How the Pandemic Is Testing Personalized Learning

Saras Chung, center, her daughter Karis, 14, left, and her son Jaron, 12, walk up to Saras's workplace office in St. Louis. Karis and Jaron, who are attending school remotely full-time, are participating in personalized learning programs.
Saras Chung, center, her daughter Karis, 14, left, and her son Jaron, 12, walk up to Saras's workplace office in St. Louis. Karis and Jaron, who are attending school remotely full-time, are participating in personalized learning programs.
—Whitney Curtis for Education Week
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The mix of instructional models that schools are using during the pandemic is dizzying: Full-time remote, hybrid, in person but socially distanced.

Tack on to that the wide range of teaching approaches within those models and you have a very complex picture of what is happening in schools. In full-time remote instruction, for instance, schools are all over the map with how much live, instructional time they are providing. With in-person instruction, group work is emphasized in some places, but not in others.

What schools have found under these circumstances is that personalized learning—which focuses on addressing students’ individual academic strengths and weaknesses as well as their personal interests—is very difficult to pull off.

More than half of educators in an EdWeek Research Center survey said teachers aren’t doing as well with personalizing instruction as they were before the pandemic. And most say student group work and individual one-on-one time with teachers—hallmarks of personalized learning—are suffering.

That, in turn, makes it much harder to engage in “deep learning,” a teaching approach that encourages students to dig deeply into a specific issue, problem, or question that is related to what they are studying and piques their interest. The idea is that digging deeply, rather than just skimming the surface of a topic, will make them better problem solvers.

Still, teachers are trying.

“A lot of things that are good practice can be done in a virtual space,” Boston middle school teacher Neema Avashia told Education Week. “If we believe kids learn best when they are doing things deeply instead of broadly, it’s about building those kinds of [activities] in an online space.”

Making policy adjustments is important too. For example, measuring learning by how much time students spend in a classroom (also known as seat-time requirements) is getting a hard look during COVID-19 because some see it as a relic of the past.

That focus on continuous improvement is now as important as it ever was, said Stacy Stewart, the principal of Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin Elementary School, which emphasizes personalized learning.

“We have to continue to listen to kids more and be flexible with what they tell us,” she said. “It’s hard. I don’t want to keep having to iterate, but you do. That’s the one takeaway I can always recommend: not to be afraid to iterate and learn.”

And that’s good advice for all of us during these uncertain times.

—Kevin Bushweller,
Executive Project Editor

Vol. 40, Issue 12, Page 2

Published in Print: November 4, 2020, as Editor's Note: Personalized Learning Faces 'New Normal'
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