Special Report
Professional Development

How Personalized Learning Is Weathering Tough Times: ‘Iterate and Learn’

By Kevin Bushweller — November 04, 2020 6 min read
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, educators are learning important lessons on the fly that they believe will make their schools better for the long haul.
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Making personalized learning work is hard under normal circumstances. Teachers must pay close attention to each student’s academic strengths and weaknesses and their personal interests. Students must have regular access to digital devices and WiFi, but not overuse technology. And schools must balance maintaining academic rigor with encouraging students to pursue projects fueled by their interests.

Trying to do all that during a pandemic makes those challenges even more daunting. That is especially the case for schools serving students in high-poverty communities of color where the threat and impact of the coronavirus is much higher, and they are likely engaged in remote or hybrid learning.

Phyllis Lockett is the CEO of Chicago-based nonprofit LEAP Innovations.

Even so, many schools in those circumstances are muddling through the challenges—and some principals and their teachers are innovating and learning important lessons on the fly that they believe will make their schools better for the long haul.

One of those educators is Stacy Stewart, the principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the northwest side of Chicago. The community surrounding the 430-student school has one of highest positivity rates for COVID-19 in the city, 94 percent of its students are Latinx, 4 percent are Black, and 84 percent are from families living in poverty. Instruction is currently all-remote for the K-8 school’s students.

Stacy Stewart is the principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the northwest side of Chicago.

Phyllis Lockett, the CEO of Chicago-based nonprofit LEAP Innovations, has been working with schools like Belmont-Cragin on developing personalized learning programs before and during the pandemic, evaluating their effectiveness, and helping them make instructional adjustments now and for the future.

In separate Zoom interviews with Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller, Lockett and Stewart recently reflected on the lessons they have learned trying to make personalized learning work under difficult circumstances.

What do you see as the biggest challenge during the pandemic?

Lockett: There are many struggles. First and foremost is technology access. We still have not cracked the nut on how we ensure broadband and device access for all students. I think one of the silver linings that will come out of the COVID crisis is a movement to make technology access a student right for all learners across America. It is as basic as water and air if we are serious about preparing our students to be competitive in a digital economy.

What will it take to solve that problem?

Lockett: It’s going to have to be a reinvention of the E-rate [federal program that helps schools expand access to technology] on steroids. “E-rate plus” or “E-rate squared” approach. That’s the only way it’s going to happen.

We all know kids are spending way too much time on Zoom calls for school. How are you balancing that time spent using Zoom or other videoconferencing tools with project-based learning?

Stewart: We don’t want kids having a lot of screen time. [But] we have to follow the district or the state’s mandates in terms of synchronous and asynchronous instructional minutes. What we are trying to do now more intentionally based on the feedback of the students is give them more asynchronous time to work on projects. We thought, if this is something they are passionate about and it is still aligned to standards, then why do we have to have them in front of the camera to do a project when they could just do the project and use the camera for the presentation or to ask questions or to collaborate with a group of other peers who may be doing something similar?

How long have you been using personalized learning approaches in your school?

Stewart: Five to six years. But I feel like this year we are all brand new to doing it this way, and it’s another level of vulnerability. We were doing very well with it, but now the environment has changed, the control and flow of the day has changed.

Did you see student gains prior to the pandemic?

Stewart: We went from being one of the lower-ranked schools in the district to one of the top-tier schools in the district within three to five years. As we delved into personalized learning, we saw huge increases in student growth where you have 95 percent or more of our students meeting or exceeding growth standards in reading and math.

How do you create a balance between personalized learning approaches and performance on standardized tests?

Lockett: Personalization, in our opinion, does not trade off [academic rigor]. You have to set a high bar of expectations and academic outcomes for students. How do you do that in a way that honors every student’s context? We feel very strongly that state testing needs to absolutely continue to be a criteria for success. But it can’t be the only criteria on which we measure our students and assess their skills and needs.

Why do you think some self-directed learning efforts lack academic rigor while others are very effective?

Lockett: [For a long time], there was no connection between learning science and how kids learn. You’ll see this manifested in how kids are using or engaging in ed tech [during the pandemic]. What’s really fascinating to me is when I hear a lot of folks talking about how remote learning doesn’t work because of the tech and the kids don’t want to be on the tech all day and all these things. Yeah, it’s like, guess what, kids don’t want to be on Zoom all day listening to a teacher tell them what to do. It’s even worse in a virtual environment, let alone a school [building].

What level of professional development does it take to get teachers ready to use personalized learning strategies?

Stewart: Let’s talk about the “why” [first], because universities are not training pre-service teachers for this type of work. And so what happens as a building leader is you are having to undo a lot of the traditional practices that were emphasized by the universities. So that’s one big challenge.

And the opportunities?

Stewart: We use our school as a lab site for personalized learning. You can take a small subset of teachers who you call your “first followers” of this type of learning and those are the ones who get the largest amount of professional development to pilot the work and use the lab model to be studied by the rest of the school.

What do you think is the next big step for personalized learning?

Lockett: We really need to upskill and reskill our educator workforce. Educators not [using] an LMS [Learning Management System]—that’s nonnegotiable, especially in the context that we are preparing students for a digital economy.

Cultural competency. Another big, big deal. That connects not only to relational skills, but understanding the context of our students, particularly our Black and brown students. If a teacher does not understand how to connect and value the culture and context of the students they are serving, there is no way they are going to be able to build the relationship and trust.

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

Also we need to look at this issue of equity. How can we eliminate some of those barriers across the country? How do we provide more equitable access and resources and experiences regardless of where students live or their socioeconomic status?

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.

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