Personalized Learning Requires Flexibility: An Update to Education Elements’ Core 4
When I was in high school I had a fantastic U.S. history teacher who demanded that we each complete an independent research paper on the 1960’s at the end of the year. I got to choose the topic and knew that I’d have to develop a thesis, and I knew the defense of that thesis would have to be sourced from far more than textbooks - it had me scouring local libraries and whatever I could find on Webcrawler at the time (my friend told me about a site called Google that was pretty good but I thought the name was weird so I didn’t use it for a while).
I still remember the sense of independence and confidence I gained just by being told that I had the ability to do my own original research. And I appreciated the chance to go beyond 1-2 lines in the textbook into a topic of interest. The whole experience felt personal to me - my teacher trusted me to do complex work, we met to discuss my goals, and how I learned about everything was up to me.
As my colleagues and I work with teachers from a different vantage point these days, we continue to ask ourselves “What makes for great personalized learning?” Early in our work much of our focus centered on blended classrooms, where the integration of digital content was baked into the model of learning. Blended learning, however, is just one approach to personalization, as we’ve learned after years of collaboration with schools and districts all over the country. While technology does remain a critical investment for many districts - it can support open access to information, new forms of collaboration, adaptive learning experiences, and make student progress easily accessible for students and families - learning experiences customized for individual students might also make minimal use of technology. This was the case in my high school classroom, and has been the case in highly personalized Montessori schools for quite some time (for a quick Montessori sidetrack, read about newer models in Kentucky, Texas or Massachusetts, or something in your state here).
At its core, with or without technology, personalized learning involves building a learning environment that is responsive to students’ strengths, needs, and interests. There are academic and social-emotional pieces of this work carried on by many staff within a school, from teachers to librarians to school psychologists. And there are also structures and policy decisions designed to provide a more tailored experience for students: from looping teachers to fostering relationship-building to refocusing assessment and grading on mastery, student-centered learning is often a system-wide endeavor.
Yet regardless of technology, policy, or structural decisions, the work of personalization lives or dies in the classroom with teachers. At Education Elements, we think there are 4 key ingredients for teachers to consider in order to personalize learning for students:
- Student Reflection and Ownership - encourages a focus on metacognitive strategies for learning and prompts students to pursue their passions and ownership of their work
- Data-Driven Decisions - allow teachers and students to understand and act on their strengths and needs
- Targeted Instruction - provides a critical structure for teachers and students to problem-solve with one another and meet individual learning goals
- Flexible Content and Tools - creates a mix of resources responsive to student needs and interests that allows for differentiated path, pace and performance tasks in learning
Previously, our fourth focus area was Integrated Digital Content, which we’ve updated to focus on Flexible Content and Tools (download the new Core 4 white paper here to learn more). As a company we are committed to reflection and iteration, and after working in hundreds of communities across the country we concluded that what’s more important than the type of instructional materials students encounter is their purpose. Whether offline or online, we want to emphasize that the content and tools that students access year after year should not be a completely fixed set of resources. As new students enter classrooms or as existing ones develop in their knowledge and understanding, the resources they have for learning should adapt. In short, those materials ought to be flexible - allowing for a differentiated path, pace, or performance tasks.
When teachers collaborate with others to thoughtfully plan a mix of Flexible Content and Tools, truly great learning can happen, whether it’s done in libraries or Makerspaces, through novels or on a tablet, in single subjects or interdisciplinary courses. The path students take to learn may differ, as mine did in high school when I got to dive deeply into a topic of interest; the pace at which students learn can vary, allowing students to advance in a learning progression according to their needs; and finally, the evidence of learning that students deliver can truly tap into their creativity and desire to share their perspective with the world. Taken together, creating a flexible mix of content and tools can equip teachers and students with learning experiences that empower and inspire.
For a deeper understanding of the Core Four, read our original blog post.