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Aurora Institute

What Does Personalized Learning Mean for Teachers?

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): iNACOL Staff

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Support Professional Learning

This is the third blog in a series on What’s Possible with Personalized Learning? Read the first post, second post, or download the entire report.

As families, communities, parents, teachers and students around the country have deep conversations around how to transform schools to better prepare each student for future success, many schools are implementing personalized learning models to best meet the unique needs of each student and prepare all students for a lifetime of success (simultaneously).

Good teachers have always sought to match their teaching to the unique needs of each student – by offering options to dig deeper into an assignment for advanced learners or by offering additional support or a modified assignment to struggling learners. Yet, doing so for a class of 20 to 30 students has been simply impossible for every student, in every lesson, every day with a single teacher and a single textbook. It’s time for empowering educators to personalize learning. Now, thanks to new designs, tools and approaches, teachers can provide every student with powerful, personalized learning experiences. Teachers find this empowering and motivating. In personalized learning models, educators’ roles are more important than ever as they design customized approaches, their professional expertise is valued and respected. In fact, many teachers explain that one of the biggest benefits of personalized learning is that they can “get back to the reason I became a teacher.”

Teachers prefer personalized learning for these reasons:

  • Teachers form stronger relationships with students because they spend more time getting to know each student and his/her strengths, goals and interests.
  • Teachers focus on research around how students learn best.
  • Teachers have more time each day where they can communicate and collaborate with one another, asking questions and figuring out what’s working and not working.
  • Teachers get to be more creative in how they design curriculum and instruction.
  • Teachers can spend more time working individually and in small groups with students.
  • Teachers spend less time preparing students for high-stakes tests and more time acting as guides and mentors to students as they are learning.
  • Teachers help students better understand themselves and their goals for the future.
  • Teachers have more opportunities to develop their own skills as teachers and to work in collaboration with other teachers.

What Does Personalized Learning Look Like For Teachers?

Connecting with Students

James Rickabaugh highlights the potential of personalized learning to dramatically improve student outcomes. In his book, Tapping the Power of Personalized Learning, teachers share their perspectives in their own words:

“By teaching in a personalized learning community, we realize that our shift in teaching has greatly helped our students. We provide students with choice and voice while they work to achieve their personalized goals. We have moved education ‘beyond textbooks’ by taking necessary steps into 21st century learning personalized using technology. Through professional collaboration and planning, teachers work together in teams to focus on using technology in our everyday teaching and learning. Students are introduced to concepts that are current, relevant and interesting to each individual learner. These opportunities allow us as teachers to connect with and appreciate our students not only on an academic level, but on a social and emotional level as well. From there, we are able to individualize to their academic and social needs, such as public speaking, organization and self-motivation. Learning these skills helps students to become self-confident, productive and aware of what it takes to be successful.”

Reflecting on New Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Personalized learning requires teachers to really shift the way they think about teaching and learning in a way that allows teachers to learn and grow as professionals alongside their students. At the iNACOL Symposium 2016, four teachers and Springpoint — a national organization that supports educators creating new and innovative high school models — shared lessons learned from teaching in personalized schools. (Watch the video here.) In reflecting on many high schools across America, the teachers explained, “The way we’ve been ‘doing high schools’ has not been working very well,” and asked, “What can we do differently?”

Teachers explored questions like:

  • How can I meet the needs of each of my kids?
  • How can I adjust and learn and continue learning myself to better approach the needs of my kids?
  • How will I give students voice and choice in how they learn and what they learn?
  • How will I know what is mastery, and how will they be able to show it?
  • How will I take into account my students’ input in the process of learning?

One teacher recounted his initial struggles of letting go of control and allowing his students to set their own course. Another shared a strategy for communicating with parents who may be unfamiliar with this kind of system. Throughout the discussion, teachers reflected honestly on how they’ve grown alongside their students in these new and innovative models.

“For teachers, personalized learning helps us learn how to evolve, listen to students’ input on the process of learning, and focus on moving to a competency-based model.”

A competency-based approach challenges every member of a school community to develop trusting relationships focused on learning.

Empowering Students

Jamie Pekras-Braun is a first-grade teacher at Thrive, a personalized and blended learning school in California. At the end of each grading period, students from grades K-12 lead collaborative meetings where they review their individualized goals around literacy, numeracy and social emotional growth; examine their work as indicators of progress toward goals; and set next steps.

Parent-teacher conferences were replaced by Student Led Conferences (SLC). The teachers prepare framing documents: agenda, goal setting tools and reflection, and they work with students who will lead the conversations with their parents and teachers. In an SLC, students lead the discussions with parents and teachers and share with their parents about how they choose their own goals and have a chance to be thoughtful about their strengths and weaknesses.

In allowing students to lead the conversation about learning, and equipping them to lead those conversations successfully, Jamie describes her students’ progress as they begin to self-monitor and reflect on their progress using the language of owning their own learning.

Jamie talks about one of her shyest students at the beginning of the year in his first parent-teacher student led conference:

“It was clear that he was extremely nervous and uncomfortable. He mumbled and read without clarity. He needed teacher support in order to complete the conference. By his third SLC a few short months later, he ran the meeting completely independently. His parents teared up when listening to his confident speaking. Every student is capable of acquiring the skills to speak about their own learning.”

For more information on what personalized learning looks like for schools, families and communities, follow this blog series, download our recent report and review the following resources.

Blog series: