Special Report
School & District Management

Why Principals Are Embracing Personalized Learning

By Michelle R. Davis — April 17, 2018 6 min read
Laran Welser, left, and Grace Koenig, both juniors, work on laptops during an AP Literature class at New Albany High School in Ohio.
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High school Principal Dwight Carter used to be gung-ho about the deluge of ed-tech devices coming to education. He worked hard to expand the reach of digital tools in his Ohio school to personalize learning for students.

But in the last few years, Carter has taken a step back. Educational technology can help make differentiation more efficient for teachers, he said, but it isn’t the technology itself that individualizes the learning process for the 1,500 students at New Albany High School.

“Technology can free teachers up to do more one-on-one instruction,” he said. “That’s where the personalization happens.”

Across the country, principals like Carter are embracing the idea of personalized learning, but not always putting it front and center in their schools. They think the idea—and the technology that supports it—holds promise when it comes to engaging students and allowing teachers to focus on what’s important. But they remain concerned about the negative impact that ed tech, in the guise of personalized learning, can have on a student’s ability to think deeply and connect with their peers.

The notion of personalized learning as a single cohesive movement isn’t quite accurate,” said Jason Dougal, the CEO of the National Institute for School Leadership. “Is it a tool to truly enhance the learning experience? There are disparate views.”

Principals are definitely thinking about personalized learning, whether that means adaptive-learning software in some schools or student-led education in others. In an Education Week survey of 500 principals, assistant principals, and school deans, only 9 percent said it wasn’t on their radar screens. The majority of those surveyed—54 percent—hewed more to Carter’s line of thinking: personalized learning was a “promising idea” or “one of many school improvement strategies” available.

At Carter’s school, the idea of differentiating and engaging students on their own terms is central to some classes and projects. Nearly every student has a device, thanks to school-issued Chromebooks and a bring-your-own-device initiative.

Those devices are crucial for math-intervention classes designed to help struggling students, he said. Data pulled from digital assessments help teachers pinpoint problem areas for students, and adaptive software from APEX Learning meets each student at his or her math level.

But in other ways, technology is beside the point. As a graduation requirement, every student does a senior-seminar project on a topic of their choosing, anything from personal development or art to literature or science. Students decide the timing of the project (some complete it over the summer, while others work on it during the school year) and how to present what they learned. Teacher advisers and mentors work with students over extended periods of time, Carter said.

“Technology provides the platform for accountability and the community for students to demonstrate their learning,” he said. “But it has to be more than just a repository of information: Kids have to be able to create something.”

Those examples reflect a wider view. The Education Week survey found that 57 percent of principals said digital technology is an “important supplemental resource” in their school to personalize education, and 24 percent said it was an “occasional add-on.” But only 16 percent said ed-tech tools were central to their school’s mission and operation.

How does the use of technology affect the role of the teacher? Ninety-seven percent of principals agreed—either “some,” “quite a lot,” or “a great deal"—that technology supports teachers in their efforts to customize instruction.

At the 370-student Whitwell Middle School, just west of Chattanooga, Tenn., Principal Kim R. Headrick said the school uses a blended-learning model for personalization. She believes that the technology allows students to communicate more often with teachers, dig further into subjects they’re interested in, and demonstrate learning in ways that make sense to them.

In fact, most principals seem to agree, with 92 percent of those surveyed saying digital technology improved student engagement “some,” “quite a lot,” or a “great deal.”

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Even though Whitwell has a 1-to-1 computing initiative using Chromebooks, and teachers craft lessons relying heavily on digital resources, instructors play a central role in the personalization process, Headrick said. In fact, as part of her outreach when establishing the Marion County district’s only 1-to-1 program three years ago, Headrick said she had to reassure parents that technology would not diminish instructors’ roles.

“My rule is use the technology when it will enhance student learning, but don’t let it replace the teacher,” she said. “We’re not just putting kids on computers—that’s not the way we do things here.”

In the Education Week survey, principals reported they were not as concerned that ed tech used to personalize learning would weaken the role of the teacher. More than 60 percent said they had “no concerns” or “very little concern” that would happen.

Dwight Carter, the principal of New Albany High, said “technology can free up teachers to do more one-on-one instruction.”

But Scott McCleod, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver and the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, said he detects growing worries about how technology affects students’ learning processes.

“Principals see the ability to help with student engagement and motivation, but they’re less certain about the ability to improve student-learning outcomes,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of concerns helping to flavor their thinking on this topic.”

Indeed, 85 percent of those surveyed said they worried that digital technologies for personalized learning contribute to students spending too much time on screens. A similar number—77 percent—said they worried that such technologies lead to students working alone too often, and 73 percent said digital tools do “nothing” or “very little” to improve students’ social-emotional skills.

“Let’s just acknowledge the fact that we have kids who do not know how to speak to one another,” Headrick said. “They text or sit with a device in front of them all day long, and that’s not just in school.”

Jeffrey J. Thoenes, the principal of Williamston High School in Michigan, said he is so concerned about screen time that in some of the school’s classes, students are required to put their cellphones in “phone pockets” for storage, when technology is not being used. That’s even though his school has a BYOD policy, and technology plays an integral role in customizing the curricula for students.

“Technology has definitely helped us to personalize learning, but it’s not a zero-sum paradigm,” he said. “There are lots of ways to personalize education that have nothing to do with technology.”

While most principals are embracing the idea of personalized learning in some aspects of their schools, where is the pressure to do so coming from? The student body is one place: 31 percent of the principals surveyed said pressure to welcome personalized learning came from students.

But even more pressure came from technology companies: 55 percent of principals reported that they felt “strong” or “mild” pressure from technology companies and vendors to accept personalized learning.

Craig Blower, the principal of Swan Valley High School in Saginaw, Mich., said his school has a 1-to-1 computing initiative that uses iPads. He said he is constantly fielding sales pitches from vendors.

“They call continuously saying, ‘Use our product,’ ” or suggesting that their product is the “best thing since sliced bread,” he said.

The survey data reveal that principals continue to be intrigued by the idea of personalized learning but remain conflicted about its benefits versus its drawbacks, and how it should be implemented. Carter, the New Albany principal, said personalized learning and the digital tools used to facilitate it are important advances in education, but they don’t represent a reversal of strategies educators have used for decades.

“Personalized learning is nothing but another way of differentiating education,” he said. “We’re just calling it something that’s new and trendy.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Personalized Learning a Rising Priority

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