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How Personalized Learning Connects With Different Learners

Technology has made it possible to change how students learn, and it has also made it easier for educators to share ideas. Teachers across the world can provide advice on how they teach and what methods of learning best work for their pupils.

Over the past few years, many schools and teachers have started to embrace personalized learning, sharing their results with others in their field. We’ve also embraced it here at Ozobot HQ, with the announcement of our new Ozobot Classroom STEAM learning management system, designed to give educators insights into which students are advancing through lessons and which students may need extra help. With solutions like Ozobot Classroom, students benefit from the individualized learning opportunities and schools can flourish and measure impact of new teaching strategies or technology.

Despite the popularity of personalized learning, there is still some ambiguity around it. Is it right for every school? Where do educators get it wrong? Understanding the missteps of personalized learning can help other teachers avoid them while creating an engaging classroom experience.

What is Personalized Learning?

The first challenge with personalized learning is that many people get the definition wrong. They often think it means one-on-one instruction or 30 lesson plans for 30 students.

“Personalized learning is a pedagogical philosophy, tending to refer to a host of efforts and models that tailor learning and development to the individual student, based on beliefs about what outcomes we want students to reach and how to best help them get there,” writes Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

She emphasizes the word “host” in this definition, meaning there are different strategies, lesson types and methods to tap into personalized learning. While this means educators have a lot of flexibility to make the learning process more personalized, it also means there are more gray areas and opportunities to fail.

Katrina Stevens, director of learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, breaks down just how diverse and vague the concept of personalized learning can be. She points to the official definition accepted by the U.S. Department of Education and notes there are more than 10 working definitions of personalized learning by organizations ranging from the Alliance for Excellent Education to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With so many discussions around personalized learning, it’s no wonder that it looks different in each school system.

If you want to see successful personalized learning in action, look at Lakeville Area Public Schools in Minnesota. Innovation coordinator, Julene Oxton, didn’t want to overthrow the existing system and needed to keep up with state and federal guidelines, but she and her colleagues still wanted to offer personalized learning and developed a plan.

All students have reading and math class at the same time. However, instead of staying with other students in their grade, they now break into different strands that work through the curriculum at various levels. For example, if a student really understands geometry, they can move to a higher level, but then move to a lower level and take their time if they struggle with algebra. Students are constantly moving up and down the ladder within each chunk of the curriculum — the learning isn’t linear.

As you can see, personalized learning means understanding the needs of each student in different subjects and within different lessons throughout the year.

Personalized Learning is Individual, Not Isolating

There is a significant difference between personalized learning and individualized learning. One of the biggest misconceptions educators have about personalized learning is that personalized classrooms will be filled with individual learners.

The problem is that many districts believe technology is the solution to personalized learning, says teacher Paul Emerich France. Schools give each student a tablet and expect them to learn on their own. Unfortunately, this actually makes learning more isolated. Students are less able to turn to their peers for help, because the students next to them are on a completely different page.

“In classrooms where the primary mode of personalization is a hyper-individualized, technology-driven curriculum, we find our children siphoned off into silos, taking away valuable points of convergence,” he writes.

Instead, successful personalized learning is collaborative. It allows students to share with each other and learn together.

“As students become agents of their learning, their job is to identify different ways to learn as well as different people to learn from—which may include their peers,” explains educational consultant Andrew Miller. “As students find their passions, they discover they share passions and interests with others in the classroom and form affinity groups to implement group projects and learning experiences.”

Personalized Learning Needs to Be Humanizing

This idea of treating students like individuals and humans with their own strengths and weaknesses can have a big impact on vulnerable students who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

For example, nearly 30 percent of students have disabilities that qualify for special education services at the Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School in New York. However, many of these students outperform their peers by the end of middle school. The teachers at Brooklyn Lab see the strengths of the students and use personalized learning to help them grow instead of requiring them to fit into certain learning styles.

“Every student gets small-group instruction for two hours each day,” executive director Erin Mote says. “While in other schools, students may face a stigma for getting extra attention, it’s the norm at Brooklyn Lab, whether students are behind or not.” This is personalized learning done well.

Personalized Learning Changes the Student-Teacher Dynamic

If students are going to learn as individuals, taking classes that meet their needs and following a tailored plan, then they need adults who can track their progress and guide them along the learning path. This is where teachers come in, and where their role in the classroom starts to change.  

Lisa Epstein, principal of R.H. Lee Elementary School in Chicago for more than 25 years, says decisions used to be made around the teacher. The teachers decided how they wanted to teach and expected students to adapt. However, personalized learning is student-centric: students tell educators what they need.

