Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Next Generation of (Personalized) Learning

January 04, 2013

We all want our children to receive the best education possible. One of the key questions we’re interested in answering, as a foundation, is “what does high-quality instruction look like in U.S. schools?” And one way we’re looking at answering that question is by looking at the potential of what the foundation calls personalized learning for students.  Before we delve into what this looks like for our students, we’ve got to provide some basis for why it’s so critical.

Did you know that less than half of the 2012 graduating class that took the ACT college entrance exam scored at the level that predicts earning a “C” or better in math as freshman in college? Only 24 percent scored at this level on all four sections of the ACT. And though results have improved slightly over the last few years, at the current rate of improvement, it will take 60 years for 80 percent of US students to reach levels that indicate a readiness to succeed in college.

Sixty years is too long. The class of 2025 started kindergarten this year. Our grantees and partners are focused on accelerating students’ learning so that by the time they graduate, 80 percent will leave high school ready for success in college and beyond.

 For more than 150 years, the system has been organized around the idea that students of similar ages should move along together, through the same material, at roughly the same pace.  

We can all agree that students are individuals with different interests and learning needs. They arrive at school with varying levels of knowledge, and learn concepts at different paces and in different ways. Teachers know this. Many work hard to provide differentiated instruction to their students. But the system we ask teachers to work in doesn’t support their efforts very well. This is because for more than 150 years, the system has been organized around the idea that students of similar ages should move along together, through the same material, at roughly the same pace.

So, the question is: how do we provide instruction to our children that meet all students’ needs?

There is a small but growing effort to rethink fundamental aspects of our current system. The central idea is that the system should be designed not for uniformity, but instead to meet every student’s individual needs.  At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we call this a shift to personalized learning. We are particularly interested in whole-school models that incorporate each of the following principles:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

A group of early innovators is designing bold new schools that embody these principles. We are especially encouraged by 20 new schools we supported through the Next Generation Learning Challenges. These schools are participating in a multi-year research and evaluation study focused on student learning gains, implementation issues, and financial sustainability. The information generated in the study will be used to illuminate what’s working, where improvements could be made, and whether these models are reaching their aspirations to accelerate student learning.

We are also excited to see significant efforts to convert traditional  classroom models to more personalized learning environments. We are helping high-performing charter school networks, such as KIPP, Summit Public Schools, and FirstLine Public Schools, test new approaches and spread them when they prove effective. We also support Digital Promise and its League of Innovative Schools, a consortium of 28 public school districts working on these issues.  In addition, the foundation funds organizations such as  New Classrooms Innovation Partners that help districts and charters make the shift more effectively.

The Gates Foundation has committed $15 million on Next Generation Model  schools  over the last 18 months, and in the coming years we plan to continue to support schools with innovative approaches to personalized learning. Everyone involved in these efforts has much to learn, but we are cautiously optimistic about the power of these models to accelerate results for students and prepare them for more ownership of their learning now and in the future. Providing the foundation for our students to succeed in college and beyond is why we’re doing this work; and this is one critical way for us to get there.

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