How do you measure the efficacy of a learning trend if a single concrete definition of the trend doesn’t exist?
That’s one challenge out of many faced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the RAND Corporation in the production of their new report, “Continued Progress,” which analyzes how well personalized learning is working in schools. The report examined 11,000 students subjected to various personalized learning strategies over the course of two years.
The overall result? The students, from 62 different public charter and district schools, reportedly “made gains in mathematics and reading over the past two years that were significantly greater than a comparison group made up of similar students selected from comparable schools.”
Researchers looked at student achievement, school design, and perceptions from those using personalized learning plans — commonly referred to as PLPs.
For the purpose of the report, three specific criteria were used to determine what constituted personalized learning:
- Systems that deepen and accelerate student learning by tailoring instruction to individuals’ needs, skills and interests.
- Approaches that offer a variety of learning experiences that prepare students for college and career.
- Teachers who play an integral role by managing the learning environment, leading instruction and guiding students to take ownership of their learning.
The RAND Corporation, which administered the survey, found that personalized learning teachers were more likely to use tech to facilitate that goal and favor their schools' data system, in addition to utilizing competency-based learning approaches.
The Gates Foundation funded the study, but isn’t necessarily an unbiased observer. It is invested in the success of these learning models, with some of the $5 billion dollars it has donated toward advancing education in the U.S. supporting personalized learning projects.
An approach gaining acceptance
In classrooms across the United States, programs like Big Picture Learning, digital learning platforms, and the advent of 1:1 device-to-student ratios has advanced the idea of personalized learning.
"School districts and colleges have been striving to personalize the education of every student for years, but there hasn't been a teaching and learning platform that could do it," Schoology CEO Jeremy Friedman said in a recent press release. Schoology creates learning management systems and has a focus on personalized learning.
Personalized learning also has some powerful proponents, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“Personalized learning helps students reach their full potential by empowering them to be self-directed learners so they can connect their daily actions to their long term goals,” Zuckerberg posted to Facebook on Nov. 10. “In a personalized learning classroom, technology frees up time for teachers to do what they do best: teach students in small groups and customize instruction.”
His company has partnered with teachers at the California charter network Summit Public Schools to create tech with a personalized learning focus, with the intent to subsequently give it away at no cost. At the school’s Redwood City headquarters, the district’s chief external officer, Mira Brown, worked with Facebook to design a PLP platform based on student needs.
“Like all public school districts, we want our students to truly be college- and career-ready upon graduation. As part of that mission, we’ve always had a personalized learning model in place for our students — even before we started developing this platform,” Brown told eSchoolNews. “Through this model, we’ve made education and the overall experience very student-centric; we factor in every student’s individual short-term and long-term goals; and we engage students in deeper learning that’s connected to the real world (i.e., critical thinking skills and problem solving).”
At Roots Elementary — another charter located in Denver, CO — all students have PLPs. The school itself is outfitted with various stations designed for self-directed work, including writing centers, an iPad center, and a group work center.
“We do extensive diagnostic assessments to figure out exactly the kind of strengths and gaps for all our kids,” Roots founder Jonathan Hanover told Education Dive in September. “Then our teachers put together personalized schedules for each of our scholars, to meet them where they are and to push them to where they need to be.”
Not Just for Students
But students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from PLPs: They can be applied to teachers, too.
In Long Beach, California, a personalized learning platform called “MyPD” lets educators decide which resources will help them, and offering the ability to create profiles, interact with the district’s PD curriculum, join online PD communities, and track progress toward goals. Another new resource from ASCD fills a similar need.
And in the state of Vermont, a new law mandates the creation of PLPs for all students in grades 7-12.
“The intention is to put students at the center of the construction of their own learning experience, which evidence indicates will result in greater relevance and engagement, and therefore better outcomes,” Tom Alderman of the Vermont Agency of Education recently told Education Dive.
Though it’s too soon to tell for sure, PLPs are certainly looking like more than just the latest classroom fad.
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