One of the biggestmistakes schools have made in the past is thinking about technology first and students’ needs later. That has led to some very costly, high-profile failures.
To make personalized learning work, experts recommend that schools think first about the academic needs and interests of students and then figure out how technology can be a tool to meet those needs and fuel those interests. And teachers need to play a big role in evaluating what approaches work best to make those connections, and which ones are not working.
Recent studies have shown that personalized learning is difficult to do. Barriers such as allowing teachers enough instructional time to customize lessons and support individual students remain.
How those challenges play out for students should be evaluated carefully, educators say, because students are the ones with the most riding on these new approaches.
To understand the challenges of making personalized learning work for students in different ways, see the five following profiles.
For Thomas Schlipper and other students at Murray high school, personalized learning is about productive exploration.
As part of the deal in coming to Murray, a district-run charter school set up to help students who are not reaching their potential, students commit to doing a “quality work project” every year.
“It has to be something they’re interested in or want to learn more about,” explained Michael Craddock, the associate principal at Murray. “Nobody’s going to be standing over their shoulders at any point in the process.” (The school adheres to psychiatrist William Glasser’s “choice theory,” which focuses on personal responsibility.)
In previous years, Thomas, a known math wiz, had made gearshifts and remote-control cars out of Legos, and researched touchscreens to figure out how they work.
This year, Thomas is working on computer-animated drawings.
When he was studying algebra a few years ago, he learned to draw a circle on the graphing calculator using an equation—and saw a moment of opportunity. “I started drawing faces,” he said.
As a senior, he’s still drawing faces—only more complex ones belonging to characters such as Hello Kitty and SpongeBob SquarePants. And his tools have changed.
He’s using the online graphing calculator Desmos, which he discovered when he left his handheld device at home one day and needed to graph something in class. With that interface, Thomas has started animating his drawings by moving the variables with the “slider” function.
Thomas’ interest in combining art and math was spurred by algebra class, but he’s carried it beyond the core curriculum. He estimates his SpongeBob project, which uses more than 100 equations, has taken him about 20 hours to complete so far. He’s now working on doing three-dimensional images, and is planning to turn the drawings into his quality work project.
Chad Ratliff, who took over as principal of Murray this year, said he’s considering how to connect the projects more closely to the core subjects, while maintaining the focus on student-driven learning. The school is also expanding opportunities for personalization—students can now lobby to replace almost any class with a portfolio of demonstrated work. Students have gotten theater credit for working on local plays and entrepreneurship credit for starting a dog-walking business.
The personalized projects are easier in some ways than traditional classroom lessons, and harder in other ways, said Thomas.
The structure of a teacher-led lesson forces him to practice certain skills, he said, which is beneficial. But “on my own, I can breeze through stuff that I know,” he said. “And it’s a lot more entertaining.”
Minnetonka High School senior Stanley Kohls is fascinated by algae and how it might be used to clean polluted waters. Through his Minnesota high school’s Minnetonka Research program, he is in the second year of studying how algae could immobilize heavy metals in water.
Stanley picked his topic for study, pitched the idea to teachers, designed his own curriculum for the project, and even lobbied for funding to use a mass spectrometer at the University of Minnesota. Directing his own path through the two-year-old research course has made him more invested in the process and the outcome, Stanley said.
“It’s an incredible experience,” he said. “You’re choosing something you’re interested in so you’re passionate about working on it. We delve more deeply into the topic than any AP or IB class would.”
Minnetonka Research provides students with a teacher and an outside expert mentor to consult with. The district built a state-of-the art negative-pressure wet lab that prevents contamination of specimens, and gives students lab access on weekends and outside of school hours. Students must write a scientific research paper and present their findings, said Kim Hoehne, the Minnetonka Research director and an instructor. There are about 50 students participating this year, she said.
“They can go as deep as they want to go and as far as they want to go,” Hoehne said.
Students make their own timelines for the course, but they aren’t left to their own devices. “Every week, I have to give teachers an update on how I’m doing and if I’m on track and on schedule,” Stanley said. For example, he said, he might determine that in the next week he needs to regrow his algae, or expose them to a new solution, or contact an expert.
While other classes that Stanley takes at Minnetonka High School aren’t as driven by his own passions, Stanley said the district’senvironment does help give him more flexibility. “There might be a hard deadline we have to meet, but a lot of times how we get there changes depending on what I need,” he said.
But the opportunities for students to carve their own educational path come with caveats, Stanley said. For example, this year Minnesota Research altered its program a bit based on student feedback from the previous year—its first in operation.
The program added more deadlines and check-ins with teachers and mentors to prevent students from falling behind on their chosen path. “We’re still high schoolers and we’re not fully 100 percent responsible,” Stanley said. “This was lacking in the first year and it caused some people to fall behind.”
While it hasn’t been hard for Stanley to create his personalized-learning path through school, he wonders if everyone accesses the same opportunities he does. The research program is limited to a set number of students and some students aren’t aware of what it offers.
In addition, many students also don’t know about the district’s online classes and how those offerings might allow students to personalize their learning. “I don’t know how well it [the research program] is communicated throughout the high school. You really have to reach out and find it,” he said. As for online classes, “it’s not an opportunity that is capitalized on enough by students at our school.”
But he feels lucky to be able to pursue his own areas of interest at Minnetonka. He plans on studying biochemistry, molecular biology, and biomedical engineering in college. In the meantime, he’s growing algae, making a wooden chess board, and running cross country after school.
