Personalizing education does not mean simply putting a laptop in the hands of every teacher and student; rather, it occurs as leaders empower teachers to go beyond the traditional role of a “content expert” and organically diagnose, analyze, guide, instruct, and coach students. Personalization requires focused intentionality to shift instructional models, using 21st century tools, towards student-centered learning. This evolution in student learning is led by those who know what individual students need better than anyone—teachers.
For all of my fellow superintendents and administrators out there—as leaders, we have the opportunity and responsibility to establish organizational priorities and values that support personalized learning for every student. To do such, we need to maximize two finite, critical resources for student success: time and teachers.
Maximizing Time: Remove the Artificial Constraints
First, let’s talk about time. I’m going to take you with me back in time, to a situation with one of my former students that illustrates the importance of time, flexibility, and student empowerment. As a 17-year old ninth grader, Jimmy fit every stereotype: chronically absent from school, frequent and serious discipline infractions, and consistently disengaged from his own learning. His transcript showed he failed more classes than he passed during his three years at our school, thereby causing him to repeat the 9th grade three times.
His teacher noted he had taken 9th grade English three times, failing each of the previous semesters. In her mind, the problem was simple: if we repeated the same time-based constraints, he would fail the class a fourth time. Her solution was even simpler: determine what he already knew and tailor the class to meet the learning objectives for which he needed more time and support.
Three weeks later, Jimmy would demonstrate mastery of all content standards and successfully pass 9th grade English. His schedule was tailored to allow him to seamlessly move on to the next course with a renewed sense of self-efficacy and self-worth.
Now, let’s flashback to the present. In most classrooms, traditional educational paradigms dictate that students’ completion of academic courses is time-based, offering few incentives to improve the actual pace and quality of learning. Time is treated as the constant, and learning as the variable. The goal is to “get good grades” while demonstrating mastery of content over a prescribed period of time. To further complicate matters, traditional instructional models are almost without exception organized around aged-based cohorts that group children based on date of birth instead of a student’s readiness to master content.
In order for us to reach the full potential of a child and, more generally, personalized learning, we need to recognize that the student’s pace and intrinsic motivation matter more than an arbitrary bell schedule or school calendar. It is incumbent upon us as teachers and leaders to create class schedules and school calendars that are as flexible and diverse as the students we serve.
As today’s instructional tools allow teachers to precisely diagnose student needs, using teacher-identified student competences to determine student groupings and course completion removes the artificial constraint of time. The opportunity before us is to create both courses and, more generally, matriculation through a sequence of courses that have the flexibility to adapt to each student and their pace of success. It’s not about a class roster on the first day of a new school year; rather, student names and faces are grouped based on similar learning objectives and needs for that given day, week, or month.
Maximizing Teachers: Goodbye, Pacing Guides and Prescribed Lesson Plans
As Jimmy’s teacher demonstrated above, the time and pace of student learning can be adjusted to maximize the opportunity for authentic teacher-student interaction. Once we break free from the constraints of the traditional school clock, we can then turn our attention to the second variable necessary for a culture of personalized learning: the teacher.
In far too many classrooms, teachers spend a majority of their time delivering content from the front of the classroom while balancing behavior management, data analysis, coaching, attendance, and countless other responsibilities. Personalization is placed on a list with a multitude of other instructional and operational expectations, each rated equal in the daily quest for teacher survival.
Personalized learning–both within an individual classroom and the larger school building–occurs as leaders empower teachers to customize resources and instructional delivery based on the needs of each child. Gone are the days of a course-pacing guide that locks a team of teachers to a prescribed lesson plan or “unit test” based on predetermined calendar designed for the “average” learner. Rather, instructional planning and personalized assessments are driven by formative data collected by teachers in the classroom on a daily basis.
As leaders, we must ask ourselves the reflective questions, “Do our current instructional resources and assessment practices permit teachers to diagnose, analyze, guide and coach with ease and fluidity?” Furthermore, “Have we established a shared responsibility that personalization is the number one priority in our classrooms?” If the answer to both is a yes, then go forth and empower your teachers. If not, the time is now to place such resources in the hands of our teachers so we can achieve the desired organizational culture and classroom practices that are focused on individual student success.
Several school districts across the country are on a multi-year journey to empower teachers through improved access to student learning data and digitized resources. In these model districts, every teacher has access to online diagnostic and formative assessment across most or all grade levels. Teacher-developed assessments are aligned to curriculum standards and, at the same time, easily customizable based on student need and instructional pacing. Every teacher and every child have the opportunity for immediate feedback on student learning. No more “ticket out the door” that requires a teacher to touch every piece of paper – this information is available with the click of a mouse for all students. And, equally as significant—for districts that serve transient students and families, every teacher-created diagnostic assessment can be part of an online student profile that follows a child should they transfer schools. And, those profiles should be learning profiles that are about the child, not a teacher’s static gradebook.
For a moment, step aside from the technicalities of personalized learning and think about one of your most deserving students who was facing the most challenging times. See their face. Reflect on their circumstances.
For that student and so many others, our ability to leverage finite resources may be the difference between success and failure. We have a fixed amount of time to make a child’s academic experience meaningful and relevant. Similarly, our teachers have a fixed amount of energy and capacity to seize that moment that time has created. Use them both wisely, for that is the opportunity and responsibility afforded to us as leaders.