74 Interview: Richard Culatta on How to Do Personalized Learning Well — and Why It Could Be the Key to Narrowing a School’s Equity Gap

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Personalized learning can be done anywhere, but to do it well, change is required in every tier of a school system.

That’s the view of Richard Culatta, who helped lead Rhode Island’s Personalized Learning Initiative in 2016 with a mission of spreading this model of learning across the state and developing best practices in laboratory schools.

Part of the challenge is that the phrase, which is growing in popularity, is very difficult to define. Some districts are quick to equate personalized learning with technology alone — a mentality that has caused many to fail, said Culatta, who now leads the International Society for Technology in Education, a global nonprofit organization that shares best practices in education technology among its nearly 16,000 members.

“You can’t buy personalized learning,” Culatta said — but “I’ve never seen a successful implementation of personalized learning without some tech to support it.”

Culatta spoke with The 74 about personalized learning, technology, and the elements that make up a successful personalized learning model.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: There’s a lot of talk about what personalized learning is and what it isn’t. How do you define it?

Culatta: I think the easiest definition is, personalized learning adapts the pace of learning and the learning approach to the needs of individual learners, and it ties to their interests and passions and provides learner autonomy.

If you had a parent say, “My school’s pushing personalized learning; I don’t know what that means,” would you explain it differently?

The only thing I would say a little bit differently is it means yes, the learning is adapted to their child, but it also means that they’re getting input and feedback in near-real time. Maybe not instantly, but pretty darn close. So they are able to know what supports they can provide, which, in traditional learning, comes after it’s too late to be helpful. Most of the time, in traditional learning experiences, by the time the parent gets the feedback, it’s kind of autopsy feedback. It’s like, “Hey, your kid has failed a test,” or “They’re behind in all these things.” Which is great that the parents know that, but in personalized learning, you’re saying, “Hey, here’s where your kid’s at, literally, today, and here are opportunities where you can help support them in what they learned today.”

Do you see personalized learning as something a whole school must adopt, or as a program that even an individual classroom could do?

You could certainly do elements of personalized learning at any level, including at a classroom level. But the challenge is, personalized learning, if you do it right, in my opinion, really requires some structural changes. Some of those things would be hard to do if a school wasn’t all in. So having flexibility on the timing and how much time is spent in a particular activity — if only one teacher is trying to do that, and the rest of the school is on this very rigid schedule, that could get pretty hard. Also, I think, for the students, particularly if you’re talking about middle and high schools, where there are many more teachers involved with each student, and one is providing a sort of personalized experience and they go to another teacher and it’s very traditional and nothing gets tailored to their needs, it’s kind of a jarring experience for the student. So I don’t know that it serves them well.

Can you do it at a more granular level? Of course. Is it more effective if it’s done at least with a cohort of teachers? Yes, I think so.

When thinking of the district, the school, and the classroom level, what needs to be in place to do personalized learning well?

This is where it gets exciting, and I think there’s a misunderstanding here. There are many, many models for personalized learning. There’s lots of ways to do it, and so, depending on the goals of that school, or the district, or whatever level it is, what’s required is going to vary.

That said, as I’ve looked at a number of models over the years, there are some themes, some basic elements that generally exist no matter what the model is. One of them is some sort of technical tool to help manage the progression of students. Some people like to use the term “dashboard.” I don’t know that it has to be a dashboard, but a tool to help manage student progression, that’s one thing.

Another element is a school model where the scheduling element has some flexibility. There’s all different kinds of ways to do that. But if you’re in a model where you say, “We’re totally personalized,” and yet there’s this super-rigid schedule, and everything has to end at this time and at the end of this week, I’ve just never seen that in an effective personalized learning location.

So, a tool to manage the progression, flexibility around the schedule, and a culture where it’s clear that there is autonomy on the part of the learners, that the learners are the owners of the learning experience and that they are making a choice about how to go through their learning. I think that’s a third element that pretty much is a showstopper.

What impact do you think this work can have in Rhode Island, especially as the state is serving as sort of a laboratory when it comes to developing best practices for personalized learning?

That was our goal in Rhode Island: to say, how can we create a lab state? It’s nice because it’s smaller. Some of these things are big, systemic things that are hard to change in any state, no matter the size, but it’s easier sometimes when you can tackle those in an area where I could literally get everybody in the same room. And then, once you work through that, then take it to scale in states where that would be harder.

The thing with personalized learning is, it is a long game. It’s not something you do one Thursday and then all of a sudden everybody has better grades the following Monday. These are systemic, cultural changes, and so it takes a while. And it takes a while to get the model right. Over time, what I hope to see — I think the students will see in Rhode Island and other places where this is implemented — is narrowing the equity gap. I think one of the reasons we have so many gaps is because we don’t have a learning model that’s tailored to individual student needs. So if some student is struggling or stuck for whatever reason because they’re lagging behind … they just get farther and farther behind. The good thing with personalized learning is, you can actually go back and catch some of that stuff and correct it.

