Why Personalized Learning?
In high schools in which students’ courses have a flipped classroom model, students use school-issued Chromebooks to read and research primary and secondary texts online outside of school. This frees up school-based learning time for greater concentration on meaningful project-based and experiential learning. Students are empowered to progress in their learning as they demonstrate proficiency over broad competencies through projects, research papers, social media, and multimedia presentations that reflect ways in which they will have to demonstrate mastery in real life, often before panels of teachers, students, parents, and community members. Advances in technology provide us with an opportunity to reimagine school and personalize learning in ways that will benefit our students now and in the future.
Within traditional school systems, there is increasing uncertainty on how to address growing student diversity. The “sit and get” or “one size fits all” instructional approach no longer works in our schools and, more importantly, no longer equips our future graduates with all they need to know and be able to do in our rapidly changing world.
With knowledge at our fingertips through increased technology, our future graduates will be expected to not merely retain facts and figures, but to think critically, problem-solve collaboratively, and innovate creatively. These 21st century skills and dispositions have become essential for success in not only college and career, but also necessary for participation in our democratic society. Colleges are seeking high school graduates who have the capacity to think, problem-solving, research, and communicate, and who also possess learning skills such self-directed and collaborative learning. Likewise, greater than 90 percent of surveyed employers in a 2013 poll cited ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, and capacity to learn as critical qualities in candidates that factor into hiring decisions; greater than 75 percent felt that colleges should focus on skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication (Hart Research Associates 2013, p. 1).
Personalized learning, or student-centered learning, is the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum, and learning environments by learners or for learners in order to meet their different learning needs and aspirations. PL includes a competency-based approach in which students’ progress is based on their demonstration of attainment of specific knowledge and skills, as well as project-based and blended learning and technology-enhanced performance assessments. This type of learning, which includes a greater degree of student choice and voice as to their learning pathways, has the potential to transform student-teacher interactions and tailor a student’s education to his or her individual needs.
Preliminary research on schools that have implemented personalized learning has shown promising results. A study by the RAND Corporation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which for two years followed 5,000 students in 23 public charter schools that emphasized personalized learning, found that two-thirds of the schools had “statistically significant positive effects” on students’ scores on the math and reading portions of the Northwest Education Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test (2014). Notably, personalized learning served low-performing students particularly well, and students responded well to personalized learning beyond purely academic measures. Survey responses indicated that they saw their schools as “supportive and characterized by high expectations” and felt positively about their levels of engagement (RAND & Gates Foundation, 2014).
As an educator for over 35 years, I have seen a variety of school improvement efforts with mixed results. The time has come to take action to create schools where learning is authentic, flexible, competency-based, and student-driven, with dispositions for learning supported and students empowered in their own learning. Placing students at the center of learning as they prepare for college and career just makes sense. It is time to make the shift from traditional learning to personalized learning. Instead of asking “Why personalized learning,” I ask, “Why not?”
Dr. Ramona Treviño serves as senior director for district and school design at the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts, leading the Massachusetts Personalized Network. She has successfully served as both an executive leader and campus principal in a variety of settings with diverse populations. She led the lower school at the Graded American School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and served as chief academic officer for the Austin Independent School District. She was the founding principal and the CEO of the University of Texas Elementary School and served as an elementary school principal in the Austin School District. Prior to her work as an administrator, she worked as a special education teacher for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She completed her B.S. from Wheelock College in Boston, and her M.Ed. and Ph.D. from the Educational Administration Department at the University of Texas. She served the University’s College of Education as a clinical professor and was named a fellow in the U.T. Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, coordinating the Urban Education Project.