“The biggest change…is in the relationships between students and teachers,” she writes. “Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class.”

The students are not just bodies at desks; they are individuals. And as the classroom becomes more personalized, a teacher’s focus starts to shift.

“Personalized learning should free teachers to meaningfully connect with students because strong relationships with kids are the heart of teaching,” says Ryan Brusco, director of school and district partnerships at New Classrooms.

Instead of endlessly developing individual lesson plans, teachers become advisors. They meet with students individually and mentor them. They listen and provide advice, not just instruction. Plus, Brusco cites evidence that students who have an adult mentor are significantly more likely to go to college.  

Personalized Learning is Making Educators Question Seat Time

As more schools are changing how students learn, they are starting to question the traditionally held beliefs about the education process. One element, in particular, that is hotly criticized is the idea of student “seat time.”

Seat time, as education and state policy expert Dale Frost explains at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, “bases the awarding of academic credit on a defined minimum amount of instructional time in a subject area.”

Defined by one hour of instruction per subject, per day, for 24 weeks, totalling 120 hours, Seat time is also known as the Carnegie Unit. “Systems of instruction based on seat time are focused on ensuring minimum exposure to academic content rather than student mastery of the content,” he writes.

However, as the demand for personalized learning grows, more schools are rejecting the concept of necessary seat time in favor of greater flexibility for students.

In 2017, Windsor High School in California, debuted a mastery-based summer school program. The purpose was to see if students could master the material without needing to sit a certain amount of hours. Learning was completed both in class and online, and students took challenge tests to check their progress. Progress was rapid, because students moved quickly through the material they understood and hadn’t failed during the school year.

Once students aren’t tethered to a specific classroom because of seat-time requirements, their grade levels also become less important. A student might be more advanced in literature or history, but need more time in math.

In fact, parts of the Northern Cass School District in North Dakota are actually considering removing grade levels entirely. Students can set their own academic paths, moving up when they feel ready. They will really only stay with age-related peers for gym activities or field trips.

While set-time regulations are set by state and federal law, the state of North Dakota allows schools to apply for waivers on the requirements for hours of instruction. Superintendent Cory Steiner, Ed.D. says the district is still working out the kinks of moving to a more competency-based system.

Personalized Learning Also Disrupts Class Size

If students are going to be learning on multiple levels and at different speeds, it’s hard for them to fit in large classes, which have become common in many districts. It is unlikely that 30 students will all be at the same level — an idea that spawned the concept of personalized learning in the first place.

“High school teachers in this country face class rosters of 30-40 students per class,” explains former special education teacher Nancy Bailey, Ph.D., who wrote “Losing America’s Schools.” “This means that within the course of a day teachers face approximately 200 students! With so many students it’s difficult to get to know everyone.”

Bailey says that noteable teachers always ask for smaller class sizes. They know that working with classes of less than 20 students allows them to provide more personalized learning. Smaller classes also give students time to ask more questions and have more one-on-one instruction, creating a better learning environment.

Simply put, kids can’t hide in small classrooms, writes Adam Hatch at Bored Teachers. In a 30 person classroom, it’s easier for students to slip into the back, not participate, and skate by doing the bare minimum. A student might pass a class with what is required, but this hardly means they will master or even remember the material when they leave. It is harder to fake it in smaller classes, and teachers can easily identify and spend time with struggling students.

Unfortunately, when students can’t keep up with their peers, many teachers have no choice but to try and pass off the problem. Dr. Matthew Lynch, editor at The Tech Edvocate and The Edvocate, taught special education for several years. He says the teachers with the largest class sizes always sent the most special education referrals.

“Why? Because in these classrooms, teachers had the least amount of time to work with struggling learners, causing them to fall further behind. Unable to reflect and come to the conclusion that the child had not received the type of attention that they needed, they always assumed that there was some sort of deficiency with the child. They could not accept the fact that due to no fault of their own, they were agents of a system that had failed to meet the child’s needs,” he explains.

Instead of identifying the unique learning style or needs of certain students, as in the Brooklyn Lab, educators in non-personalized classrooms have no choice but to send these students away so they can focus on the rest of the class.

By its nature, personalized learning is as varied as the students pursuing it. Whether you’re a K–12 educator looking to bring personalized learning strategies into your classroom, or a district administrator looking to extrapolate higher-level insights from individualized learning platforms, Ozobot Classroom can help.

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