Personalized Learning Helps Students Succeed and Schools Meet the Needs of Today's Families

Summer 2017

By Joanne Mamenta, Brad Rathgeber

A few years ago, as academic dean at Atlanta Girls’ School, Corinne Dedini grew worried watching her best teachers trying new approaches to reach students—no matter what strategies they tried, it didn’t seem that they could reach every student. A social studies teacher worried that he didn’t have time to weave global competencies into the established scope and sequence, while a science teacher fretted about the increasingly wide range of learners she was serving in her classroom. Some AP teachers were concerned that they couldn’t cover the material in time. Dedini wondered whether the teachers were approaching the challenge from the wrong direction: Instead of using the perspective of the teacher, why not use the perspective of the learner?

At the same time, Dedini was empathizing with independent school families about their concerns: Classwork was not challenging enough for some students, but for others, homework seemed to be eclipsing any family time. And students and their parents worried about skill deficits.

At independent schools, we promise families to know and value each child’s uniqueness, and we promise—often in our mission statements—to develop a lifelong love of learning in our students. We have to ask ourselves the hard question of whether our current models for learning help us accomplish these promises.

In searching for answers to these challenging questions, Dedini discovered the emerging field of personalized learning. By reimagining education from the perspective of the learner, she thought that we could use the good student-centered, tech-infused practices we have amassed over the past two decades to finally deliver on what John Dewey said we have needed all along: that students are participants in, rather than recipients of, education. She came to understand that personalized learning is not a new thing. Rather, it is the culmination of a century of best practices in education that liberates schools from the grind of keeping up with what’s hot and empowers teachers and administrators to reimagine how they deliver on their missions. She also posited that the promises independent schools make to families could be more fully met and that personalized learning would even meet the growing demands of millennial families for a more customized experience. With mission and market met, independent schools would become even more competitive in a changing educational landscape.

Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat

At its core, personalized learning is “tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs, and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and support to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible,” says Natalie Abel, program manager of the International Association K–12 Learning (iNACOL), in a recent blog post.

Emerging research shows that academic achievement increases, too. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning, a rigorous and large-scale study funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and developed by the RAND Corporation, shows that students in about 60 personalized learning schools outperformed similar students attending schools that used more traditional approaches.

With a personalized learning pedagogy, teachers take all their best lessons, resources, and teaching practices and organize them into pathways for students to choose the most effective options for them to learn. This pedagogy is built on the time-tested foundation of the student-teacher relationship, but instead of leveraging that relationship to plow through a content-driven curriculum, the teacher designs pathways through which students access new material, assess for mastery, and apply what they are learning to the real world.

In personalized learning classrooms, students still work individually or collaboratively; they create meaningful projects, make presentations or demonstrations as well as receive instruction from teachers; and their teachers know them well. None of this is new; what makes personalized learning so transformative is that it brings together the best practices that we have implemented over the last century. In personalized pedagogy, the teacher’s energy goes into design, strategy, and engaging with the students.

Personalized Partner

Dedini is now the director of academics at One Schoolhouse, an organization that partners with independent schools to provide innovative learning and operation practices. She began to explore and research current learning models with us. Together we gravitated toward personalized learning as a way to bring together the best of current research and practice—from constructivism to project-based learning to blended learning to multiple intelligence theory to growth mindset and more—in service of the understanding that every learner is different.

We understood that top independent schools have a competitive advantage in shifting to personalized learning. Independent school educators work from a common understanding that great classrooms are based on strong relationships between students and teachers; they know that students will not take risks and ownership of their learning unless they feel supported. Moreover, independent school educators are experts in content, use differentiated teaching strategies, and have technological acumen. This knowledge and these skills serve as the foundation of a personalized pedagogy, which we developed over the course of three years.

We first focused on enhancing student-teacher relationships. Relationships between students and teachers are a hallmark of the independent school experience, but every teacher can have a slightly different interpretation of what this means. So, we dug deeply with our faculty to create a shared understanding of what a good relationship looks like, and then we incorporated what we learned into our course and teaching standards.

