Special Report
Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning: Challenges Ahead, Mistakes to Avoid

By Kevin Bushweller — November 05, 2019 3 min read

Personalized learning is hard work. And when poorly planned and executed, it does not work well at all.

But that should not stop schools from pursuing the goal of tailoring instruction to individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses as well as their personal interests. That appears to be one of the big takeaways from our nationally representative survey of nearly 600 teachers on personalized-learning topics, featured extensively in this report.

The survey—conducted this past summer—examines a host of issues around this often ill-defined but increasingly popular approach for meeting students’ individual learning needs. Half the educators surveyed, for instance, describe personalized learning as one tool in the school improvement toolbox or a “promising idea,” and more than 20 percent view it as a “transformational way” to improve K-12 education.

But that largely optimistic take on the promise of personalized learning does not match up well with what is actually happening in classrooms, the survey suggests. It found that nearly 3 of every 4 educators say they “never” or “rarely” use digital software to construct “learner profiles” of students, and 60 percent say they “never” or “rarely” use adaptive software to let students learn at their own pace. And those are both key tenets of digitally driven personalized learning.

Complicating matters is the fact that schools often make big mistakes before and while embarking on personalized-learning efforts, including failing to define what it means and why they are doing it, assuming it’s all about simply putting digital devices in students’ hands, and failing to recognize that effective personalized-learning strategies demand major shifts in teacher practice. What is especially problematic is that schools too often overlook the importance of measuring impact—and that is a recipe for disappointment and frustration down the road.

“Everybody absolutely needs an understanding of why—'We’re doing this because we want students to be able to do X, Y, and Z,’ ” said Betheny Gross, an associate director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington and a co-author of a 2018 report that examines the struggles of making personalized learning work. “What happens when that strategic vision is not in place is you end up with a lot of haphazard stuff that is not valuable to students or teachers.”

Even with these challenges in front of them, schools around the country are learning important lessons by testing new approaches. One middle school in Minnesota, for example, built its own “Flex Scheduler” software, with the goal of creating more flexible class schedules to empower students to tackle courses at their own pace. The program started small and is expanding.

Of course, many educators emphasize that effective personalized learning is not just about the technology. New personalized-learning approaches that have nothing to do with technology are emerging, too. More teachers are using so-called “genius hours” to make time for students to produce projects driven by their personal interests; and multiage grouping is challenging the traditional organization of students by age, rather than skills or ability. Some schools are also integrating social, emotional, and physical learning needs, building what some are calling “whole child” personalized-learning strategies.

The ultimate goal of personalized-learning supporters is to measure the impact of these various approaches and expand what works to more schools.

But that remains a daunting challenge.

Sincerely,

Kevin Bushweller,
Executive Project Editor

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 Hard Work Ahead

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