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What Do Personalized Learning Schools Have in Common?

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By Stefanie Blouin, Director of K-12 Operations, and Kristen Vogt, Knowledge Management Officer, for Next Generation Learning Challenges.

Just like one size doesn't work for all students, one size doesn't make sense for schools adopting personalized learning either. By definition, every personalized learning school should be tailored to what the youth within its community need. In part 1 of this post, we outlined what personalized learning looks like at Piedmont City School District, Fullerton School District, and Summit Public Schools. Each site is unique--Piedmont emphasizes career exploration and hope for the future, while Fullerton nurtures engagement and Summit underscores goal-setting and a broad, deep perspective on college and career readiness. But we hope you notice what these school models do have in common; these are the principles that make personalized learning so powerful.

Student agency: Each of the three models build in student choice, ownership, and self-direction. The schools' schedules provide a portion of learning time when students are working independently through a playlist of content. And in other parts of the day, students make decisions that personalize their experience, such as which projects to pursue or how and when they will demonstrate mastery. Students can use these skills of enacting agency over their learning to drive their college experience and productively engage in our quickly changing economy and increasingly complex world. For these reasons, agency may be as important an outcome of schooling as academic content, knowledge, and skills.

Experiential Learning: All three of these school designs utilize project-based learning, one form of experiential learning in which students engage in real, authentic, complex questions or problems for an extended period of time. It's a powerful way to integrate academic thinking skills with real-world abilities. Students discover how they can have an impact on the world around them by applying their knowledge, building their skills, managing the process, and working with others. Learning is a social phenomenon, even when it's personalized. Project-based learning and other forms of experiential learning such as internships, field study, and service-learning require students to practice collaboration and communication while also seeing how their individual learning goals fit within and are advanced by their engagement with the world around them.

Strong teacher-student relationships: As the three school examples highlight, personalization would not be possible if teachers don't know their students well. It starts with teachers working with students to set personal learning goals. The three schools then build in time for teachers to work with students in small groups and even one-on-one on a regular basis. Research evidence hints to the achievement gains for schools utilizing the small group strategy alongside data-driven discussions with students about their learning goals within a flexible learning environment. At face value, the more personalized interactions can strengthen the relationship teachers create with students, help them know their students and what works for them, and can provide students with tailored learning support.  Teachers may use learner profiles as a tool to help establish these strong relationships and guide their interactions with students.

Mastery-based progression: In a typical school setting, even a differentiated one, a group of students moves on to the next learning unit when the lesson ends and grades from a summative assessment are recorded. All students move on, even those with significant gaps in their learning. When learning is personalized as it is in Piedmont, Fullerton, and Summit, a lesson (or playlist or project) not only starts with a student's goals and current ability level taken into account, it ends when students show they have mastered the learning goal of the lesson. The assessment of mastery may take different forms, but performance-based assessment fits well with the principles of student agency, experiential learning, and mastery of an integrated set of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It allows students to demonstrate their skills in a meaningful way, just as a master craftsman might do. Furthermore, grades reflect what a student has learned and mastered at the end of the learning cycle, not the fits and starts and risks taken along the way to mastery. Fullerton's iPersonalize uses the gaming concepts of "leveling up" and "respawning" to manage and support its mastery-based progression. To keep track of individual student goals, pathways, projects, and assessments, the three schools use some form of a personalized learning plan. Summit's PLP tool is becoming ever more sophisticated but low-tech options also help teachers and schools work with students to plan and track a personalized path.

Personalization is hard but worthwhile

There's no doubt that this form of personalization is full of challenges, but schools pursuing personalized learning across the country are already demonstrating it may be well worth the effort. Three challenges worth our effort to collectively solve are the limitations of today's technology, the structures pushing against mastery-based progression, and a legacy of "learned helplessness" for students. We believe in the value gained from taking on the challenges.

Technology: Technology is not mentioned in our definition of personalization (see part 1) because we don't consider it a necessary tool. We've seen manila folders serve as databases and wall posters serve as playlists. And the reality is that despite the wealth of edtech products marketed to support personalization, and the promise we see in the technologies behind Amazon and Netflix that customize for consumers, most current edtech systems are not flexible enough to support personalized learning plans, pathways, and assessments. A few platforms under development and new to the market, such as Cortex and LiFT, offer the promise of tools educators need to make the shifts in instruction, roles, and learning described here possible.

Mastery-based progression: In a study of personalized learning schools which found promising effects on math and ELA learning gains, the researchers also found that what they referred to as "competency-based progression" was seemingly the hardest personalized learning strategy to implement. What does mastery-based progression look like for students who are expected to meet grade-level standards but enter that grade far behind? State assessments, especially end-of-course exams, and time-based structures like pacing guides complicate mastery-based progression. Educators may be able to implement elements of mastery-based progression within the current structures, but these challenges require systems-level efforts to resolve in the long-term.

Learned helplessness: Students have become passive in their learning in school. In How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough suggests that when schools teach compliance and prioritize getting one right answer, they produce learned helplessness. That means students will need guidance in order to unlearn habits and relearn how to be in control of their learning, making choices with autonomy and seeking support when needed. Some schools, like Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, use a form of scaffolding called "gradual release" to help students develop the ability to become more self-directed in school. Wouldn't it be great to never hear, "Will this be on the test?" or "Is this what you want?" again?!

If you're already differentiating instruction, you're on the way to personalized learning. As an educator, you've likely experienced a core group of students not mastering the skills and content despite your best efforts to differentiate and you may have even experienced students who already possess the knowledge, skills, and content at the start of a unit. Personalized learning helps educators get past this tension by starting with what individual students know, understand, and can do and builds on the best practices of differentiation. Personalized learning unlocks the learning potential for each student so they can attain the rich, deep, broad outcomes we want for all students and that all students need and deserve. 

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