I also hope to see, and we actually started to see, evidence of that in the schools in Rhode Island. There was evidence of closing of gaps. I think a lot of the experiences that we have in schools now, the level of engagement, the level of buy-in from the students in terms of participating in the learning experience, is quite low. I think that’s something else that we will see shift over time as we have more personalized learning.

A third one that I would add is of lesser importance, but as a parent, I need to say it — parents feeling like they’re much more involved in the learning process. I have four kids, and great teachers, but I generally have very little knowledge of what’s happening in my kids’ learning experience. That’s frustrating as a parent who wants to be engaged and involved, and there is not an easy way for me to do that.

Do you see any promising examples of how to boost parent engagement through personalized learning?

Absolutely. The key with personalized learning is, if you are able to share that idea of monitoring progress in real time, or near-real time, that can be shared both with the student, which is part of what powers the student, and also the parents. So you are able to see very quickly where my kid needs some extra help, and do that long before a final grade is put in place, or long before they move on to the next class or the next grade. Also, it’s an opportunity … I’m going to give an example, but with a caveat: Personalized learning is not software. You can’t buy personalized learning. There’s no way to do it. There are tech tools that are essential. I’ve never seen a successful implementation of personalized learning without some tech to support it, but there are people out there that say, “Buy this software, it will make you be personalized learning,” and that is not the case.

So I want to clarify that. But I’m going to give an example of where there’s a tech tool that has been very helpful for me. My kids use a tool that helps teach math. I get an alert every day [about] behaviors that they’re working on, and here’s an activity that you can do. It’s simple things like, while you’re going through the grocery store today, look for things that you can group into tens, because that’s the activity that they did earlier that day. It immediately makes me more engaged as a parent. It feeds me a line for how to be more involved with my kids’ learning.

Can you describe the relationship between personalized learning and technology?

It is tricky. One of the worst things that’s happened for personalized learning is the conflation of the idea that you can buy software that then, by having kids use it, suddenly is the same as creating personalized learning. Particularly when you’re talking about adaptive software. There are lots of tools that are adaptive learning, adaptive software, or computer adaptive, and that’s great. And that certainly can be an element of broader personalized learning, but if you just buy a piece of software that adapts based on some questions a kid asks on the screen, that doesn’t count as personalized learning.

Technology does have a really, really important role, because you have to have tools to help support both teachers and students in this new model. And I’ll give a couple of examples. One that we’ve mentioned already is that the tools help monitor the progress. You know where everybody’s at. That gets really hard to do on paper. And then, related to that, is this idea of some sort of way to visualize it. A dashboard for the students, for the parents.

But the other element that is important to note is, when you’re talking about personalized learning, the amount of learning content increases. I used to be a teacher. I was a Spanish teacher, and if I was teaching four classes a day, I prepared one thing and delivered it to that class. Great, that’s what it was. Now, if I’m going to a personalized learning model, it’s not just one thing I’m preparing. I may have eight or 10 activities that need to be prepared for every class or for every student. So the amount of learning resources increases. When that happens, having high-quality digital resources is really critical because you can very quickly search and align and identify learning content, the volume of learning content, much more effectively.

I don’t believe that personalized learning is the same as just having kids sitting, working by themselves. But there are times that you may be in smaller groups, or occasionally working on something by yourself. That’s very hard to do if the students themselves don’t have access to a device and connectivity. So those are the areas right off the top of my head where I would say it’s pretty critical to have a tech element.

I visited a school — I was in England, south of London, a school there that had been a failing school. What they had done was unbelievable. They had completely transformed the school using a personalized learning model, and all of a sudden, all their graduation rates were up, they had students that were engaged. It was just one of these unbelievable stories.

I was talking to the teachers, and they sort of looked like zombies. They were all falling asleep, they were all yawning. They showed me this room, and after school every day — it was all on paper, sitting there with paper and pencil — they would literally redesign and adapt the learning experience for the kids for the next day. So they were there until 8:00, 9:00 at night doing this very difficult manual process. And I was like, “Why do you keep doing this to yourselves? This is crazy.” And they were like, “We are watching this transform the lives of these kids, how could we possibly stop?” And I said, “Yes, I take that point, but there are also some ways that you could enable this.”

I share that story because when people say, “Do you need technology to personalize learning?” No, but if you want to get some sleep at night, then yeah, you actually do need some tech to help take it to scale.

It seems like the push for adopting social-emotional learning models in the classroom ties into the goals of personalized learning. How you see these two areas working together?

When I think about learning, for me, it is broader than just, “Do I know how to solve this math problem?” It’s really about being somebody who can thrive in a globally connected world. Some of these are basic cognitive skills that we’re talking about, academic skills. Some of them are what you would call social-emotional, and there’s a bunch of different names for them. But whatever it is, it’s sort of that: How do you appropriately engage with others? How do you recognize your own growth mindset?

