When Hinton High School tested personalized learning in a big way two years ago, it did not go as planned.
Students at the Oklahoma school were given digital devices, with the idea that they would use them to work on individual lessons, all at the same time. And that’s when educators and students started questioning the approach.
“Personalized [learning] wasn’t working across the board,” said Jarrod Hohmann, now the principal of the school but a math teacher when the rollout began.
Teachers felt there wasn’t enough genuine class-discussion time. Students who fell behind were often reluctant to ask for help. Unmotivated students used the looser structure to slack off. The school, Hohmann said, had taken on too much, too fast by putting personalized learning, including flexible scheduling, in place in grades 6-12, all at once.
“Kids were frustrated, teachers were frustrated, the community was frustrated,” he recalled.
Now the school has scaled back the approach.
Hinton still relies on technology to individualize instruction, including for remediation and acceleration. “We still have a digital component to our classes,” he said. But “we are using a variety of strategies to teach concepts and objectives.”
Personal Interests, Learner Profiles
As more schools around the country not only embrace but also put in place personalized-learning approaches, educators such as Hohmann see a lot to be optimistic about. But most still view this approach with a critical eye, according to a nationally representative survey of nearly 600 teachers conducted by the Education Week Research Center.
“I think if done well, it could really transform things,” said Denice Hatch, who teaches kindergarten at Atwood Primary School in Oakland, Maine. But she added, “I’ve been in education many, many years and I know it’s really hard to make systemic change.”
There is genuine enthusiasm among teachers for allowing students to infuse their own personal interests into classroom learning. Still, educators find many of the oft-cited tenants of personalized learning—having students set their own learning goals, letting them give input on how they’ll be graded, or using data to construct “learner profiles” of students—difficult, or inappropriate, for the particular grade level they teach, the survey and follow-up conversations with survey participants show.
Half of educators describe personalized learning as one tool in the school improvement toolbox or as a “promising idea,” according to the survey. And 21 percent view it as a “transformational way” to improve K-12 schools.
But 11 percent view it as a passing fad. Ten percent say it’s not on their radar screen. And 8 percent see it as a “threat to public education.” Professional development, in particular, is seen as a trouble spot.
And teachers’ use of personalized-learning technologies—such as adaptive software—was not as common as many personalized-learning advocates might expect or hope for: A majority of educators surveyed, 60 percent, say they “never” or “rarely” use adaptive software to let students learn at their own pace.
‘It Gets Tricky’
Even though a number of educators—and their schools—are supportive of personalized learning in theory, some of the techniques that are a hallmark of the approach aren’t widely used. That’s in part because they aren’t easy to pull off, educators said in interviews. State-required standardized tests are seen as an especially big barrier for more student-centered approaches such as personalized learning.
“That’s kind of where it gets tricky, personalized learning,” said Paula Meitzler, a 4th and 5th grade resource teacher and behavioral specialist for Rodburn Elementary School in Morehead, Ky. “Yes, we want children to be able to show how they learned how they want to, but you’ve also got to think they have to be prepared for [state test] too.”
Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said they “rarely” or “never” allow students to set their own learning goals. Just 36 percent said they did so “often” or “always.”
That does not surprise Fawn Jelinek, a teacher at Hunter Elementary School in Fairbanks, Alaska. She said setting “learning goals for 4th graders, that’s a little bit ambitious.” Jelinek has tried goal setting, but it is more around behavioral plans rather than academic ones, and it is with older kids in elementary school.
Similarly, nearly three-quarters of educators say they “never” or “rarely” use digital software to construct “learner profiles” of students. And 78 percent say they “never” or “rarely” allow students to pick the metrics that will determine whether they are making progress toward their learning goals. More than half say they “never” or “rarely” let students choose how they want to demonstrate what they have learned.
Downsides and Upsides
Although it may sound like good teaching practice, there’s a downside to letting students determine how they’ll be evaluated or graded, said Donna Cogan, a 6th grade teacher for Ocean Gate Elementary in New Jersey.
“Maturity level is an issue,” she said. “The immature kids are going to look for the fastest way out. If they are not motivated learners, I think it would be hard to let them set the bar because they’ll set the bar low for themselves.”
