Can teachers really personalize learning for every student?

Topics: Early College High School

Does personalized learning mean teachers provide personalized approaches for every student? No. It means empowering students to own their learning. A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with one of my husband’s high school teachers. Now retired from teaching, she showed up to his 20-year high school reunion to catch up with some of her former students. When she asked me about my career, I started talking to her about personalized learning, competency-based education and my role at KnowledgeWorks. While she said she had tried some non-traditional approaches in her classrooms, she seemed a bit skeptical about how realistic it would be for teachers to provide individual instruction for each student. She asked, “How can teachers really provide personalized approaches for every student?”

As a non-educator who still has a lot to learn about how personalized learning really works in a classroom, I admit that I struggled to answer her question. Even though I attended school in a different district than my husband, our education experiences were similar from elementary through high school. Most of our teachers guided our whole class through the same lesson plan, we took tests at the end of each unit, then we all moved on to the next lesson.

In my attempt to answer her question, I gave a couple of examples from what I had seen in a personalized, competency-based kindergarten classroom that I visited in Maine. I don’t think I was successful in convincing her in that moment.

Since then, I continue to listen and learn from the schools that we work with, from the learning experiences my own child has in his Montessori classroom, and from my colleagues like Robin Kannan, Lori Phillips and Laura Hilger. These former educators, and our broader team of teaching and learning coaches, are now working with educators and district administrators across the country to help them transition to a personalized learning approach, and answer the very question that my husband’s teacher asked me: How am I supposed to personalize learning for every student?

During a recent workshop lead by Robin, Lori and Laura on the fundamentals of competency-based education and personalized learning, Robin answered this common question. She said: “You’re not. You, as teachers, arm the kids to take ownership of their own learning.”

But what does this really mean for students and educators? According to our teaching and learning team, it means implementing student-centered approaches to ensure that:

  • Learning is personalized, recognizing that students engage in different ways and in different places. Students benefit from individually-paced, targeted learning tasks that start from where the student is, formatively assess existing skills and knowledge and address the student’s needs and interests.
  • Learning is competency-based, with students moving ahead when they have demonstrated mastery of content, not when they’ve reached a certain birthday or endured the required hours in a classroom.
  • Students can learn anytime and anywhere, beyond the school day and even the school year. Learning is not restricted to the classroom.
  • Students take ownership over their learning, by engaging in their own success and incorporating their interests and skills. Students support each other’s progress and celebrate successes.

Even as a non-educator, I can see how challenging of a task creating this kind of culture and practice in a classroom, school and especially district-wide. But as a parent, I have a deep understanding of why we should keep trying to make this a reality for every child.

During a visit to Marysville Early College High School, part of a district implementing personalized learning district-wide, one student told Robin, “Other schools I have attended have been in black and white. Coming here, this school’s in color.”

All students should have access to that kind of learning experience.