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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

How Not to Flip Personalized Learning Skeptics

By Guest Blogger — November 06, 2017 3 min read

This month, Rick is out working on a new project exploring the lessons of Bush-Obama school reform. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific lineup of guest bloggers. Taking over this week is Mike Goldstein. Mike is the founder and former CEO of Match Education in Boston, and former Chief Academic Officer of Bridge International Academies.

There are four ways to pitch new ideas to teachers:


  1. “With W you get a better result, using less of your time.”
  2. “With X you get the same result, using less of your time.”
  3. “With Y you get a better result, in the same amount of your time.”
  4. “With Z you get a better result, but it will take more of your time.”

Z is the most common reality.

Think of successful project-based learning at exemplars like High Tech High, or “No Excuses"-style teaching at great schools like KIPP. It’s Z all the way.

Think of teacher-time-intensive add-ons like “using data” or “restorative justice” or “home visits” or “differentiated instruction.” While the reality of implementing these practices is probably Z, that’s an unappealing pitch to many teachers. It is therefore quite tempting for principals and superintendents (and advocates far from classrooms) to pitch with the Y or even W message—telling teachers it’s the same amount of their time, or even less of their time, to do it “the new way.”

What do teachers think when approached this way? They describe being annoyed at what they see as a lack of transparency. They’re being told Y (better result, same teacher time) but believe the truth is Z (better result, more teacher time).

So teachers have a few options. They can put in that extra time and do Z. They can do a half-baked implementation of Z without the extra time. They can ignore Z as best they can. Or they can cut something else from their weekly routine (which may have been even more valuable to students than Z).

Personalized learning is one of these “new ideas” often pitched to teachers. There are many reasonable objections to it (see here, here, and here for just a few), but my concern is that the true cost of teacher time is typically not revealed up front—that it’s a classic Z situation. There is some evidence of this cycle: teachers become intrigued with personalized learning, try it in their classrooms without allocating large amounts of additional time (because nobody told them it was essential), and then retreat when things get bumpy.

Thomas Arnett writes that blended learning is supposed to help save teachers time—but typically fails. He lists three reasons for this:

1. Blended learning has upfront teacher time costs. Planning to have students learn math using software? It will take time to familiarize yourself with Khan, Zearn, Reflex, and TenMarks. And there’s still the consideration of what to do with students who struggle to learn this way.

2. Hybrids add complexity. As Arnett writes, “Hybrid innovations use old technology and new technology side-by-side in an attempt to capture the benefits of both...The problem with hybrids, however, is that they are inherently more complicated to operate than either the old technology (traditional teaching) or the new technology (students using Khan) alone.”

3. Technology misses the mark. If a teacher doesn’t trust the learning data, or the data is just hard to use, or the “hints” don’t help when kids are stuck, then the technology isn’t going to save teacher time, it will cost teacher time.

Imagine a class of 25 kids who spend 40 minutes per day using math software. Assume each student needs 10 minutes of teacher time each week for a 1-to-1 check in to discuss progress, challenges, goals, and so forth—in hopes of each student getting more out of that 200-minute-per-week commitment.

Do the math. That’s an extra 250 minutes per week of conversations for the teacher. One could say, “Do those meetings during math class,” but often teachers are instructing small groups of students while others are online (that’s the “blended” part of blended learning), so they’re not “free” per se.

Enter the estimable Brian Greenberg, from Silicon Schools. Recently he and two colleagues published what they’ve learned in the last five years. I urge you to read the whole thing, but one big finding was a need to address a very specific aspect of implementing personalized learning. They write:

Make time in the schedule for 1:1 goal setting and check-ins. These 1:1s won't reliably happen if they are not built into the weekly schedule. Make 1:1 meetings effective and high-impact: put data in student and teacher's hands ahead of time so they can be prepared. Provide students and teachers a thoughtful protocol to follow. Students and teachers can accomplish a great deal in ten minutes if both parties come in prepared and clear on the focus of the conversation. Give teachers the chance to practice goal-setting meetings, get feedback, and observe other more skilled teachers lead successful goal-setting sessions. I agree. Without these sorts of meaningful teacher "check-ins," a number of students simply won't make much progress.

I realize it’s scary to pitch new ideas to teachers like, say, this:

Would you consider using Khan Academy during math class? The good news is it may help your top students race ahead, and your weaker students move at the right pace for them. Plus you'll have the chance to do more small-group instruction. However, you'll have to find 4 hours a week outside of class time to meet with each pupil, and a 5th hour of ongoing PD on how to do those goal-setting sessions well. There may be ways for us to figure out together how to make this time available, but I didn't want to sugarcoat that this approach takes more time than your current teaching."

I still think it’s worth it. We’ll see “fewer false starts,” and in the long run convert some personalized learning skeptics.

Mike Goldstein

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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