Saturday, January 10, 2015
In the diverse and ever-changing world of
educational technology, the term "personalized learning" seems to be everywhere, though there is not yet a shared understanding of what it means.
Many school officials, and companies scrambling to do business with them, use that omnipresent phrase to refer to efforts to tailor lessons to students of different ability levels—an appealing concept, given the pressures
schools face to raise the achievement of students coming to academic topics from very different starting points.
Over the past few years, a number of
education and technology organizations have sought to move beyond generalities to forge a clearer definition of what personalized learning really means—in the hope that the guidance will provide more specific and useful information to the K-12 community.
As it stands, districts see the potential in personalized learning to meet the demands of a student population that has grown more diverse, with a wide range of academic and language needs. And technology, in the view of many, offers a powerful tool for achieving that goal. They point to the myriad digital devices, software, and learning platforms offering educators a once-unimaginable array of options for tailoring lessons to students' needs—and for
collecting data on each student's individual performance.
Yet many obstacles persist. School leaders are struggling to strike a balance between safeguarding sensitive student data and being able to collect and use such data to individualize learning. Districts are also facing challenges in making their personalized learning strategies work, and in determining how to evaluate the true impact of those strategies on student learning.
The challenge for schools is to bring those elements together in a holistic way, one that creates more opportunities for
students, said Andrew Calkins, the deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a grant competition that encourages personalized learning, among other goals.
"The thing to understand about personalized learning is that it describes a methodology, rather than just a set of goals," said Mr. Calkins, whose nonprofit organization, EDUCAUSE, manages the competition. EDUCAUSE, which promotes the use of technology to improve education, also has worked to create a clearer definition of what personalized learning means.
A core piece of that definition, in Mr. Calkins' view, is that "the default perspective is the student's—not the curriculum, or the teacher," and that schools need to adjust to accommodate not only students' academic strengths and weaknesses, but also their interests, and what motivates them to succeed.
Yet some say that too much of what is being labeled "personalized learning" in classrooms today misses the mark.
Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience, said Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan who has studied and developed digital education tools.
"Everybody's saying they're doing it—but we have to go one level deeper when we say 'personalized learning,'" Mr. Soloway said. If schools and technology advocates don't set higher standards for what they mean, the movement "will not be sustainable," he predicted. "It will peter out."
The allure of personalized learning is evident in the way that both the education community, and companies trying to do business in schools, shape the term to suit their needs.
A perusal of the sessions at the 2014 International Society for Technology in Education conference, the biggest ed-tech gathering in the country, held in June, provides a glimpse of personalized learning's many permutations.
One session offered school administrators insights on "personalized digital toolboxes." Another advised audiences on how to use information technology to enable "personalized connected learning."
There was an event on "systemic adoption of personalized learning," and "self-sustaining personalized learning." There were sessions on personalized learning for entire districts, for kindergartners and 1st graders, for struggling students, and for new teachers.
One session said that personalized learning is tied to a "culture shift" within schools, while another described the "perfect storm of personalized learning."
But the prevailing enthusiasm for personalized learning has obscured a fundamental question: How should it be defined?
Personalizing learning, in some respects, is an age-old concept. For generations, teachers have sought to craft instruction to meet individual student needs—a manageable challenge when working with a relatively small group, but much more difficult for a class of 20 to 30 students.
Personalized learning in today's schools essentially amounts to the "differentiation" of lessons for students of different skill levels, or efforts to help students move at their own pace, said Susan D. Patrick, the executive director of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Vienna, Va.
But she added that personalized learning must also promote "student agency"—basically, giving students more power through either digital tools or other means, accounting for how they learn best, what motivates them, and their academic goals. The most effective digital tools support that purpose, she said.
"Technology can help provide students with more choices on how they're going to learn a lesson," Ms. Patrick said. "[It] empowers teachers in personalizing learning" and "empowers students through their own exercise of choice."
Four years ago, a trio of organizations—the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington based trade organization; the ASCD, a nonprofit focused on curriculum development; and the Council of Chief State School Officers—came together for a symposium and produced 10 "essential elements" and "policy enablers" for personalized learning.
