Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

4 Examples of Personalized Learning in K-12 Education

November 16, 2014

We all learn differently. What if we honor our differences by empowering teachers and challenging students with the specific tools they need to succeed—and using technology to accelerate and deepen learning?

Today, I want to highlight four examples of how schools and teachers are doing just that—working to meet each individual student’s needs, skills, and interests. I could share dozens of stories, but I hope these quick examples give you a window into how personalized learning programs are embracing the things that make each student unique.

1. Reinventing the Classroom.
After 20 years as a teacher, Valyncia Hawkins searched for a new way to ensure all her students could reach their full potential in school—at their own pace. Through a fellowship with the CityBridge Foundation, Valyncia developed a teaching approach that provides students a more flexible learning environment through a mix of technology and small-group instruction. Desks are grouped together so children can gather to work on laptops. Another section of the classroom has a small couch and a smart board, offering a gathering place for small group-instruction. There are desks in the corners for students who prefer quiet time or need one-on-one feedback from teachers.

Valyncia is no longer struggling to keep every student on task and on the same page. Now, her students are more engaged, and there are fewer behavioral issues. “I am meeting them where they are,” said Valyncia. In the process, she said it reinvigorated her passion for teaching.

 ADDITIONAL READ: How teacher Tanesha Dixon reinvented her classroom after a CityBridge fellowship.

Teachers across the country also are reinventing the classroom through project-based lessons, which give students real-world scenarios to tackle—making learning relevant and provide them with a variety of rich learning experiences. Juniors at Casco Bay High School in Maine, for example, undertook an in-depth, year-long exploration of the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. As part of this project, students traveled to Queens, New York, to help rebuild homes of Hurricane Sandy victims and document the effects of the storm. This documentary—written, directed, edited, and produced by Casco Bay students—offers a great example of the power of learning by doing. What’s more personal than that?

2. A Unique Learning Path for All Students.
At USC Hybrid High School, school leaders recognized from day one that social and emotional growth were inextricably linked with academic growth. As Hybrid High founder David Dwyer said, “Kids will stay in school if they feel connected.” That’s why students are assigned an advisor on their first day of school, who works with them until graduation. These advisors get to know the students and their families, meeting with students monthly to evaluate progress and set goals for the coming weeks. It’s a personalized approach to advising, and early results are promising: The academic growth for Hybrid High students was 9 times the rate of other Los Angeles students with similar starting points.

3. A Deep Understanding of Each Student’s Interests and Needs.
Teachers today have access to a host of new tools that offer a deep understanding of each student’s strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and goals to help customize their learning. At Summit Public Schools in California, each student has a Personalized Learning Plan that documents their skills, how well they’re progressing, and their interests inside and outside of the classroom. Students and teachers use this information to set weekly goals, and students and their parents can access the online learning profile at any time. This allows students to work at their own pace and make decisions about how to spend their time in the short- and long-term. As one Summit ninth-grader noted, “I like that we are trusted to make decisions [about our learning].”

4. Helping Students Progress At Their Own Pace.
Walk into a math class at Whittemore Park Middle School in South Carolina, and you’ll see some students working on laptops, others gathered in small groups, and a few meeting one-on-one with a teacher. At each laptop, students access a personal dashboard outlining the lessons they’ve completed, and the ones they still have left to finish. Daily check-ups—such as brief 10-question math exercises—let teachers see how students are progressing. Teachers use this information to determine the mix of learning tasks they’ll focus on in class the next day. Not only do students love the flexibility, they’re also learning a ton. After just one year, the effort has boosted test scores, student engagement, and even teacher attendance.

“I really feel I’m meeting the needs of the kids,” said math teacher John Williams.

Every student is unique. And every student is uniquely capable of learning what they need to know to go on to college or another postsecondary institution. We believe that by sharing stories of personalized learning in action, we can inspire teachers across the country to excite, engage, and educate each of their students as individuals—setting them on a trajectory for success in their career and in life. 

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        How schools are working to meet each student’s needs, skills, & interests.

        We all learn differently. Let’s honor those differences.

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