Personalized Learning Puts Student Needs at the Center

Tuesday, November 18, 2014 at 12:00am
By: David Ruenzel

Just as in medieval astronomy the sun circled around the earth, so in schooling has learning revolved around the teacher. As the source of knowledge, the teacher determined on a fixed schedule what students should learn and when they should learn it.

But with the advent of personalized learning, a Copernican revolution in education is taking shape. It’s now the students who are at the center of the classroom cosmos, and they are getting, as middle school teacher Brian Johnson likes to say, “what they need when they need it.”

Johnson’s school, Summit Public School: Denali in Sunnyvale, California, launched its personalized model in 2013, and it has changed everything for the veteran science teacher and former engineer. “I could actually see, more clearly than before, kids grow in deeply individual ways,” he says. “I tried to differentiate instruction before, but it was always struggle.”

Essentially, Summit students learn content through an online playlist, which includes videos, websites, readings, and exercises, including a lot of math content from Khan Academy. “We’re almost like curators,” Johnson says. “We find the best stuff out there to help kids understand content.”

Students have substantial flexibility in choosing what content they study and when they study it. Some, for instance, might want to work sequentially through a focus area, while others might prefer to switch between subjects. Teachers, utilizing formative assessments built into the playlist, coach students on what content to study and how.

This online time is only one component of the Summit model. Teachers spend a lot of their instructional time coaching students, both individually and in small groups, on the development of skills essential for college success. This happens not before a computer but during daily project time, when teams of students tackle important issues. This year, for instance, students are working on a presentation they’d make before the city council on how it could mitigate the effects of climate change.

“In the process,” Johnson says, “students are getting lots of feedback from teachers and peers. They’re developing skills like working in groups, public speaking, writing, and analyzing data. And we teachers are there to coach, encourage, and support them.”

Middle school social studies teacher Tanesha Dixon believes, like Johnson, that personalized learning is about much more than technology. She didn’t fully understand its power to reach all students until she began rotating students through stations in small groups, which gave her an opportunity to speak with every student during every class period.

“I was amazed by how much I had missed from shy or embarrassed kids,” says Dixon, who teaches at the Wheatley Education Campus, a Washington, D.C., public school. “But in groups of five or six students they could ask questions and I could respond to their misunderstandings. ‘I’m heard!’ they said.”

Still, Dixon believes that technology, which students use when they rotate to independent learning stations, has liberated teachers and students from the tyranny of lockstep learning. “Gone are the days when districts should invest in a textbook,” she says. “In real time I can get my students to learn what’s happening in Syria. Or dig deep into primary sources from the Renaissance. All of this allows me to be the teacher I’ve always dreamed of being.”

Dixon uses, among other digital tools, the Discovery Education Techbook, which facilitates searches for primary sources, videos, writing prompts, and more. Interactive texts are calibrated to different reading levels, further differentiating instruction.

“Teachers need to understand that personalized learning doesn’t make learning impersonal,” Dixon says. “You still talk to your students. But I’m also teaching them to respond skillfully to a blog post so that they don’t have to worry forever about having their names attached to it. These are real 21st-century skills, not just things that live in mission statements.”

When Colleen Kennedy, a 4th grade math and reading teacher at KIPP Comienza Community Prep in Los Angeles, began teaching at the school in 2012, the priority was to make sure that all students receive small-group instruction. That priority remains, and has even been bolstered, as teachers find ever more effective technology for their students.

“Educational technology allows us to deliver higher quality small-group instruction,” Kennedy says. “The data the technology generates helps me know exactly how to meet the needs of the individual student in front of me.”

For math, students follow a rotational model, moving in small groups between teacher-led instruction, independent or collaborative problem-solving practice, and using Chromebooks to access ST Math, an online platform that enables students to learn math concepts through temporal and spatial reasoning. For reading, the students meet with Kennedy in small groups or work on