Their definition emphasizes project-based learning, and more flexibility for students to set their learning paths, among other goals. An overwhelming majority of the symposium's attendees said technology played a key role in personalized learning; the essential elements also emphasized the importance of providing equal access to technology.
This year, in an effort to provide clearer direction for K-12 officials and others, iNACOL, along with a group of philanthropies, nonprofits, and technology advocacy organizations, created a "working definition of personalized learning."
That definition, crafted by organizations that included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and EDUCAUSE, rests on four pillars. (Education Week receives support from the Gates Foundation for its coverage of college- and career-ready standards.) Each student should have a "learner profile," or a record documenting his or her academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals; students should have personal learning paths that encourage them to set and manage their individual academic goals; students should follow a "competency-based progression" through topics; and their learning environments—in most cases, schools—should be flexible and structured in a way to support their goals. (See graphic.)
Those pillars have been integrated into the request for proposals crafted by the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a grant program created in 2010 that pays for technology-based efforts in schools that promote preparation for, and completion of, postsecondary education.
True personalized learning calls for a "rethinking and redesign" of schools, which could require them to overhaul classroom structures and schedules, curricula, and the instructional approaches of teachers, Mr. Calkins of EDUCAUSE argued. For instance, in an effective personalized learning model, teachers' roles are more like those of coaches or facilitators than "content providers," he said.
Many of the projects financed through the learning-challenges grants aspire to that goal, though there's certainly room for schools to integrate personalized approaches more slowly, he said.
In Wisconsin, the Kettle Moraine school system's foray into personalized learning has been ambitious, but also deliberate.
The 4,000-student district, located in the suburbs west of Milwaukee, has been a high-performing system for years. But district leaders became concerned that students were more focused on completing academic tasks than on setting their own learning goals, recalled Theresa Ewald, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.
"We were looking at ways of transferring the ownership of learning from teachers to students," Ms. Ewald said.
In 2005, the school board challenged the district's administration to "transform the educational delivery system" to better meet students' needs. The district eventually put personalized learning at the heart of that change.
Today, personalized learning comes in many forms in Kettle Moraine. The district has created interdisciplinary pathways for students, in areas such as advanced manufacturing, and it has given individual teachers greater flexibility to use lessons and digital tools as they see fit to promote student learning.
Yet, unlike many districts that have put personalized learning programs in place, Kettle Moraine decided not to invest heavily in digital devices to build a 1-to-1 computing environment. Instead, it relies on a bring-your-own-device program, and it has used Google systems for distributing assignments, scheduling, and communication between staff and students. In most cases, technology is used to support personalized learning, though it is not always the essential piece, district officials emphasized.
As its academic strategies have drawn attention, Kettle Moraine has been flooded with inquiries from vendors touting their own brands of personalized learning. Many of them fall short, either because they try to do too much or cost too much, Ms. Ewald said. Others focus primarily on customizing lessons to students' ability levels—which Ms. Ewald agrees is a part of personalized learning—but they don't offer a diversity of approaches for how a student experiences a topic, such as by engaging with it visually versus reading about it.
Ultimately, those tools have to mesh with the work of classroom teachers, who are making their own judgments about what's working in their classes, Ms. Ewald said.
"Nothing replaces the teacher, and [a] teacher's ability to know a student and what they need," she said. "You can't get that from a piece of software."
Vol. 34, Issue 09, Pages s2,s4
Let's review the educational cure-alls of past decades: back to basics, the open classroom, whole language, constructivism, and E.D. Hirsch's excruciatingly detailed accounts of what every 1st or 3rd grader should know, to name a few. It seems America's teachers and students are guinea pigs in the perennial quest for universal excellence. Sadly, though, the elusive panacea that will solve all of education's woes has remained, well, elusive.
|E.D. Hirsch, Jr.|
But wait! The solution has arrived, and it's been around long enough to prove its worth. What is this magical elixir? Differentiation!
Starting with the gifted-education community in the late 1960s, differentiation didn't get its mojo going until regular educators jumped onto the bandwagon in the 1980s. By my count, the Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development (now known simply as ASCD) has released more than 600 publications on differentiation, and countless publishers have followed suit with manuals and software that will turn every classroom into a differentiated one.