There’s another piece that I think is critically important, which is understanding the tools that you need to be successful. How do you use tech appropriately in learning? I’m a big advocate for having every student learn how to code. I think it’s critical that we also are teaching digital citizenship. There’s going to be a big push on that from ISTE this coming year because I’m worried that we aren’t talking about what are the skills you need to know in order to be a force for good in your community in a digital space, and how to use technology in a way that helps connect you to different cultures and experiences.

Could you talk more about what it means to be a digital citizen and how you teach students to be a force for good on the internet?

[Digital citizenship] is having a basic understanding of deciphering what is legitimate information online. Another example is using technology to motivate and organize your community, however you define that, for good. When I was in school, when we wanted kids to help organize around a good cause, they’d make posters and hang them up in the halls or put them on a telephone pole around town. Today, if you wanted to organize for good, you’d probably [be] much faster using text messages or a Facebook group. But those are skills that we need to teach. How do you take a challenge that we’re all facing and use digital tools to solve it?

Another one that’s critical today: How do you debate? How do you argue respectfully and share different opinions in a digital space? Sometimes we see people engaging and cordial in a physical space, and they go online and just lose all of their brain when it comes to how you debate. That’s a skill that we need to teach.

These areas are all very positive things. How do you make the world a better place? How do you decipher good, true information? How do you recognize and learn new cultures? How do you collaboratively design and edit learning materials? Something as simple as collaborative document editing: If you have 20 people that are on a Google Doc and we’re all collaboratively editing on a wiki, what does it mean to be respectful in that space?

[There’s also] engaging with government. In the past, if you wanted to engage with government, you’d call a number or write a letter to an elected representative. Now, we have all these ways to engage around the safety of my community because I have tools that allow me to digitally engage with law enforcement or my community. SeeClickFix is a great example of a tool that helps you identify public works issues that need to be addressed. But that whole body of how do you use technology to be an effective citizen is something we don’t teach. And just because people are savvy in the use of technology, does not mean that they are savvy in understanding how to use it to better the community around them.

How do we implement education technology so districts use research-based tools that are both affordable and meaningful for students?

That’s a pretty well-paved path at this point. Personalized learning is still out there, still kind of cutting-edge a little bit, but we know what you need to do in order to use technology effectively. We have ISTE standards, which are internationally accepted and recognized. They’re openly available; they’re free for anybody.

We have a theme at ISTE, which is “learning first, technology second.” All the really effective tech implementations I’ve ever seen have always started with a learning mission. How do we bring in and choose the right technology to make that vision a reality? All the disastrous examples I’ve seen, the ones where something has not worked well, always started with someone who went, “Hey, let’s get a bunch of computers and then we’ll figure out what to do with them.” So high-level, it’s learning first, set the vision, then figure out how the technology can support it, and then if you get more granular, that’s where I point to the ISTE standards and say, how does that look on paper?

With tech companies courting teachers, how do you make sure teachers know how to use education technology effectively?

There’s two different things, and this is where it gets intermingled or confused. One is support for teachers on using particular tools that have been adopted, and in that case, it’s totally appropriate for the company to be involved and to be providing training for the schools. The other piece, and this is the part that’s been missing, and it’s what we hope to help fix, is before this selection, the conceptual level of what is the role that technology plays. How do I make good decisions about what tech to use and what not? How do I make sure my students are being engaged and using the technology appropriately?

The part that’s missing is making sure that the teachers and educators are prepared on knowing how to use technology and how to select the right tools independent from any company. That’s where it gets gray.

How would you compare how the U.S. uses technology in the classroom to other countries?

There are a lot of really good examples internationally. One of the areas where the U.S. has a lead is this idea of using technology as a tool for learning as opposed to a tool for just delivering content to students. One of the unfortunate things we see often around the world — and, by the way, including places in the U.S. — is the device is used as a sort of a delivery channel for students. They’re just viewing a video or reading content on the screen. It’s very one-way. It puts those learners in a very passive mode. They’re just consumers of content, and the technology is just a delivery tool to get that content to them. It’s the least interesting way to use technology in learning.

What we’re starting to see in a lot of places in the U.S. is where they’re saying, no, this tool is not just about delivering learning content. It’s actually the tool for the learners to use to design and create and problem-solve and use it as a tool to give them powerful new ways to tackle the problem. Which is very different than just having it be a way to consume.

That, I would say, is the difference between effective and [ineffective] uses of technology. One of the things we’re seeing is there is a lot more consistency in implementation in other countries. Whereas in the U.S., you may go to one school and it’s just off-the-charts awesome, you may go to a school that’s right down the street, and it’s not good at all. And I think part of it is because we have a very decentralized model, which has its advantages for innovation, but keeping sort of consistency or economy to scale is not one of them.

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