receiving appropriate support from the teacher.
—Tonya Randall, principal, Nexus STEM Academy, Memphis, Tennessee
Implementing personalized learning is time consuming and requires a tremendous amount of upfront planning. However, as I started to see myself as the facilitator of student learning instead of the mastermind of all possible experiences, the burden became lighter. Instead of owning all outcomes, I ask students to claim their learning, design experiences, and write proposals for the work they'd like to do. This turns students into project managers—acclimating them to leadership roles and allowing them to rehearse the real-life skills that industries seek, including organization, collaboration, problem solving, and self-advocacy skills.
—Amber Chandler, ELA teacher, Frontier Central School District, Hamburg, New York
My greatest challenge has been getting students to think more about how my class is applicable to their lives outside of high school—and less about the quickest and easiest way to demonstrate mastery of skills. I have devoted class time to one-on-one discussions with my students about how they can apply what we learn in school to something important in their lives. As a result of this work, I've seen more student engagement and found revitalization in my teaching.
—John Wilkinson, high school physics teacher, Elmbrook Schools, Brookfield, Wisconsin
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