Personalizing Learning: Flexible Pace & Path
In 2014, Education Elements promoted the notion of "Integrated Digital Content" as a core component of blended learning. In 2017 we changed this term to “Flexible Content and Tools,” recognizing that both online and offline content have an important role to play when personalizing learning. This change also represented a shift from blended learning, which focuses on the integration of technology into the classroom, to personalized learning, which is an instructional approach that empowers students to build ownership of their learning, making sure they get the instruction they need, when they need it.
This year, we are taking things one step further by introducing “Flexible Path and Pace.”
Angie Lee from Dallas ISD shares her classroom approach to Flexible Pace and Path
This evolution began because educators began to have access to powerful digital programs in classrooms across the country that could deliver and adapt content for every student. Educators’ ability to integrate digital content into lessons was a key aspect of blended learning. As our understanding of personalized learning grew, we changed our language to “flexible content and tools.” Our blog post announcing this change in 2017 states, “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. ... In short, those materials ought to be flexible - allowing for a differentiated path, pace, or performance tasks.”
Today, we take the next step; it is not about the materials themselves, it is about the context within which those materials are used. Any content can be personalized for the needs of a student. What’s more important is that the learning experience allows students to have the flexibility to engage with the materials they need, when they need them. Students learn in different ways and to truly personalize the learning experience, there must be multiple opportunities for students to progress towards content mastery through flexible learning pathways at different paces.
Learning pathways are the teacher-curated set of learning activities and checkpoints that lead all students to a common outcome or objective (standards or competencies). Creating differentiated pathways for students allows us to honor the unique needs, talents, and strengths of each student as they progress through their learning journey. This is supported by the Universal Design for Learning framework, which encourages educators to provide multiple means of engagement, action, and expression for learners. It is also important to consider ways to provide flexibility for navigating between different learning pathways. This expands the number of learning opportunities available to students, rather than limiting them to a single pathway.
Learning pathways are also supported by allowing for differentiated pace. While students might be on the same learning pathway, their process by which they navigate that pathway and progress towards mastery might look different from their peers. Differentiated pace allows learners to have more agency in their learning as well. Increased agency opens up the opportunity to incorporate a student’s passions and interests into their learning, which also leads to higher levels of interest and relevance.
Creating flexible opportunities for path and pace:
- Creates the opportunity for multiple, differentiated learning trajectories to guide students on their path towards mastery
- Relies on the purposeful collection and utilization of data to inform decisions for how to help students craft their learning journey
- Amplifies student ownership by giving them choice in determining the process and product of their learning
- Honors the unique talents, strengths, and abilities of students and the value that each student contributes to the learning environment
Several studies highlight the powerful connection between engaging, meaningful learning and instructional materials and assignments that reflect students’ backgrounds and experiences (New America, 2019). In order to create these experiences, educators must invite, understand, and celebrate each student’s identities into their classroom.
The starting point for crafting any learning pathway is effective collection and utilization of data to inform where students’ pathways will begin. Whether that data source is from a more formal summative assessment, an exit ticket, check for understanding or an empathy-building activity, it is critical that the origin and structure of pathways are rooted in meeting a student where they are. So, when designing your first pathways, start small. For instance, design two pathways for students, each of which might just be 1-3 activities. And consider the routines, structures, and accountabilities that will be put in place to support students as they progress through a pathway at their own pace.
About Noah Dougherty and Drew Schantz
Noah Dougherty is an Associate Partner at Education Elements who loves supporting schools to design student-centered learning experiences that are transformative and culturally responsive. He has partnered with districts across the country to work on strategic planning; personalized learning; curriculum adoption; return to school planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Drew Schantz is a Senior Design Principal on the Design and Implementation team. He is passionate about solving complex problems through an entrepreneurial lens and working with others to develop innovative, student-centered, and equity-driven practices that improve outcomes for all students.