Other personalized-learning techniques appear to be more widespread, even if they aren’t used everywhere, according to the survey. Nearly 3 of every 4 teachers say they “often” or “always” integrate students’ personal interests into specific classroom assignments and projects.
And more than half of educators, 54 percent, say they “often” or “always” use data from learning software to decide how to teach individual students.
“I like the customizing. I like the quick data that tech provides,” said Tricia Proffitt, who teaches English/language arts for speakers of Spanish and English for Belvidere Central Middle School in Belvidere, Ill. “Yes, I could do the same thing with paper [and] pencil, but it would take longer, and I feel like kids would lose out.”
But some schools, even those that embrace personalized learning in a big way, don’t necessarily rely on technology to make it happen, especially early in elementary schools.
“We are still hands-on books, hands-on pencil-paper,” said Jamie Fassett, who teaches 2nd grade for Cottonwood Valley Charter School near Albuquerque, N.M. Teachers at the middle school levels at her school use technology, but she says she often customizes 20 lessons for 20 different types of learners, without the use of digital tools. “It does take more time, but the results and the growth is worth the extra effort.”
It’s very clear that teachers have qualms about the reliance on technology tools in personalized-learning efforts. Nearly 3 of every 4 teachers worry “quite a lot” or a “great deal” that personalized learning can lead to students spending too much time on computer screens.
Beyond that worry, nearly half have significant concerns that the approach calls for students to work alone too often, almost half are anxious the technology industry is gaining too much say over public education, and more than a quarter worry that it could diminish the role of the teacher.
“I have a feeling that teachers are going to be cut, cut, cut,” Meitzler, the Kentucky teacher, said. “There will only be one teacher for every 60 kids and more online stuff, kind of like the college classes.”
But other educators suggest personalized learning actually requires more of teachers.
“There’s still a lot on me to plan and make sure that I’m aligning” [personalized learning] lessons with what students need, said Laura Finneman, who teaches special education students for Hickman Middle School in California’s Central Valley. “I’m just not standing up there and talking as much.” And, in her mind, the dividends on student achievement have been worth it. “I see more progress with them. The only time I’ve seen growth like this is when I switched from traditional to year-round school.”
At least one teacher said he was told to back away from the personalized learning approach. John Davenport, who teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies for Corte Madera School in Portola Valley, Calif., had been allowing his students to write discussion questions, offered them give-and-take conversations about grades, and allowed more advanced 8th graders to help 7th graders master the course material. Those were all strategies suggested by a former district administrator charged with innovation who recently left the district. But many parents found those approaches baffling, so his principal suggested changes.
Davenport, a veteran educator, spent years using more traditional teaching methods and is ready to reimplement them in his classroom. But he’s disappointed by the change.
“I personally feel that it’s a bit of a loss, but I totally understand where the district is coming from,” he said.
Not Enough Good PD
Most teachers, 61 percent, describe their principals as “supportive” of personalized learning, and 8 percent say it’s a “top priority” for school leaders. But 42 percent of the teachers surveyed said the professional development they had gotten on personalized learning was “effective but inconsistent.” And more than a third reported it’s “nonexistent” or “ineffective.” Just 23 percent called it “effective” or “transformational.”
There hasn’t been as much PD “as is needed,” Jelinek, the Alaska teacher, said. That’s especially true when it comes to swapping resources for personalizing instruction. “Teachers may have found cool tools,” she said, but that doesn’t mean their colleagues have. “Teachers have so little time to share and talk and explore things that they’ve done.”
Proffitt, however, gave her district’s professional development a rave review. She and her colleagues have been able to observe teachers in other schools in the district and even went to out-of-state site visits. “I think everybody is really trying to make sure we’re as comfortable as possible,” she said.
As for Hohmann, the Hinton High School principal, he still considers himself “a big believer in personalized learning” despite his school’s bumpy initial experience. “Schools are going to have to adapt and be willing to give up some control to reach some of these students that personalized learning really does benefit.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Personalization Faces Skeptics