More than with any previous generation, finding ways to personalize learning is of increasing importance for today’s students.
In some cases, the need to push classroom innovation and boost personal interaction with class content is driven by low levels of engagement — sometimes from students as well as adults. In some cases, it’s finding new ways to improve stale test scores.
Dr. Leviis Haney, principal of Joseph Lovett Elementary School in Chicago, said during a recent panel at ASU-GSV there are a number of questions educators must ask themselves in trying to determine how to raise engagement. “What will create a fun environment for kids where they actually enjoy learning? How are students receiving their learning? Where are our students learning — can we think about where students like to learn best,” he asked, suggesting that while “sometimes a chair and a desk is appropriate, but sometimes that can be in different areas of the classroom, as well as the hallways.”
Haney said considering the student experience was difficult for staff, but suggests it is important for school leaders to think “about strategically shaping the student experience where they actually get some movement, some voice and a choice” in their own learning.
Karin Breo, director of Chicago International Charter School Irving Park, said during the panel educators must realize it is not only students who show outward signs of having difficulty learning who need to be engaged more. At her school, said Breo, “kids were really compliant. They wanted to do what the teacher told them. They’re very task-oriented.”
Sometimes, a push to personalize learning is less about needing to find ways to solve an overt problem, as much as it is to enhance the quality of student learning.
“We know that we want our students to succeed on tests and those sort of things, but what are we really in this for?” Haney asked. “We want our students to learn, right? So if we really want our students to learn, we have to be willing to think outside of the box.”
One such way might be by introducing technology into the classroom to help promote a blended learning approach, which experts say can be highly customizable.
For one, said Clayton Christensen Institute educational research fellow Thomas Arnett via telephone, when teachers “can use online lessons to teach part of their classes, it allows them to break the class into smaller groups” and focus on deeper concepts with smaller groups at a time. Not only that, he said, but educational software gives real-time feedback on students’ data and performance, allowing teachers to make adjustments when it counts.
But particularly in schools that are not struggling, or that have started to rebound, it can be difficult to induce change. Chicago’s Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy Principal D’Andre Weaver, said during the ASU-GSV panel, “Any time you’re attempting to change what people know to be true, especially in a school where they’ve seen some success, it’s going to be really hard to make the shift.”
More than half the battle may be in getting teachers to see the value of the changes being discussed.
For new tech implementation, for instance, Arnett said this is partially because the time between implementation of any new method or technology and the display of any measurable results can be discouraging. And often, it adds more work for the teachers before it makes their jobs easier, he said.
“Once the teacher’s been doing blended learning and seeing some success in the classroom … there is that initial learning curve … where it’s actually harder than it is easier,” Arnett said, adding it can often be up to six months to a year before changes start to streamline the workload and show real benefits for students.
But in some cases, a lack of direction makes it difficult not only to see the value in making the change, but in actually implementing it.
“I think a lot of times, people talk about blended learning for the sake of personalizing learning for students or other benefits for students, but a lot of times, implementation is only done for the sake of compliance,” Arnett said. “With all the things [teachers] have on their plates, they often don’t have the time to reflect and refine their blended learning practices, so blended learning just becomes something that they do out of compliance to check the box to say that they are … using technology in their classrooms.”
Whether the conversation is about tech integration to achieve blended learning or rethinking the physical learning space, the starting point has to be the same: evaluate what you hope to achieve before you try to solve an undefined problem, simply because the latest trend reports say an approach works.
For Walker, that goal was creating a highly personalized experience for students at all learning levels in the school.
“How do we make learning specific for every student in our school,” he asked with planning staff. “How do we create such a tailored experience for every single student,” not only students who “need additional time or additional support,” or “middle of the road kids,” but gifted students who “need to be pushed further” as well.
“At some point you know what best practices are, and you try to put those things into place, and they hit some students, but not everyone,” he said.
“When we think about things that we do in these schools, we have to think about them in terms of choice and opportunities for students, Walker continued, pointing out that primary and secondary school curricula and exposure directly correlates to a student’s access to this most elite colleges and universities, potential scholarship dollars, and other postsecondary opportunities. When schools get complacent, they severely limit students, he said.
“We’re trying to create more of a mastery-based learning approach in our school. Anybody can learn if they have enough time,” continued Walker. In addition to time to master concepts — which goes against the conventional idea of constrained curricular segments — students also need opportunities to correct their work and demonstrate growth, and they need enrichment activities to undergird the learning, he said.
The idea of personalized learning necessitates an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and administrators need to reflect upon what is and isn’t working and be willing to correct ship when necessary.
It is important for leaders to “Be willing to take chances. And you can see a significant amount of change in really a short amount of time if you’re willing to think outside of the box,” Haney said.