Personalized Learning for a Collective Purpose

Personalized learning. You hear the term more and more these days but have you really wrestled with what it means? After a year of exploration and a recent week-long deep dive at a consultancy with Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, CA, I feel ready to share some insights.

Just as a doctor knows the lifestyle and genetics of a patient to provide the best treatment plan, a teacher must know the learning styles, abilities and interests of a student in order to help them develop a personalized learning path. In a personalized learning environment, students help design and direct the learning to achieve mastery of the standards and other outcomes defined by the learning organization.

This model is both loose and tight. Years ago when my husband and I were making decisions about our daughter’s education, we visited a Montessori school and I was struck by the activity all around me. At first glance, it seemed very loose with students doing a variety of activities that interested them. Looking deeper at the curriculum, I realized that the system was very tight. Carefully selected manipulatives and lessons were designed to provide students with voice and choice but were scaffolded to ensure that students were mastering learning objectives. Students used a weekly checklist to decide their path for the week and had frequent check-ins with the teachers to ensure that there were no gaps in their learning. The power of personalized learning appealed to us and we enrolled her in the program. The personalized approach allowed her to follow her passions and influenced the person that she is today. She was able to move around the classroom and school freely, come together with other students for collaborative learning, and pursue her personal interests with monthly projects and extracurricular activities. She was a self-directed learner and mastered the content that she needed to be successful.

Isn’t this what we want for all students? Blending learning with technology tools and resources in addition to project-based learning and face-to-face instruction allows us to provide our students with choice in the resources that they use to achieve mastery in a subject. Personalization doesn’t mean that every teacher is letting students do whatever they want. It means that everyone in the school organization is focusing on the same vision for student outcomes which allows for student choice in the path that they choose to learn content and showcase their learning to others.

You can’t personalize learning in your organization by purchasing a packaged program. Successful implementations including the Summit model include teacher-designed assessments and a mix of teacher-created and curated resources. Developing an effective model means that organizations will need to embrace a new model of how they use time to allow teachers to work on assessments and content. Ideally, content and assessments for the subject are built for the entire year so that students who need more practice can continue to work on a topic while students who’ve mastered content can move ahead or focus on another area of interest. As you begin to explore personalized learning, keep these key points in mind:

  • Students should set goals and help in the process of designing their learning path to achieve mastery of the content;
  • Students should have an opportunity to connect the content with their interests and passions;
  • Students need to learn how they learn and monitor and reflect on their own progress;
  • Learning is blended with some personalization occurring through online learning and some learning occurring through project-based, collaborative learning;
  • Formative assessment provides students with feedback about their progress;
  • Teachers use data from a variety of assessment tools to monitor student learning and make adjustments as needed;
  • Students need adequate time and space to work on their learning path;
  • Students should be provided with a mix of tools and resources to best meet their learning needs;
  • Be loose in how and when students learn the content but have tight alignment to standards and desired outcomes.

Creating a personalized learning environment in your school takes a collective effort with everyone in the school working together to create a successful model. To begin your journey, read Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology by Peggy Grant and Dale Basye. Explore Summit’s model here and by visiting their site.

Donna Teuber is the team leader for technology integration in South Carolina’s Richland School District Two, a Project RED Signature District with 1:1 computing in grades 3-12 impacting 21,000 students. Technology leadership has been key to the success of the Richland Two initiative, and Donna has created a Technology Leadership program to provide school administrators with the tools to lead the initiative at their schools, as well as leading the R2 Innovates! innovation incubator which provides teams of teachers with the training and resources that they need to implement innovative practices.

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