The Elusive 'F Word' in Personalized Learning

The Elusive 'F Word' in Personalized Learning


If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard a school or organization say some flavor of this when asked how they use technology or personalize learning in their classroom:

“We offer blended, data-driven instruction led by guides-on-the-side who use adaptive online technology to improve students’ achievement and 21st century skills. Our student-centered rotation model provides real-time feedback and students progress through self-paced, standards-aligned content based on mastery."

You’re impressed. “Tell me more about what that looks like in a typical classroom,” you say. “Describe a typical day.”

Their response? “Well, it depends.” You wonder, what does it depend on?

“Well,” they begin, “our teachers are talented professionals and we empower them to make their own decisions. We give them support and tools and perform observations several times a year. But ultimately we give them the flexibility they need to be successful and different teachers do things differently."

It seems to me like there’s a big issue here—and it has to do with fidelity.

Let’s Talk Fidelity

From the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the context of personalized learning, “fidelity” refers to the faithfulness of individual teachers and classes to the school's driving instructional philosophy and approach. Do teachers actually stick to the school’s chosen personalized learning plan? Do they use the software and review/utilize data as often as they should? Do they take advantage of the power of the model, tools, and data to differentiate instruction on a daily basis?

It depends.

Over the past five years I’ve visited a wide variety of personalized learning schools (public, charter, and faith-based) across the country, including some of the most well-known, and confirmed my findings through discussions with many personalized learning consultants and practitioners. I also attend personalized learning conferences, and I avidly read books, blogs, and publications related to personalized learning (including EdSurge, of course).

What have I learned? Our reality as a field isn’t nearly as “faithful" as it sounds on stage.

Ultimately, what I hear and read about a personalized learning program is often not what’s happening day to day in every classroom. It might be happening in one or two classrooms. A rockstar teacher on the cutting edge may be doing amazing work worth shouting about from the rooftops, but the rest of the school is far behind. Schools, districts, and organizations present their best selves, but when tough questions get asked, the complicated and nuanced truth starts slowly revealing itself.

Don’t Believe Me? Ask the Content Providers

Next time you go to a training session with a content provider or talk to a sales rep, ask them questions about their users’ fidelity: What percentage of schools/teachers follow the recommended frequency and duration? What percentage of teachers adequately use the program’s management tools, reporting, and advanced features?

The answers might surprise you - or they might not. Advanced features are often used by fewer than 10% of teachers. Similar figures apply to meeting usage targets and reviewing data as often as prescribed.

Admitting a Fidelity Problem is the First Step

“We struggle with fidelity.” Go ahead—say it a few times just to get comfortable.

It’s the untold secret in the personalized learning field. Few schools are nearly as personalized as their most personalized class. In many schools, the difference between the best-implemented and worst-implemented personalized learning in classes is enormous. It’s a difficult fact to admit, and an even harder one to solve. But admitting it, as they say, is the first step.

At 2 Sigma Education, we’ve experienced firsthand how challenging fidelity can be. The biggest steps were articulating the challenge, establishing fidelity as a priority, and confronting it head-on. We’re definitely not 100% there yet, but we’re way closer than we used to be.

The issue is that most fidelity problems are swept under the rug. If you mention your challenges in a presentation or article, parents, district leaders, and funders would want to know why only you are facing these problems. The easier path is to follow the pack - publicize the highlights, the best implementations, the best days, the best classes. If anyone asks follow-up questions, just answer “it depends” until they back off.

Ok, so personalized learning has a fidelity problem. Is that a big deal?

Why Fidelity Matters

If you want to experience the power of fidelity, fly halfway around the world to a country you’ve never visited and purchase a latte at Starbucks. Order some items for your stay from Amazon Prime and retire to your heavenly Westin bed.

We didn’t even say what country this was, but you can already vividly imagine how smooth and pleasant this experience would be. Would it be exactly the same as an equivalent experience in New York? No. But there’s a certain sense of reliability and comfort that comes with being able to expect and trust that your needs will be met predictably and successfully no matter where you happen to be.

Contrast that with education. Let’s say Emma successfully completes 2nd grade and begins 3rd grade across the hall (forget moving to a different country or even school). Can she reliably expect that she will be equally successful in 3rd grade? Will the instructional methodology be similar? How about the rules and routines? How will the time and content be organized? Will her needs be identified and met? Or does it depend?

So, how do we achieve fidelity? Stay tuned for part two—specifically targeting how to achieve fidelity in your classrooms and districts.

Jeff Kiderman (@JeffKiderman) is co-founder of 2 Sigma Education. Jeff also co-founded AJE, a non-profit that established two innovative elementary schools in New York City.

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