How Can Schools Best Implement Personalized Learning? Teachers Weigh In

By Madeline Will — July 19, 2016 3 min read
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Creating personalized learning environments in classrooms works better when the transition is teacher-led and happens in a supportive, collaborative school culture, teachers said in a new report.

KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that promotes personalized learning, and the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future released a report last week titled “The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching: Personalized Learning According to Teachers.” For the paper, KnowledgeWorks and NCTAF team spoke to 48 teachers who are currently implementing personalized learning in their classrooms, and 29 other people in the field who work closely with teachers, like administrators. These are individuals from more than 30 schools in 19 districts across the country.

Personalized learning has been a huge buzzword in the educational technology world, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announcing that he would donate tens of millions of dollars to schools experimenting with customizing the classroom experience. Still, my colleague Catherine Gewertz wrote a smart reminder that personalized learning is more than technology, although educators and others in the field struggle to come to a consensus of its definition.

For its part, KnowledgeWorks defines personalized learning as customized instruction that allows students to work at their own pace, and uses data to track student progress and to provide supports and interventions.

During the conversations with teachers, the team found that teachers are more likely to shift their teaching practice to create personalized-learning environments when school leaders provide clear expectations and parameters; data is regularly collected and monitored; and the implementation is teacher-led. Teachers also indicated that they preferred for their schools and their individual classrooms to adopt their own best practices, rather than using a one-size-fits-all model.

Teacher Natalie Matthews of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, in North Carolina, said in the report that building a school culture where it was OK for teachers to try new things without fear of failure helped her students realize that they could be in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

“Without building this culture, together with my students, they would have continued to be afraid to fail, they will not want to take risks, and students will continue to believe that all students should be doing the same assignments at the same time,” Matthews said.

Another teacher said the school should foster a collaborative atmosphere where teachers can support each other to achieve a collective school-wide vision. And Angela Patterson, a teacher in the Elmbrook district in Wisconsin, was quoted as saying that to create a successful personalized-learning environment, the school must be transparent with families and share what’s going on in their classrooms through social media, open-door policies, or other technology use.

Those three themes—culture, vision, and transparency—include 10 district conditions for scaling personalized learning, like customized professional development and comprehensive assessment systems that offer instant feedback of students’ progress.

Technology is often a key component of personalized learning, with teachers quoted in the report noting that digital devices helped them implement the new approach by tracking student progress and meeting students where they are—although some teachers did say that there first needs to be a strong curriculum and personalized instructional methods.

The KnowledgeWorks report concluded that with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which offers states more flexibility to measure student learning, there is an opportunity for states and districts to rethink their education systems and to pursue policies that advance personalized learning—starting with empowering teachers.

“When given parameters, flexibility, and individualized supports, teachers are able to create classrooms where all students thrive and have access to resources to help them learn and progress through their academic careers,” the report said.

Source: Image #1 by Flickr user US Department of Education, licensed under Creative Commons. Image #2 via KnowledgeWorks report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.