Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that advocates “disruptive innovation” as a force for improvement in education and other sectors. From that perch, Arnett has tracked the evolving research on, and practice of, personalized learning. We asked him what educators get wrong most often when they try to put this often-ill-defined idea into practice. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
1. Failing to define what you mean.
People say “personalized learning” like there is a single definition or set of practices, but there isn’t. It’s a philosophy, not a set of instructional practices. The question really is, what kind of personalized learning are you aiming for? Schools need to ask themselves, “How are we going to define it? What are the specific practices we’re going to try?”
One school might do it by customizing the path and pace of learning for each student using mastery-based grading. In another school, personalized learning might mean that students’ individual interests drive their learning as they select and carry out projects [that are] aligned to content standards. In another school, it could mean that students learn in part through software that adapts to their individual learning needs and then interact with teachers in small-group or one-on-one settings. Many schools use a combination of these practices.
Some good places to go when you’re trying to define it are places that work in this space and have their own definitions, like LEAP Innovation, the Learning Accelerator, KnowledgeWorks, iNACOL. You can look across those definitions and descriptions of personalized learning and figure out what your own set of practices is going to be. These organizations also provide resources designed to help educators adopt and implement personalized learning.
Rhode Island did a study recently that compared a lot of different definitions of personalized learning, highlighting what they have in common and how they differ. It could be helpful [for educators] to look at.
2. Thinking it’s all about the products.
I’ve seen a lot of districts advertise personalize learning, and what it really means is that we sold a 1-to-1 [computing] initiative to our board, so we’re going to buy Chromebooks for our students. That’s the extent of thought they’ve put into it. Devices often become more of a distraction than useful tools. Without a clear strategy about how to use them, and what to use them for, they can hurt more than help.
Good personalized learning is about changing teacher practice, so schools need to have clear goals in mind. What learning outcomes do you want, and how do you need to change the learning experience to meet those outcomes? From there, you figure out how to leverage technology to help deliver those experiences to get to the outcomes you identified. If you go straight to devices, teachers don’t really know what to do with them. The extent of changing the learning experience might be that instead of submitting work on paper, we’ll do it with Google docs. And that’s not really changing the learning experience.
Personalized learning is a philosophy and a set of goals for what we want students’ learning experiences to be like. Technology can be an enabler of that, but it isn’t the goal. In some places, like the New Tech Network or Big Picture Learning [schools], personalized learning isn’t about technology. It’s more focused on student-directed projects.
3. Failing to recognize that personalized learning requires major shifts in practice.
That shift in practice doesn’t happen without an investment in [professional development] with educators. PD about deep shifts in pedagogy, shifts in mindset, as well as PD about logistical stuff, like how to turn the devices on, how to troubleshoot student logins.
Teachers often see their role as delivering the best teacher-led direct instruction. They spend years figuring out how to deliver lessons in a more engaging way, how to explain content in ways more students will understand, asking better questions in whole-group discussions. In personalized-learning settings, the focus is often about stepping back from teacher-led instruction and putting students more in charge of their learning. But when the focus is on improving teacher-led direct instruction, it can make that really hard to do.
For example, a teacher could shift practice so that students learn some of the content through online resources or through watching her lecture via video. That frees her up to spend more time planning deeper-learning projects or giving feedback to students. Instead of just grading an essay and handing it back, you’d have more time to sit down and give detailed feedback on a student’s writing or work with them on multiple rounds of revision.
4. Mandating teacher participation.
The conditions you have in place when you do personalized learning can really affect how well teachers implement it. In a study we did last year, we saw that when teachers implement personalized learning just to comply with a requirement, that kind of motivation doesn’t lead to good practice.
If teachers are told they’re supposed to use laptops for two hours, twice a week, but they’re just using them so in case the principal comes in to check, it’ll be OK, that doesn’t lead to figuring out how to make effective use of the technology.
[School and district leaders can] help teachers understand what isn’t working, but carefully, by coming to a common understanding of which of our students’ needs we’re not meeting. Leadership has to have a role in supporting this happening, but teachers have to come to it on their own.
Mandating everyone getting on board is usually a mistake. You need buy-in and not just the kind of buy-in that comes from selling it hard enough until everyone says they’ll go along. It’s good to let teachers opt in when they’re ready.
5. Overlooking the importance of measuring impact.
Too often, schools do personalized learning because it’s trendy, not as a way to solve a problem. Schools that do it well will say things like, we’re trying to differentiate instruction to affect test scores or we’re trying to shift students to having a growth mindset. You can’t just roll it out and assume it’s working. You need to decide on metrics to measure whether it’s working. A common mistake is not having clear goals about what you’re doing and why.
A very straightforward [goal] is student growth. Some schools use NWEA’s MAP testing to see if students make more learning growth with technology and personalized-learning strategies than they were making previously. You could use surveys, at the beginning and the end of the semester or the year, to measure things like motivation or engagement, if that’s your goal.
The Modern Classrooms Project, a nonprofit that focuses on personalized learning, partnered with Johns Hopkins University to administer surveys [of teachers and students in its program] and analyze the impact of the new practices they were doing.
6. Assuming it’s new.
The term “personalized learning” might be new, but a lot of the practices people call personalized learning have been around for 100 years or more. The Lancaster Schools, in the 1800s, were using one of the hallmarks of personalized learning: mastery-based learning. The idea of students designing their own learning experiences, you can trace that back to John Dewey and progressive education.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
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 How 6 Mistakes Can Cause Failure