In the Horry County school district’s Academy for the Arts, Science, and Technology program, Marianna Moawad has chosen to focus on computer science. In fact, it’s her “major” even though she’s still in high school.
As a junior, Marianna’s computer science curriculum was mostly set—she had to cover certain computer languages and topics. But as a senior this year in the 42,000-student South Carolina district, Marianna said she got to choose what computer language to study and she opted for Python.
“I wanted to learn the meat of coding rather than the syntax,” she said.
She also has to design her own path through the learning process. “We were given the general standards of the class and we have to create a plan of how to achieve those standards,” she said.
As part of her overall program of study, she’ll have to do a research project and paper based on a topic of her choosing—big data and the real costs of free online services. She’ll also have to find her own internship and complete 120 hours of work.
But it’s not just her computer science class that is personalized, Marianna said. She ticked off ways that almost every class she takes through the academy makes learning individual for students. In history, for example, students often choose their own topics and decide how to present the information they learn.
In her statistics course, students must produce 10 to 12 graphs by the end of the quarter, but they can relate to any topic a student chooses—even books or painting. Marianna’s focusing her data on the technology use of students in the academy.
But can a program be too personalized? By declaring majors and focusing on a particular topic of interest at a fairly young age, might students miss out?
Marianna said she knows students who have declared majors in one area, and then decided that subject was not for them.
“We have students in my major that might not go into computer science, but they don’t regret it,” she said. “They do have the option to try other things.”
Because students in the academy declare majors in their areas of interest—from pre-med to theater—they may apply those interests in other classes, said Mariah Reiss, an instructional coach. “Maybe the math teacher knows that their class isn’t the artistic students’ forte,” she said, “but they can use what they know about the students’ major and learning style to draw them in.”
In discussing what Jade Huynn‘s mornings—the part of the school day she works on personalized English/language arts and math lessons—look like, a theme emerges: time management.
Jade knows she has a certain number of assignments due at the end of the week. How and when she finishes them is up to her.
“You have to balance it because you have to finish both” math and language arts, she said. That’s really different from a more traditional class, like the social studies and science classes at her school, in which students learn as a group and then are given an assignment to turn in the next day, she explained.
In considering the challenges of personalized learning, she said, “When you have this big list of assignments you have to do, sometimes you might get a little overwhelmed,” she said. But that doesn’t happen to her so much because she’s learned to manage her time.
“I mentally section it out between all the five days,” she said. That way, “I feel relief. I have just a few assignments every day.” She finds math slightly harder, so she does that first most days.
Jade said she spends about 80 percent of her “personalization” time on the computer watching videos, reading articles, and using Google classroom to keep track of her assignments.
Jill Hoppe, who is in her first year as principal of Canyon Ridge, said helping teachers really understand personalized learning—that it’s about incorporating student interests and using small groups, as well as using digital tools to differentiate instruction—is an ongoing process.
“We don’t want the pendulum to swing so that, because we have the technology, [students] are only sitting on the computer,” she said. “I think that’s a challenge we are right now identifying and trying to figure out how to overcome.”
Jade and her classmates are also doing longer-term projects based on their interests, which they can work on outside of school or when they’ve completed their assignments. She’ll be studying Japanese animation in the coming months—and creating some episodes of her own.
The personalized-learning approach works better for her than the traditional teacher-led instruction, she said.
“You learn to work through your problems,” explained Jade. “You [can go] to your friends and ask them for help. I find that my classmates’ thinking process is a little bit more closer to mine than the teacher’s.”
And the best thing about the personalized instruction? “Feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of the week when you’ve finished all your assignments,” Jade said.
In Emma Stout‘s 5th grade class, students decide when they’re ready to take a test.
For example, when Emma was learning decimals, “my friend was ahead of me and was taking her exit [test], but I wasn’t ready for it,” she said. “So I studied my notebook and my notes I took for the mini-lessons and I worked on a dry erase board and reviewed some problems in my notebook.”
Letting students control the pace of their work teaches self-advocacy, said Carrie Stoehr, who supports instruction in the 4th and 5th grade classrooms at Hawk Ridge. And it’s central to the way the school approaches personalized learning—the model it uses for math and English/language arts.
Generally, Emma begins class by consulting her online data tracker and a lower-tech progress gauge—a whiteboard with magnets—to see what she needs to work on that day. At some point, she’ll sit in on a mini-lesson with the teacher to learn or review a concept.
Emma knows she needs to get through more than a dozen pathways, or topics, before the end of the school year. But that doesn’t make her nervous, she said. “I can see if I’m going too slow or fast,” she said. “So I know what’s coming.”
Some of those pathways include above-grade-level topics, explained Stoehr. “You’ll see kids on all different objectives in one class,” she said. “One kid is doing fractions, another decimals.”
As part of her personalized instruction, Emma is taking on a cross-curricular project looking into how friction plays a role in her favorite sport: soccer. “With turf or grass, there’s different friction on the ball and the players,” she said.
If Emma needs help on something while working on her own, she can ask one of the designated class experts on the topic. In fact, students rely on each other quite a bit when they’re stuck, she said.
Knowing some students are ahead doesn’t cause tension in the class, though, she said. “We all have our differences,” she said. “We all need help on different things.”
“That’s something we’ve worked hard on here,” said Stoehr. “That’s just how you build your culture.”
Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Students Tell Their Tales of New Ways of Learning