Empower principals, teachers, and parents through school choice
Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning

Personalized learning: A revolution in the professional conversation of teachers

Personalized learning has become a deep professional passion of mine (see some examples here, here, and here), but for me as a university professor, it's mostly a theoretical interest, something that I read about and share with my students, but not something that I can actually practice in a P-12 school setting (practicing it with my adult principal preparation students is another matter, and something I continue to work on).  That's why I relish the opportunity to work with practicing classroom teachers who are committed to student-centered learning and who have the chance to deal with the daily struggles of implementation.

I had such an opportunity last week when I joined a group of teachers at Simpson Elementary School in my former school district for a thoughtful and inspiring conversation.  I was tremendously honored to sit around a table with teachers who are experimenting with personalized learning to small and great extents and listen to them wrestle with big questions about curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Some of these teachers have taken the concept of digitally-rich, personalized learning to a place unimaginable just a few years ago.

Second grade teacher Savannah Denning, who is also a candidate in WKU's principal certification program, wrote about some of the discussion on her blog recently.  A key question she's pondering is how to structure a self-paced curriculum.  When students finish a set of learning targets associated with a unit of study, do they go on to the next "unit," or do they explore the same concepts on a deeper level (the next grade level, for example).  Denning describes this as the "teach up or teach across" dilemma:

Do we teach across the entire grade level? Let a student move at a faster pace through all of second grade content? Let students master the essential skills for their grade level, then the less essential skills, and only then move them to the next grade level material? OR Do we teach in chunks or units like we do now? When a student masters the grade level content for that unit, they progress into the next grade level learning tasks?

The question poses very practical challenges for the classroom teacher:

IF we decide to teach up, that means that we are going to have two curriculums to write. One grade level curriculum for students who are on target, and one enrichment curriculum for students who are working above grade level. These two pathways will be happening simultaneously in the classroom. IF we decide to teach across, we will still have to write more than one curriculum, but it wouldn't have to be complete before the beginning of school next year. We could have a little more leeway with the completion-- as in, we could wait to see what is working well with the grade level curriculum and what changes need to be made before we start on the second grade level learning targets!

For my part, I favor the "teach across" approach.  Let students move at their own pace across the year's math curriculum (for example), mastering priority standards first, and then any grade-level concepts that have been deemed less essential.  After that, students may move on to the next grade-level standards for the same subject if time allows.  I believe this is not only  more practical for the teacher (only one year's worth of curriculum must be prepared, except for the handful of students who will move very rapidly), but also maximizes the personalization opportunities for students.

This approach presents other logistical challenges of course, and a decent argument can be made for "teaching up" instead.  What impresses me so much is not whether there is a correct answer to this question, but that such discussions are being had at all.  Such a conversation represents a quantum leap in thinking about teaching and learning.

It seems like just yesterday (it was, in fact, about seven years ago) that the concept of standards-based assessment of student learning appeared in the education landscape in a significant way.  The idea of teaching students to mastery of a specific set of competencies or learning targets, and re-teaching and enriching them until a set percentage of children reach a particular threshold of proficiency before moving on, was a revolutionary concept.  Formative assessment was essential to this approach, and while the term has been used in teacher preparation for a half-century or more, it was only in the 2000's that schools began to take the concept seriously.

Formative assessment and standards-based reporting and feedback are great examples of competency-based instruction, but are not altogether good examples of personalized learning.  A classroom may remain fairly teacher centered, even if students are being instructed to mastery and proficiency is the focus of learning (rather than numerical grades, competition, good behavior, etc.). 

For schools still mired in traditional, teacher-centered learning, it is imperative to adopt and implement these strategies.  But this is only a start in what's clearly possible.

True personalized learning involves taking another step, and greatly expanding student opportunities for choice and self-pacing, so that daily learning is always geared toward the specific learning needs of individual students.  Personalized learning is a seismic shift away from the standardized, one-size-fits-all, teacher-driven approach that characterizes the traditional, industrial-model classroom.

I am privileged to be working with a group or researchers as external evaluators on the $42 million kid-FRIENDLy Race to the Top grant, and a key focus of that effort right now is conceptualizing personalized learning in a way that would allow us to measure its implementation school wide.  The effort involves trying to articulate the relationship between personalized learning and strategies like competency-based instruction and standards-based assessment, as well as what personalized learning looks like on a practical, day-to-day basis, both in the classroom and in terms of how school structures are being altered to facilitate personalization and mitigate against the typical tendency toward standardization of learning processes. 

The kinds of conversations Mrs. Denning and her colleagues are having in the Simpson County Schools are highly informative of this theoretical work, and strengthen our capacity to describe personalized learning in a way that classroom teachers and school leaders can respond to in both step-by-step, and systemic, school-wide ways.

These teachers are pioneers, taking schooling to its logical, 21st century possibilities, and ushering in a great new era of personalized learning.



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