4 Big Shifts That Can Personalize the Learning Journey

Personalized Learning

4 Big Shifts That Can Personalize the Learning Journey

By Sam Peterson     Jul 30, 2018

4 Big Shifts That Can Personalize the Learning Journey

What needs to happen to move your school or district toward an effective implementation of personalized learning? According to EdSurge Fusion conference speaker, Dr. Scott McLeod, there are Four Big Shifts that propel “deeper learning schools” along their personalized learning journey.

McLeod is the co-author of Different Schools for a Different World. As is abundantly clear from the title of his book, McLeod is an advocate for school change. He’s spent decades observing and coaching on school change and has worked with several hundred schools, districts, universities, and other organizations. He is the Founding Director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), the only university center in the U.S. dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators, and is the co-creator of the popular video series, Did You Know? (Shift Happens). And although he’s vocal in his sincere appreciation for the current and past efforts of educators in the field, he also recognizes “that despite our very best efforts, much of what we’re doing in schools isn’t working because it isn’t relevant to the needs and demands of the world around us.” Education needs to be modernized, contextualized, and personalized, McLeod argues.

Based on his research on hundreds of schools, McLeod says he's seen four changes that are key to making the learning process relevant and personalized:

  • From factual recall to higher-level thinking: Moving from pedagogy that requires students focus on factual recall and procedural regurgitation to one in which students work on tasks of greater complexity including creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication and collaboration.
  • From teacher control to student agency: Letting go of the traditional teacher-controlled model and moving towards learning environments with greater student agency. When students have “ownership and control of what, how, when, where, who with, and why they learn,” the promise of relevant learning becomes real, McLeod says.
  • From traditional activities to authentic work: Moving from isolated academic work environments to providing students opportunities to engage with and contribute to relevant local, national, and international interdisciplinary communities.
  • From traditional resources to a technology-rich environment: Infusing classrooms with more resources beyond the traditional paper and pencil propel the previous three shifts into high gear.

So how does this work in practice? Exploring the implementation of personalized learning—and its associated challenges and successes—was the central focus of a year-long EdSurge Research project supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The project sought to chronicle the personalized learning journey of school communities around the U.S. by convening educators in 50 regions across the country at events called Technology Leaders Circles (TLCs) and publishing a collection of 80 stories rooted in implementation and anchored in educator and student experiences.

And although we hadn’t set out to seek the trends that McLeod describes, our stories and the interviews we conducted shared common elements across approaches and challenges of McLeod’s Four Big Shifts.

At each point, McLeod recommends educators ask questions to assess if the changes are in fact contributing to shifting practices. These include:

  1. Deeper learning. Did the work allow students to go beyond factual recall and procedural regurgitation, to be creative, collaborative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers?
  2. Student agency. Did it allow students to drive their own learning rather than being directed by teachers?
  3. Authentic work. Did it allow students to be engaged with and/or make a contribution to the world outside the school walls?
  4. Digital tools. Did it allow students to use digital learning tools to enhance their learning beyond traditional analog practices?

As we traveled around the country last year chronicling stories from educators, we saw many teachers and administrators that were living the answers to these questions every day in their classrooms and schools. For instance:

Higher-level thinking:

  • What Personalized Learning Is Not - Kenya Ransey, an Edtech Integration Specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, reflects on the struggle to reach a common understanding of PL in addition to the many challenges of implementation. In particular, she calls for a learning environment that “allows students to take an active role in their learning, and utilizes learners’ innate interests to fuel the processes of investigation and discovery” and the importance of “allowing students time to explore and make choices for themselves.”
  • Where’s the Humanity? The Case for Putting Language Arts Into STEM - The Tech Challenge presents an impressive tale of real-world collaboration and cross-curricular exploration, championing the modern world’s demand for authentic learning opportunities with an engineering program that’s “designed to give students a well-rounded experience involving a broad set of academic and non-academic skills.”

Student Agency:

  • Let Learners Get in Their Zone (of Proximal Development) - John Reyes, director of educational technology for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Matthew Peskay, Chief of Innovation and Technology at KIPP LA Schools, offer their perspectives on the struggle to provide students with an appropriate level of agency, so they can reach their so-called Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): “the space between what a learner can do independently, and what he or she can do with support.”
  • Redesigning the Syllabus to Reflect the Learning Journey - Mark Engstrom, head of middle and upper school at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, shares an encouraging story about rethinking curriculum to encourage “students to make decisions and take a more active role as learners.”

Authentic work:

  • Lessons from NASA: How a Space Camp Helps Teachers Meet Kids Where They Are - Becky Fritchie, a 5th grade math and science teacher at Spanish Lake Primary School in Geismar, Louisiana, isn’t just concerned with the real world outside the school walls. She’s connecting her students with the cosmos, employing practices collected from a summer stint at NASA’s space camp to create “learning experiences that put students in the driver’s seat.”
  • When It Comes to Trying to Shake Up K-12, Is College the Problem? - California educators weigh in on the concern of many parents that the kind of authentic work emphasized in PL isn’t actually preparing their children for college or the real world where personalization may not be allowed.

Technology Infusion:

McLeod will be joining us at the EdSurge Fusion Conference this October along with some of the educators chronicled in these story. If you are looking to assess how your school or district can more effectively make a shift, consider joining us this October!

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

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