We also tapped into the spirit of the late educator and president of Authentic Education Grant Wiggins to ensure that our courses were built backward from what students should know and be able to do. As students drive their learning in these intentionally designed spaces, they are empowered to self-assess and work collaboratively to peer-assess. Their growth and obstacles are measureable to them and clearly visible to the teacher. We begin every class with learner-driven goal-setting and self-assessment about the ways they learn best. Then the teacher and student meet to discuss goals and strategies. In addition, these goals help re-cast success around the students, their interests, and the competencies of the class, rather than around traditional markers like grades and participation. Teachers incorporate these goals into their quarterly comments.

We focused on empowering students to have greater voice and choice in their learning. In a personalized classroom, students are equipped not only with the capacity to measure their knowledge and skills, but are also given some choice in what and how they learn through access to multiple pathways. The tools of personalized instruction increase efficiency and effectiveness around differentiation, remediation, and project-based learning. Parents value that we are meeting students where they are and moving them along a path—one that’s right for them—toward college readiness.

Online and In-Person

The opportunity to choose their own pathways for learning and to self-assess their understanding during the learning process were motivating factors for students in Lynnae Boudreau’s AP Calculus BC course at One Schoolhouse. “Most find that videos are the most effective pathways for them at the start,” she says. “But everyone likes learning by doing, so having an application that allows them to make and present something is also important. What I like is that, because of the pathway choices, students learn that there is more than one way to get it right.”

Her experience implementing personalized learning in her online courses provided her with great insight into how effective the pedagogy would work in face-to-face classrooms. “I’d set up different pathways for students to access information and have them work together sorted by option. I’d have them establish goals at the start of the year, and we’d return to those goals periodically in class and through discussion. We’d celebrate those goals at the end of the year [and] strategize as a class about effective ways to assess their learning. I’d send information home so parents could learn what their students are doing, and be able to ask questions about their choices and successes. I’d have regular meetings with each student while the class was working to see how each student was doing along a chosen pathway. As a side benefit, this made learning about learning, rather than about grades.”

Pontus Hiort has also worked to personalize both his online One Schoolhouse classes and his in-person courses at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia, where he is the chair of the history department. “Students have really enjoyed choosing which pathway works for them. They are fully engaged in the learning, and I have seen their motivation increase,” Hiort says. In one of his assignments, students could choose to learn about an issue from the local, state, or national perspective. “Providing different pathways to learn and demonstrate their understanding allows students to engage in the material in a more meaningful and rewarding way. And as they check their understanding of the material, students who did well can move on to more advanced work; those who are still having trouble can go back and choose another pathway to help their understanding.”

Hiort sees personalized learning as an imperative for independent schools like St. Catherine’s. “We are constantly looking at what works well and trying to be as innovative as we can,” he says. “Education is moving and changing; it’s becoming more fluid and personalized. This is something we need to be doing; our students deserve it.”

Hiort and Boudreau also see their role as teacher evolving. “It can be a little scary at times and challenging, but in a good, healthy, and creative way,” Hiort says. “It is taking the learning away from me being at the center and having students take ownership.”

Boudreau adds, “In my 20 years as a teacher, I’m learning that it is not about me or the subject. It’s about building that human being.”

Examples in Action 

Teachers and administrators from more than 200 schools have participated in One Schoolhouse’s personalized learning courses and workshops and have begun to experiment with this emerging pedagogy. Most efforts are starting small, with teachers experimenting with personalization in units and sections of classes. Other schools are creating a more systematic approach.

After taking the “Introduction to Personalized Learning” course through One Schoolhouse, Brooks Eleck, eighth-grade English teacher and seventh/eighth-grade dean at Rippowam Cisqua School (NY), decided to start by personalizing a unit on Into the Wild, a book students read over the summer. For her assessment of the unit, Eleck asked students to plan a trip from Surrey, British Columbia, to Bus 142 on the Stampede Trail in Alaska, following the author’s same journey. Students followed their own paths—and interests—in completing the assignment. From planning jobs along the way to plotting the journey on a map, Eleck says her students were “living the experience.”