There's only one problem: Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.
In theory, differentiation sounds great, as it takes several important factors of student learning into account:
• It seeks to determine what students already know and what they still need to learn.
• It allows students to demonstrate what they know through multiple methods.
• It encourages students and teachers to add depth and complexity to the learning/teaching process.
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? The problem is this: Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.
Case in point: In a winter 2011 Education Next article, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Michael Petrilli wrote about a
University of Virginia study of differentiated instruction: "Teachers were provided with extensive professional development and ongoing coaching. Three years later the researchers wanted to know if the program had an impact on student learning. But they were stumped. 'We couldn't answer the question ... because no one was actually differentiating,' " the researcher, Holly Hertberg-Davis, told Petrilli.
And, Ms. Hertberg-Davis herself wrote in a 2009 article in Gifted Child Quarterly: "It does not seem that we are yet at a place where differentiation within the regular classroom is a particularly effective method of challenging our most able learners."
Too, Mike Schmoker, in a 2010 Commentary for Education Week titled "When Pedagogic Fads Trump Priorities," relates that his experiences of observing educators trying to differentiate caused him to draw this conclusion: "In every case,
differentiated instruction seemed to complicate teachers' work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials, … and it dumbed down instruction."
As additional evidence of the ineffectiveness of differentiation, in a 2008 report by the Fordham Institute, 83 percent of teachers nationwide stated that differentiation was "somewhat" or "very" difficult to implement.
It seems that, when it comes to differentiation, teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they're supposed to be doing it. Either way, the verdict is clear: Differentiation is a promise unfulfilled, a boondoggle of massive proportions.
The biggest reason differentiation doesn't work, and never will, is the way students are deployed in most of our nation's classrooms. Toss together several students who struggle to learn, along with a smattering of gifted kids, while adding a few English-language learners and a bunch of academically average students and expect a single teacher to differentiate for each of them. That is a recipe for academic disaster if ever I saw one. Such an admixture of students with varying abilities in one classroom causes even the most experienced and conscientious teachers to flinch, as they know the task of reaching each child is an impossible one.
It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals. It's the in-the-trenches educators who know the stark reality: Differentiation is a cheap way out for school districts to pay lip service to those who demand that each child be educated to his or her fullest potential.
Do we expect an oncologist to be able to treat glaucoma? Do we expect a criminal prosecutor to be able to decipher patent law? Do we expect a concert pianist to be able to play the clarinet equally well? No, no, no. However, when the education of our nation's young people is at stake, we toss together into one classroom every possible learning strength and disability and expect a single teacher to be able to work academic miracles with every kid … as long as said teacher is willing to differentiate, of course.
The sad truth is this: By having dismantled many of the provisions we used to offer to kids on the edges of learning (classes for gifted kids, classes for kids who struggle to learn, and classes for those whose behaviors are disruptive to the learning process of others), we have sacrificed the learning of virtually every student. In the same Fordham Institute report cited earlier, 71 percent of teachers reported that they would like to see our nation rely more heavily on homogeneous grouping of advanced students, while a resounding 77 percent of teachers said that, when advanced students are paired with lower-achieving students for group assignments, it's the smart kids who do the bulk of the work.
A second reason that differentiation has been a failure is that we're not exactly sure what it is we are differentiating: Is it the curriculum or the instructional methods used to deliver it? Or both? The terms "differentiated instruction" and "differentiated curriculum" are used interchangeably, yet they are not synonyms. Teachers want and need clear guidance on what it is they are supposed to do to reach differentiated Nirvana, yet the messages they receive from the "experts" are far from consistent. No wonder confusion reigns and teachers feel defeated in trying to implement the grand goals of differentiation.
Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own. Until that time, differentiation will continue to be what it has become: a losing proposition for both students and teachers, and yet one more panacea that did not pan out.
Vol. 34, Issue 15, Pages 28,36
Carmen Farina and Bill De Blasio Change School Governance Starting in July 2015: Superintendents, Not Principals, Will Have The Power and Authority To Make Decisions About Schools Under Their Jurisdiction
De Blasio and Fariña plan to shift power from principals to superintendents
|Chancellor Carmen Farina and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio|