What It Takes to Truly Personalize Learning

What It Takes to Truly Personalize Learning
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Personalized learning has become a certifiable education buzzword as a growing number of products market themselves as customized to meet students’ needs. But for educators leading the real work day in and day out, the challenge of how to create schools that support students’ individual knowledge and skills remains an open question that deserves answers. 

Selling technology as a turnkey solution undermines the hard work required to get personalized learning right. Through over a decade of successes and failures, our team at New Classrooms has learned that truly meeting students where they are takes time and depends on educators working together to reimagine their school, continuity of leadership and supporting students and the community throughout the process. 

When these pieces come together, schools can be transformed.  

Whole School Implementation

At Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School in New London, Connecticut, educators uncovered these lessons firsthand. In 2015, their school adopted our Teach to One: Math model as part of a school improvement effort led by their principal, Alison Burdick. It was not easy for teachers to adjust to the practice of working together in a shared space, a core aspect of the Teach to One program. Educators felt that they were learning how to do their jobs from scratch, and, as a result, the first few months of implementation “were not pretty,” to borrow Principal Burdick’s words.  

While there is no magic wand for changing mindsets, establishing a collaborative planning process and a culture of curiosity and experimentation can go a long way. At Bennie Dover, Principal Burdick regularly asked her team to try new things and move beyond their comfort zone, especially when the status quo was not working well. In doing so, she empowered teachers to ask big picture questions about moving away from the traditional classroom model as they adjusted to implementing a new vision for success. That culture was also a key part of engaging teachers in actively designing students’ experiences in a personalized environment. If educators are not intentional about these choices, personalized learning is more likely to become a fad than a sustainable solution for their school. 

Parent, Student and Community Buy-In

One of the most important, and most challenging, aspects of personalized learning is helping families adjust to a new set of expectations about what happens at school. For parents who envision textbooks and one teacher at the front of the classroom, the changes required for personalization can feel jarring. Recently, a couple of schools decided to discontinue our Teach to One model midway through the school year because of parents’ concerns about the role of technology in the classroom. While we accept full responsibility for what we could have done better there, we also recognize that some students were already making more academic progress with Teach to One than they did under the old model, and that has been taken from them. Ultimately, our collaboration would have been more successful if we had worked more closely with the district to seek parents’ input early on, address their concerns and communicated clearly with them about how personalization was improving students’ achievement. 

The transition to personalized learning works best when it is inspired by big picture thinking, and realized through careful planning, iteration and attention to detail. That approach helped the team at Bennie Dover build a stronger learning community after an uncertain start. Over the course of the school year, students grew at 1.5 times the national average in mathematics, and chronic absenteeism fell by 5 percent. Discipline referrals plummeted, and all of the teachers leading personalized math chose to remain at the school the following year. 

Bennie Dover’s transformation has been remarkable. But the truth is that their success is within reach for any school willing to invest the patience, collaboration, strategy and support needed to make meaningful change.  

Joel Rose is the co-founder and CEO of New Classrooms, a national non-profit on a mission to personalize education by redesigning how a classroom works. New Classrooms’ first learning model, Teach to One: Math is used in 38 schools, serving about 13,000 students, nationwide. 

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