Eleck established guidelines and added prompting questions, intentionally designing a learning process in which students felt discomfort initially with the openness and choice given in the assignment. “I had to let them sit in discomfort and sort it out. I had some asking, ‘Why aren’t you telling me what to do?’ They were worried about making sure they were doing it ‘right.’”

As students began to take ownership of their learning, Eleck saw transformation occur within them. “Students have so much knowledge at their fingertips—they can look up anything,” she says. “They no longer need that wise beacon to give them information. As the teacher, my role is [being the] facilitator, the advisor. Personalized learning [shows] respect to the students and helps them think in different ways. Most importantly, students feel empowered.”

Ursuline Academy of Dallas is taking a school-wide strategic approach to personalized learning. Each year, the academy enrolls more than 20 students in One Schoolhouse courses, and last spring, four teachers and the academy’s principal enrolled in One Schoolhouse’s introductory course to create a cohort of educators interested in implementing personalized learning at the academy. “We have a history of finding and using authentic innovation that’s going to serve our mission and our students,” says Andi Shurley, principal of Ursuline Academy. “Personalized learning does this and ties into our values, particularly in building a relationship with our teachers and students. When our alumnae come back to campus … they [often] mention the relationships they had with their teachers. Personalized learning allows a greater opportunity for our teachers to build those relationships. For us, personalized learning is all about what’s going to serve the girls and provide them with the skills to carry them to college and beyond.”

This summer, Ursuline Academy educators are exploring which elements of personalized learning to implement in the coming year. “Our goal is to look at the pieces we can do, establishing goals, alternative formats, creating assessments that are more formative,” says Susan Bauer, director of research and educational innovation. “Our personalized learning teachers will be leading the learning in this area. Our teachers are excited that personalized learning creates a natural connection with our students.”

Not One-Size-Fits-All

In working with teachers, Dedini likes to quote Sir Ken Robinson: “Education doesn’t need to be reformed—it needs to be transformed. The key is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

Education is all about students and what they learn—not what we teach. All students have pathways
that make sense to them. The idea of personalizing learning is about reimagining education based on the needs of everyone in that learning community. When schools do this, they stay competitive.

Sidebar: Personalized Learning Glossary

  • Application: Learners learn by doing, such as through project-based learning, and demonstrate mastery by applying what they have learned to the real world.
  • Connection: Developing a strong relationship between student and teacher that builds trust for the learner, thus driving the learning process.
  • Formative Assessments: Methods by which students check their understanding of content and instruction.
  • Goal Setting: Teacher and student meet using the learner profile to establish learning goals for the student.
  • Learner-Driven: Students communicate goals and work toward achieving them through personalized pathways that lead to mastery and application of knowledge and skills.
  • Learning Objectives: At the center of a course design, learning objectives are used to create learning pathways that determine what course or activity a learner should complete. These objectives are specific, measurable, and transferable.
  • Learner Profile: A self-assessment completed by a student to determine strengths, preferences, and challenges to learning.
  • Pathways: Resources that address different learning styles and abilities.
  • Personalized Learning: A learner-driven pedagogy that uses multiple pathways through which students access content, check for understanding, and apply what they are learning in order to meet learning objectives and develop competencies.
  • Reflection: Important type of assessment in personalized learning that helps students think critically about their own learning.
  • Summative assessment: A method to assess students’ ability to apply new skills, problem solve, and demonstrate analysis of course content.

Source: One Schoolhouse Personalized Learning Pedagogy

Joanne Mamenta

Joanne Mamenta is director of communications and marketing for Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Brad Rathgeber

Brad Rathgeber is the head of school and chief executive officer of One Schoolhouse, and previously served as a teacher and administrator at Holton-Arms School (MD).