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Personalized Learning

Tough Questions Need Meaningful Answers

By Kevin Bushweller — November 06, 2018 2 min read
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You can see and hear the confusion about personalized learning almost boiling over into frustration.

Just listen to Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer of the Broward County, Fla., schools, the sixth-largest district in the country: “It’s become such a generic term,” he told Education Week writer Michele Molnar. “It’s aspirin.”

I saw and heard that frustration up close and personal while moderating an Education Week Leadership Dinner earlier in the year in Washington. I asked the district leaders at the dinner to write down what personalized learning should (and should not) do. Their answers and the lively discussion that followed showcased how differently people view the personalized learning movement. And it raised all sorts of questions.

Over the course of this year, four critical questions emerged: What is (and isn’t) personalized learning? Why do some personalized learning efforts make school feel less personal? Is giving students greater control over what and how they learn a smart move? And are education and technology companies overselling personalized learning?

What we found is that teachers, principals, district leaders, policymakers, and researchers are really struggling to find meaningful answers to those questions. And in some cases, schools that did not initially think deeply about those questions before embracing the approach are now trying to correct some missteps—for example, using tech tools too much and too fast at the expense of developing students’ social skills.

But this diversity of perspectives and strategies—skeptics might call it a lack of clarity—is also not necessarily a bad thing, many personalized learning advocates argue. They make the point that education is messy by nature, and innovation and experimentation are even messier. Students, they say, have lost their intellectual drive in a K-12 system that for too long has failed to address their individual academic strengths and weaknesses and personal interests.

That has prompted many school districts to search for a better way.

The 24,000-student Providence, R.I., school district, for example, relied on a heavily scripted approach to teaching and learning for years. But with test scores stagnating, it decided a few years ago to gradually begin adopting a personalized learning approach based on two different models. Now, 25 of the district’s 39 schools use one of the two models, said Superintendent Christopher Maher.

And though the role of the teacher in those programs has moved from instructor to facilitator, and the curriculum is primarily digital, the success of personalized learning relies on the connection students and teachers forge, he said.

Maher, a self-described skeptic of personalized learning when he was first considering it, is now committed to the approach.

“We’re building the foundation, we believe in it, and we’re seeing some signs of improvement,” he told Education Week writer Michelle Davis. “But we’re not taking any victory laps yet.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Tough Questions Need Meaningful Answers


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