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It’s 2018 – Do You Know Where Your Personalized Learners Are?

By: Don Soifer on May 17th, 2018

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It’s 2018 – Do You Know Where Your Personalized Learners Are?

Innovative Leadership

Personalized learning, like so much of what we value most in our schools, should be aligned to the particular educational needs of individual learners – that’s what it’s all about. Success depends on the ways schools support teachers: providing them with effective professional development focused on making the plan work; embracing their iterations and experiments as they work to continually improve their practices; and ultimately putting them in the position to succeed in targeting instruction, interventions and enrichment, including with actionable information to support personalizing learning for all students. Personalizing learning in this way, and to scale, has great promise to transform our educational practices and substantially improve outcomes.

Classrooms that involve technology in providing instruction are frequently described as “blended.”  Educators working strategically with blended tools have raised the bar for enrichment of learning opportunities. For example, the Las Vegas Valley’s Pinecrest family of charter schools during the 2017-18 school year have used classroom technology to allow middle school students to interview subjects including some of the world’s most renowned surgeons, well-flown astronauts, accomplished journalists and A-list celebrities. Students also experience fun, standards-aligned “edutainment” lessons like exploring the interior of plant cells using 3-D animation.

Personalizing teaching and learning for all students leveraging technology requires broad, sustained commitments. This includes adhering to educational improvement strategies enabling teachers to connect with students in effective and engaging ways, allowing the differentiation for meeting each learner “where they are” in their own individualized trajectory of learning.

Classrooms in these schools structure instruction around deliberate strategies, and particularly those Education Elements aptly terms the “Core Four”:

    • Integrated Digital Content that allows for a differentiated path and pace
    • Targeted Instruction that aligns to specific student needs and learning goals
    • Student Reflection and Ownership that is ongoing and promotes learning
    • Data Driven Decisions that inform daily instructional decisions and student groupings

As described by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker in their 2015 book Blended, “An important part of this student-centered learning is that students develop a sense of agency and ownership for their progress and a subsequent ability to guide their learning.”

This occurs in ways parents and educators each find meaningful.  Studies of schools implementing personalized learning to scale and with fidelity over multiple years show student learning gains consistently exceeding 125% year over year, indicating that learners are achieving significantly more than one year’s worth of academics in a school year.

These patterns of student outcomes compare favorably with other school reforms implemented to scale across schools and communities of learners.

A recent collaborative study by the Foundation for Excellence in Education and Education Elements found that after implementing personalized learning embracing these components, 92 percent of district leaders observed teachers to be more effective, and 90 percent noted students were more engaged in their learning.

Of course, not all indications of high-quality personalized teaching and learning are quantifiable. “Our students are excited and engaged,” describes Dr. Dena Cushenberry, Superintendent of Indiana’s Metropolitan District of Warren Township, a national leader for personalizing teaching and learning. “They have wonderment and want to know more about what they’re learning.”

Generally, such classrooms are rich in data about student outcomes, and particularly those measuring the growth of individual students over time. When schools support classroom teachers with such data in a timely and useful form, it becomes actionable for the benefit of individual learners. It is a somewhat unfortunate and unintended outcome that measuring their effectiveness using traditional, controlled research models often proves challenging, because school leaders encourage teachers toward a classroom culture of continuous iteration and improvement.  

“We are constantly iterating, constantly looking at what we can do better, how we can refine?” explains Indiana educator Pam Griffin, who led one of her state’s most successful transitions to personalized instruction as principal of Warren’s Stonybrook Middle School. “Our teachers will constantly ask themselves, ‘Do I want to go ahead and iterate now?’ That’s one of our real strengths at Stonybrook, and one thing I really appreciate about our staff - they don’t wait too long to make changes.”

Achieving and maintaining this sort of progress requires education leaders to be catalysts for change, as well as chief change managers who support their teachers to succeed with new pedagogical models – models where students assume a much more active role in their own learning.

Policymakers too should consider how personalized learning can improve the productivity of our educational system, while also putting students at the center of their own learning.

In the top personalized learning schools, teachers assimilate benefits from higher levels of student engagement, and are supported with special training to reposition their role within the classroom to one where their personal connections with their students become more frequent and more productive.

Truly realizing the potential of personalized learning models requires new systems where students’ advancement is connected with the mastery of content, not the passing of allotted time intervals. 

In Nevada, where my nonprofit is focused, two state education programs in particular stand to support this work.  Thanks to a law signed last year, Nevada’s school districts and charter schools may now participate in a groundbreaking new pilot program to utilize competency-based education in this way. Nevada defines Competency-Based Education as, “A system of instruction by which a pupil advances to a higher level of learning when the pupil demonstrates mastery of a concept or skill, regardless of the time, place or pace at which the pupil progresses.”

Second, the Nevada Ready 21 program, modeled after a successful Maine program, provided tools and resources on a competitive basis to its first cohort of traditional public and public charter middle schools around the state. Schools were provided not only with funded technology plans, but the state also paid for trained instructional coaches as well as technical support, allowing teachers to focus on honing their craft to incorporate these tools.

For schools in position to utilize these two programs together, strong potential exists to realize unprecedented learning gains and to narrow gaps in student achievement levels.

All too frequently, the personal technology students use every day turns quickly from excitement to detachment when they are required to power down during the school day. This disengagement frequently transfers to the way they regard teachers within the passive learning environment of a traditional classroom.

Accelerating the meaningful feedback students receive in response to their work is another integral strategy to the success of personalized teaching and learning models.

It takes more than technology to personalize learning – it takes empowering teachers to thrive within their profession, and leveraging technology and actionable information on the progress of each child to support their success. And in today’s dynamic education landscape, few processes are more rewarding to watch.

About Don Soifer

Don Soifer is founder and president of Nevada Action for School Options, a next-gen “action tank” based in Las Vegas focused on supporting the growth of high-quality, personalized education opportunities for all students in the Silver State, across all sectors of education.

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