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Aurora Institute

How Are We Doing in Personalizing Learning?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

If you have an airplane ride coming up, add A National Landscape Scan of Personalized Learning in K-12 Education in the United States to your reading list. Released by iNACOL in a collaboration with LEAP, CPRE and NORC at the University of Chicago, the report has fascinating insights into which aspects of personalized learning are taking hold and which aspects aren’t. And it provides fodder for reflection.

The power of this report is that it lifts up the experiences of teachers and students in schools that are moving toward personalized approaches. The study is based on a definition of personalization as defined by the LEAP framework, not tech-driven personalization. The findings reveal that schools are stronger in building capacity around learner-focused, in which teachers have developed relationships and processes to know their students, as compared to learner-led and learner-demonstrated.

The discussion on the findings is fascinating and triggered a stream of wonderings:

Personalized Learning and Effective Instruction: Knowing your students is different than actually organizing instruction around their needs. The findings confirm what I believe is generally known that high school teachers are less likely to assign schoolwork based on the academic needs of students. Reading the discussion on the findings, I began to wonder about the intersection of personalized learning and instruction. I suppose it would be possible to interpret the question regarding assigning schoolwork to individual students based on academic data as the practice of providing lower level work and lower level text. This practice (and one not recommended by many educators I talk to in highly developed competency-based schools) does not aim to repair the gaps in skills or knowledge needed to achieve grade-level targets. However, it does provide different level schoolwork based on need. Oh dear, I wonder if personalizing learning, based on the learning sciences, could be opening the door to less effective instructional strategies? Perhaps it is time to explore the intersection of personalized learning with what is know about effective domain-specific instructional strategies.

Personalized Learning and Culturally Responsive Education: There is a fascinating discussion starting on page 12 about the issue of interests of students. The team at CPRE explored how teachers compare differentiation and personalization. Teachers explained that “when learning is personalized, it is not only tailored to students’ individual learning levels and needs, but reflects their interests, personalities, experiences and the world around them.” Culturally responsive education also emphasizes designing learning experiences that reflect students’ interests and experiences. I wonder… If teachers understand personalized learning in this way, are they also contributing to creating more inclusive and equitable schools?

Differences in Teacher and Student Experiences: The surveys indicated that there exists a gap between the experience of teachers and students in regard to interest-driven approaches and making connections to the world around students. The interviews by CPRE found that students hold a higher standard: students expect teachers to know what interests them, whereas teachers interpret the question as whether or not they express interest in knowing. In the same way we are shifting the focus from making sure everyone is taught the same thing to making sure everyone is learning, adults in the education system may find that we need to shift from complacency that trying to do things is adequate to an active position of finding out if we are doing them well. Thus, the focus of competency-based schools would be on everyone learning and effective execution. I wonder… Should we all start asking ourselves and each other – how do you know if you are effective?

Pacing Isn’t Just about Time: I wasn’t surprised by the findings that it is more difficult for teachers to have flexible pacing. Teachers often comment that the hardest thing in changing to personalized, competency-based approaches is letting go of control. I also began to wonder… Have we underestimated what has to be in place for effective flexible pacing?

Similar to grading, which requires a number of structural pieces to be in place, flexible pacing is dependent on a number of instructional pieces in place. In order to organize a school around flexible pacing (and I’m not talking about the use of adaptive instructional software, which may be a helpful supplemental resource but isn’t the same as ensuring that schools are prepared to repair gaps in learning and that students have adequate instructional support and time to be successful), schools need to be building the capacity around six things:

  • Understanding of where students are in their learning (processes to know what students know as well as the gaps in learning);
  • student agency (preparing teachers to help students develop the Building Blocks for Learning);
  • personalized classroom management (practices such as workshop, codes of cooperation, progress trackers, and standard operating procedures);
  • organized learning experiences (units with all the information available to students of what they need to learn, how to get additional support, rubrics, and exemplars of what proficiency looks like);
  • assessments (common assessments with moderated understanding of proficiency and student-friendly rubrics); and,
  • timely, differentiated support (schools organized so that students can receive additional support on the day they are struggling so they don’t have to wait for help).

In reflecting on this list, it will be important for teachers to be comfortable with instructional strategies within the academic domains at least the level below and above the grade level.

Expectations and Understanding of Quality: Throughout the report, the issue of expectations bubbles up. Do the schools in NGLC report lower levels of some of the practices because they have a deeper understanding of what it means to do it really well? Students hold higher expectations of teachers to actually know their interests and consider them. I wonder… Should we start thinking about moderation processes that are aimed at the practices of personalized learning, not just student demonstration of proficiency in academic domains?

I’m sure every time I read this report it would get me thinking about something else. I’d love to find out what your wonderments are while reading it.

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