Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning Debates Put Too Much Emphasis on Technology, School Leaders Say

By Alyson Klein — December 15, 2021 4 min read
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The COVID-19 pandemic—which had the effect of rapidly expanding the number of digital devices used by schools and forced teachers to learn online instruction on the fly—has been a big boost for personalized learning, most educators say. But that approach to customize instruction to individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and personal interests—is still likely to be more teacher-directed than student driven, and parents and students still aren’t sold on it.

That’s according to a report released this month and commissioned by the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on education, research, and community development.

Here are some of the report’s top takeaways:

Personalized learning must be about way more than technology

The current discussion around personalized learning is too focused on technology, according to a whopping 98 percent of the 300 principals and vice-principals surveyed for the report.

People outside of K-12 education sometimes see technology as “the panacea to all of society’s ills, particularly around issues related to education,” said Antonia Kerle, the policy & insights research manager for technology, media & education at Economist Impact, which published the report. “And I think one of the key takeaways is that technology can help in some way, but really the culture, the school that they’re operating in, the buy-in from all the various stakeholders, just even the quality of a teacher, all of that is going to have a way bigger impact.”

(That’s also been a consistent theme in Education Week’s reporting on the approach.)

The pandemic has provided a big boost for personalized learning

Nearly all of the educators surveyed—99 percent—said that COVID-19 accelerated their schools’ adoption of personalized learning, with 51 percent strongly agreeing with that statement. (The other 48 percent “somewhat” agreed.) Nearly a third—30 percent—strongly agreed with the statement that the pandemic “made personalized learning more relevant than ever.”

But an Education Week Research Center survey, taken in the fall of 2020, showed something different: Educators teaching during the pandemic felt they and their colleagues weren’t as able to assess students’ academic strengths, weaknesses, and interests as well as before, weakening a key tenant of personalized learning. In fact, more than half of educators said this ability was diminished, with 11 percent saying they were “much less” able to personalize learning.

Parents and students aren’t as enthused about personalized learning as teachers, principals say

The vast majority of school leaders surveyed—87 percent—described teachers as “very supportive” of personalized learning. But only about a quarter of school leaders would say the same of parents, and only 8 percent would say the same of students. The best way to get parents and kids on board with the strategy, according to the experts the researchers talked to? Put personalized programs in place and let them experience it for themselves.

Why the big difference in opinion between parents and teachers? Parents may be more reluctant to try something that’s so different from their own K-12 experience, Kerle said. “My guess is that there may be some concern that there’s a risk around experimenting with your child’s education,” she said. “Teachers have a better understanding of the overall landscape.”

The results of the Qatar Foundation’s survey conveys a lot more teacher support for personalized learning than an Education Week Research Center survey conducted in in 2019. In that survey, about half of educators said they viewed personalized learning as one tool available to them or as a “promising idea.” Only about a fifth of educators saw it as potentially transformational.

Personalized learning can be “teacher-led” or employ a “more radical student-led” strategy. Most of the technology in K-12—and the teachers themselves— support the teacher-led approach.

There’s a real range of possibilities with personalized learning, the report says. On one end of the spectrum is a “teacher-led” approach, in which teachers are most likely to craft the lesson and drive the pace of instruction. On the other end, some schools have gone to a much more “learner-led” approach, where teachers serve more as mentors, helping students explore their interests.

Most of the educators who participated in the Qatar Foundation’s survey seem to lean toward the teacher-directed approach. Only 14 percent of the school leaders surveyed said their teachers give students a say in what they learn. And just over a quarter said that learning is paced according to students’ individual needs.

The survey included 300 “educators”— principals and vice-principals—at primary and secondary schools in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The authors also conducted extensive interviews with a dozen experts.

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