What a Big Personalized-Learning Study Showed About 5 Ways to Rethink Teaching and Learning

By Kate Stringer | January 17, 2017

With the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been given greater authority over how their students are educated — and more leeway in pursuing alternatives to traditional classroom instruction. One increasingly popular approach is personalized learning, a model that dramatically changes the roles of teacher and student, fueled by technology.
In 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced that personalized learning would be one of three focus areas for their philanthropic work. The field is vast — encompassing everything from laptops for all to how much control students should have over the pace of their education.
One study has taken a sweeping look at what schools across the country are doing to make learning individualized. In what Education Week called the most comprehensive study ever done on personalized learning, the RAND Corporation, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, surveyed 62 district and charter schools that had received funding from the foundation to pursue personalized learning. The schools are mostly in urban areas and primarily serve low-income students and students of color.
The study gathered information from teacher and student surveys, interviews and achievement data. While the schools followed diverse instructional models, their approaches to personalized learning have five common elements that could redefine education:
1. Using student data to pace lesson plans
Numbers are the secret to personalized learning. Teachers use frequently updated data sets — from tests, quizzes and students’ individual academic goals — to create learner profiles, analyzing how well each student has understood a lesson and adapting instruction so each child is on track. In some schools, these numbers aren’t secret; students know how far they’ve progressed and what areas they need to work on.
2. Empowering students to guide their own projects
Project-based learning gives students greater choice in what they study while still meeting academic standards. Projects can span several weeks or a semester, and students can pick the topic and direction. Teachers monitor students’ progress on these personalized learning paths and provide one-on-one support, such as advising and tutoring. Some schools spend half the day on projects and the other half on large-group instruction.
3. Freeing kids to work at their own pace
Students can manage how, and how quickly, they engage in their lessons, while still meeting deadlines set by the teacher and grade-level standards. Some schools let students demonstrate competency on their own schedules rather than having them take regular exams. Quizzes, tests, projects and presentations can all prove achievement.
4. Rethinking classrooms and class hours
Adapting the learning environment to support personalized learning can involve the length of the school day and year, how students are grouped, even the layout of furniture in the classroom. Teachers may work in tandem with other teachers rather than being the only instructor in the class, and the number of adults in the room can change over the course of the day. Technology is thoroughly integrated into day-to-day instruction.
5. Valuing ‘soft’ skills for college and beyond
In addition to being ready academically, each student develops nonacademic skills essential to success after high school, as well as an understanding of what college is and the steps needed to get there. Advisory curricula, group projects and other collaborative efforts help students develop internal resources such as resilience and self-reliance. Teachers emphasize college as an attainable goal and guide students in researching colleges, visiting campuses, submitting applications, picking classes — even choosing what to wear for interviews.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a funder of The 74.
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