Visible Progress for Personalized Learning

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine

December 01, 2016

Executive Perspective

Last year, my AASA colleague Mort Sherman and curriculum developer John Brown collaborated with me in the writing of Personalizing 21st Century Education: A Framework for Student Success.

Simultaneously, AASA launched its Personalized Learning Consortium, which has since brought together more than 100 superintendents from school systems nationwide in various stages of personalizing education for their students. The group is growing quickly as more and more districts begin to transform their schools from the factory model that has prevailed since the industrial revolution.

Trial and Error

Admittedly, technology is playing a major role in enabling personalized instruction. Indeed, AASA began the process by establishing a Digital Consortium made up of practitioners whose district had made the digital leap. Many of these systems are known for successfully implementing one-to-one initiatives along with blended instruction. Through trial and error, they learned that staff had to be trained first in the proper use of the technology, that a robust broadband wireless system had to be in place and that the appropriate platforms and software, along with online materials, had to be acquired to ensure a value-added instructional process.

The digital leap received a big boost from President Obama’s ConnectEd and Future Ready Schools initiatives along with the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate increase to $3.9 billion.

Even so, a significant difference remains between using devices as not much more than electronic books with the entire class working simultaneously on the same assignments and enabling each child to proceed at his or her own pace with instructional materials appropriate to the child’s ability. It is this level of individuality and performance base, with ongoing, formative assessments allowing continuous progress, that defines personalized learning.

Visible Departures

The schools we have visited where personalized learning is taking place demonstrate a significant departure from schools as most of us know them. It is safe to say that most adults today never experienced such an environment. Unfortunately, that has become a challenge for superintendents intent on making changes. Much community engagement and education will need to take place before school boards and parents are comfortable allowing their children to be in such a radically different learning experience.

However, when you talk to students, parents and teachers in a school that is personalizing learning, you hear mostly accolades. Students love it because they feel engaged. They have been given control and responsibility for their own learning. Walk into a classroom and you will not see the teacher standing in the front of the room lecturing students aligned neatly at desks.

Rather, you will see students scattered about, some sitting, some on the floor, many in small groups, others working independently. The teacher walks around the classroom answering questions for one group, challenging another, addressing individual needs of other students. When you look at what the students are doing with their devices or manipulative materials, you notice they are working on different things, perhaps different subjects and topics, all geared to their individual needs.

Teachers in these schools will tell you they will never go back to preparing lesson plans for the entire class and lecturing their students regularly. Yes, the occasional large-group presentation is still appropriate, but no longer the daily routine. Teachers can spend more time working with students one-on-one and with small groups. Students don’t lag behind because they are allowed to continue to work on the same assignment until they master the skills or knowledge. The advanced student can proceed unfettered.

Parents support it because, perhaps for the first time, their children love school. Students are not frustrated because the pace of instruction has left them behind or because they are bored by material they already mastered. They have chances to pursue a multitude of pathways based on their preferences.

Lingering Barriers

These are not the schools of tomorrow. They exist today, and they are paving the way for what is a true transformation of our educational system. Many rules and regulations stand in their way, such as seat-time requirements, Carnegie units, required hours and number of school days, grade levels and more. We can only hope that these personalized learning pioneers will be the disruptive elements that soon will enable all students to be educated this way.