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Taking Education Personally

November 04, 2014

This morning I was privileged to join an amazing group of committed educators, experts, policymakers, and researchers at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) conference in Palm Springs, California. The conference brought together professionals from around the country leading the charge for personalized learning for students.

I’m inspired by this conference because it underscores so much of what we are doing with our partners to understand the right mix of instructional practices, technology, and teaching methods to customize learning for every child.

We know from evidence that teachers matter most inside a classroom. By giving teachers the tools and supports they need to be their best we can accelerate and deepen student learning in powerful ways.

The concept of personalized learning is still evolving as new models, approaches, and supporting technologies emerge. However, interim results from a multi-year RAND study have shown that there are similar components in schools that have adopted early personalized learning practices:

  1. Creating unique learning profiles: Teachers have a deep understanding of each student’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and goals to help customize their learning. At Summit Public Schools in California, for example, each student has a Personalized Learning Plan that documents their mastery of content and skills, as well as their interests inside and outside of the classroom. Students and teachers use this information to set weekly goals, and students, their parents, and teachers can access the online profile at any time.
  2. Personal learning paths: All students are held to the same high expectations, but each student has a customized path through the curriculum based on their unique progress, motivation, and goals. Acton Academy, a private elementary school in Texas, encourages students to participate in Socratic discussions with their teachers to devise a personal “journey” based on their needs. Students use such technologies as game-based adaptive learning to go outside of traditional programs to find what they need wherever they can—on the internet, from each other, or even by picking up the phone and calling an expert.
  3. Mastering skills for progress. Progress, like learning, is personal and real-time assessments are made to ensure students are gaining the skills, insights, and knowledge they need before progressing to the next concept or level. In the Teach for One methodology used by New Classrooms, students take daily checkups to see how they’re progressing and to determine the mix of learning tasks they’ll engage in the next day: pick-up sessions that are online or live, task sessions that involve real-world applications of their learnings, and math advisory sessions, which are project-based.
  4. Supporting flexible environments. Everything from the use of space and time is responsive to students and how they learn. Nolan Middle School in Michigan has removed classroom walls to create a space for 120 students. Desks are replaced with modular furniture. Student schedules are divided into large blocks of work time in which students can choose which subjects to work on. Two teachers monitor groups of up to 50 students, while two other teachers use real-time data to mentor students based on who needs extra help.

Even though the results of the RAND evaluation are interim, the data suggest that personalized learning helps students do better, in particular those students who started furthest behind. Students attending schools where personalized learning is happening made above average gains in both reading and math. The promise of what personalized learning holds for students and the power it has to accelerate and deepen learning is exciting. Together, we must continue working to make sure that students and teachers have the tools and resources to create personalized learning environments that lead to more and better learning.

The study will continue into next year, and I’m optimistic that a larger body of evidence will stand behind the work of these exceptional educators and students.


 
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