Teaching Commentary

Want to Personalize Learning? Computers Aren’t the Answer

Five steps to keep the whole class engaged
By Nina Parrish — December 11, 2018 4 min read

Personalized learning has become a buzzword in education today. Personalization, like its educational jargon predecessor, differentiation, is providing a lesson that fits the needs and characteristics of each individual student. Almost every article I read seems to encourage personalized education, but I am left wondering if it is really possible when teaching a class of 30 or as many as five classes of 30 students per day? My experience as a teacher leads me to believe it is, but teachers have to know how—and what to prioritize.

Previously, the answer seems to have been: just put students on the computer. Let the computer replace the teacher in making personalized lessons for each student. However, anyone who has tried to learn really difficult content through an online module knows that sometimes computerized lessons end up feeling quite impersonal, as the computer cannot know a student and determine what that student needs in the way that a teacher can.

In addition, having students spend too much time on a device raises concerns about the loss of other crucially important interpersonal and social skills such as the ability to work in groups and communicate with peers.

How can we personalize learning while also preparing students to be successful in a world that does not always cater to their needs?"

There is a further difficulty. How can we personalize learning while also preparing students to be successful in a world that does not always cater to their needs—one that requires compromise, the ability to adapt, and a lot of hard work? For personalized learning to be effective in preparing students for future success in the workforce, it must not rely too heavily on personal preferences or teach exclusively to students’ strengths. Instead the teacher must focus on cultivating grit, and instruction must effectively teach basic and foundational skills.

Thus, students must learn to ask their own questions and monitor their own learning instead of having the teacher or computer do it for them. This skill will affect their success in school and in the workforce possibly more than any other. Teachers can cultivate this skill by making lessons engaging and giving students ownership over their success. Students who are interested in the lesson will want to seek out more information, and they will feel a personal connection to what they are learning.

I have been exploring the idea of personalized learning throughout my career, and I have learned that there are several essential elements, all of which rely on asking students questions about their learning. Such questions are the cornerstone of personalization because they spark a dialogue that shifts the focus from the standards on a page to the student in front of the teacher. Here’s how to make that switch in your classroom:

1. Get to know your students. Create a survey to ask what they struggle with, what they enjoy, and how they learn best. Use what you learn about students to plan lessons and provide choices in how students demonstrate their learning.

2. Find out what students already know. Think through what a student needs to know in order to be successful in your class. For a reading teacher, a diagnostic test may tell you about individual reading comprehension levels or decoding ability. It also may tell you about separate skills that students have to master, for example, identifying a simile. For a math teacher, a diagnostic test may tell you how many skills students already have. Diagnostic tests can be teacher-created or teachers can use one of the many tools available online.

3. Set goals. Have students analyze the information from their diagnostic test and use it to set personal goals. Diagnostic tests should not have a grade but should produce a list of skills that students need to work on as a starting point for instruction.

Students can answer questions such as: What are my strengths? What do I need to work on? If I am showing mastery of many skills but not doing well in class, what could be causing this?

4. Make a plan. Have students write out the steps they will take to work toward each of their goals. Make a portion of your parent-teacher conference night student-led, where students present their goals and plan to their parents. Use information from the diagnostic assessment to group students, design instruction, and target students who may need extra help.

5. Monitor progress and reassess. Make students aware of skills as they are being covered and the criteria for mastery. Have students check off objectives as they are met. If a student does not master a skill during the time it is covered in class, have time built in when extra help with the teacher can be provided.

It also helps to supply online resources where parents can teach themselves and help their child. Once the student is given adequate time for nongraded practice, the skill can be reassessed. Importantly, some assessments should mix skills that were acquired a while back with new skills so that the student retains previously taught information and can learn to apply the correct skill to a given problem.

With personalized learning, the focus is on mastery of a skill and individual student understanding instead of grades. In a traditional classroom, students often get the message that some kids do well because they are naturally smart. The ones who struggle don’t know what to do to improve because they assume that they do not naturally have the characteristics for success. Through thoughtful personalized learning, students can see a clear connection between the effort they put in and the results they achieve. This helps them to persevere when they encounter difficulty rather than giving up. They learn to work harder when they are not able to get it the first time.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Five Steps to Personalize Learning


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