If you asked administrators to name the three buzzwords they've heard most in the past five years, "personalized learning" would probably be among the most common. The approach is certainly not without merit, showing significant results in school models like the private and Montessori systems — but scaling that approach has proven to be challenging in traditional schools, where class sizes tend to be much larger and much greater federal accountability around assessment and results exists.
To gain more insight into the challenges of adopting a personalized approach, Education Dive asked five school and district leaders what they see as the most overlooked aspect of personalization when schools and districts adopt these models. Here's what they had to say.
Richard Gordon — Principal, Paul Robeson High School (Pennsylvania)
[Recognizing] the importance of trauma-informed education and teachers employing, practicing and insisting that students exhibit social-emotional intelligence in our community on a daily basis. Public education, prevention and intervention, early identification, and effective trauma treatment within the school environment are all necessary to break the cycle of apathy and indifference to the importance of education that exists in a lot of our schools.
When I first arrived at my current school location, I recognized that I was working in a 100% high-poverty, minority community, and there was clear evidence, based on student anecdotes and student voice, of a need to intensify our own educational practices to incorporate and expand the availability of trauma-informed care for students in and out of the classroom. Thus, we developed a partnership with a community-based mental health organization that not only provided that care, but also provided our staff with "mindfulness training," so we are all self-aware of our own emotional states, our approach to engaging students, and the manner we handle sensitive and/or stressful situations and circumstances.
Trauma-informed care means treating a whole person, taking into account past trauma of each student, respecting how that past (or present) trauma is affecting not only their behavior but their overall performance, resulting in the need for school teams to individualize rehabilitation treatments and coping mechanisms when attempting to understand how the trauma impacts performance and behaviors. School teams must also demonstrate some level of competence regarding social-emotional intelligence: self-awareness, emotional control, self-motivation, empathy and relationship skills.
It is so important for students (and staff members) to exhibit good communication skills with others in the school community. I believe such skill building in social-emotional intelligence can be a pathway to better learning, healthy relationships, academic success and even gainful employment.
Scott Baytosh — Head of School, Alexandria Country Day School (Virginia)
I believe one of the most overlooked aspects of personalized learning is assessment. As a culture, we tend to have a strong bias toward "fairness" in grading and assessment, and this is typically expressed by treating every child the same through purely quantitative measures.
At Alexandria Country Day School, we employ a standards-based grading system in our middle school that allows us to personalize assessment while holding every student to high academic expectations. Through varied formative and summative assessments, rubrics and coaching, students are encouraged to see assessment as part of the learning process, and teachers are able to ensure that assessments lead toward skill mastery for every student.
We also assess learning traits, such as organization, participation, collaboration, independence and perseverance separately from skill mastery, so we can develop a more complete picture of each student as a learner and community member. These approaches provide for consistent, fair and rigorous assessment that still presents a complete picture of each student as a learner.
Michael Meechin — Principal, NeoCity Academy (Florida)
With regard to personalized learning, I think that teacher training/professional development is often overlooked. Personalizing learning for students requires intensive planning on the teacher side. Giving teachers what they need in order to support personalized needs cannot be overlooked.
What are the varied types of personalization needed to meet student learning styles? What pedological strategies are in your toolbox that can help you deliver?
Suzanne Lacey — Superintendent, Talladega County Schools (Alabama)
I would say that we often don’t consider students’ voice when we are determining a pathway for their learning. Teachers design the experiences for students and assess them the way that they feel necessary. In true personalized learning, students should help teachers plan their pathways, including their interests and passions, as well as having a choice in how they’re assessed.
That could be a portfolio, a performance-based assessment, technology produced assessments or presentations. We just really don’t include the voice of the students in designing the pathway, and certainly not in assessing their performance at the end.
Glenn Robbins — Superintendent, Tabernacle Township School District (New Jersey)
If you work in the field of education today, you are constantly hearing about the popularity of several buzzwords, including "personalized" learning. What is strikingly remarkable is that this is similar to the belief that before the ed tech explosion of social media, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., that social networking never existed. Historian Niall Ferguson researched and suggested that it’s been around for thousands of years, yet we choose to ignore it.
The same could be said about "personalized" learning, as throughout life — even more today than in the past — if one is to truly learn, they are to take full ownership of their life. The amount of time and dedication one takes to improve their life through rigorous online courses, taking on a mentor/coach, starting an apprenticeship, reading books, listening to podcasts, and/or watching YouTube videos from across the globe is often thought to be the opposite of traditional learning, so it must be called "personalized."
It’s nearly impossible to measure grit, adaptability and creativity, and as Mark Twain stated, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." When will we accept that today’s learners no longer need to live near a library to be successful, as they have vast amounts of resources in their palms or all around them in this technologically advanced world? When do we just realize and accept that it should just be called "learning?"