Personalized Learning Is Constantly Evolving. What Role Do Administrators Play in the Process?
In 2018, Chicago elementary school principal Lisa Epstein wrote an opinion piece for online education news outlet Chalkbeat that tapped into the ongoing debate over the increased use of personalized learning in schools. “As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism,” she wrote, but went on to acknowledge that personalized learning is a loaded term with an unclear definition. As such, supporters and detractors alike are able to conjure up overly sunny or gloomy takes on what the approach means for the future of education, as well as how it may help or hurt students and teachers.
For some, personalized learning appears to be little more than what Epstein characterized as a “Trojan Horse” for Silicon Valley tech companies determined to replace teachers with machines. However, Epstein herself refused to accept this assessment; instead, she used the rest of her op-ed as a platform from which to articulate a positive teacher- and student-focused vision of personalized learning, which she said had become her school’s answer to the challenge of trying to serve all students amid the “shifting sands of accountability.” And yet, Epstein noted with some regret that “textbook-based direct instruction” had remained the dominant delivery method for lessons, even in the face of mounting pressure to reach and prepare all students for the 21st-century economy.
Epstein’s opinion piece brings up two important points. First, personalized learning is a constantly evolving concept that varies in accordance with where it is being implemented and by whom. Second, administrative support is a very important factor in determining the success of a personalized approach to classroom instruction.
Defining personalized learning
In Epstein’s view, personalized learning is not a hot new education cure-all driven by technology; instead, as she described in her piece for Chalkbeat, it is a mindset. For Epstein and her staff, this viewpoint “has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace.”
This approach is supported by a 2018 piece from Benjamin Herold, published by the online journal Education Week, that acknowledged the tricky status of personalized learning and noted that “the term is used to mean just about anything” these days. He specifically called out a theory suggested by an educational technology executive of there being “common threads” among the various catch-all definitions that exist, such as Epstein’s focus on individual student needs. According to Herold, these threads are “bound together by what they reject,” including students sitting at desks, working through the same material at the same time and place, then being subjected to the same evaluations, which leads to “limited feedback” from teachers.
Of course, this still leaves room for wide variation in terms of how this plays out in the classroom. With this in mind, Herold took a look at how teachers and administrators around the country are embracing personalized learning, from the use of computerized learning programs that move students along as they master certain skills to project-based, student-driven iterations that are purposefully devoid of standardization in most forms. He also acknowledged another point of contention around what role—if any—students can or should play in their own learning, with some schools allowing students to design their own programs while others insist that young people work their way up to greater autonomy.
Supporting personalized learning
This is certainly a lot for teachers to sort out on their own, which presents a key point of entry and leadership for school administrators. In 2013, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles’s Center X program published a look at how principals can best support personalized learning. Although the document is a few years old, it still provides a well-informed look at how administrators can set the right tone and provide the necessary support to ensure their school pursues a worthwhile adoption of personalized learning practices. Here are some highlights:
Lead with equity. UCLA education researchers advised principals to put a “commitment to equity front and center” of any personalized learning efforts, which means guiding teachers toward developing a deeper understanding of individual students, their strengths, and their challenges. School resources should be allocated within an equity framework so that money, time and professional development is parceled out according to the school’s values and priorities.
Focus on teachers. The Center X personalized learning guide reminds principals that teachers are their key audience—and educators are not wholly unlike students, with each needing a tailored, “differentiated” approach to their own learning and growth. With this in mind, the UCLA researchers suggest that teachers be given the time and space to develop, implement, and monitor personalized learning strategies to best meet the needs of students.
Use data wisely. Personalized learning does not mean forgoing basic principles of instruction or expected outcomes, including literacy goals. In fact, data can be used to better understand what is impeding students from reaching said goals, whether their progress is measured through projects or standardized testing. In a case study cited by the UCLA guide, teachers and administrators at one school learned that more active students (those who had trouble sitting still and focusing) tended to struggle the most; this observation helped teachers craft personalized learning lessons that accommodated these kinesthetic students, leading to a broader understanding of how to encourage success for all.
The UCLA Center X program also touched on the external administrator-associated roadblocks—such as funding and staffing issues—that can interfere with a school’s best intentions. Still, the researchers insisted that schools with successful personalized learning systems were able to adopt these on a consistent, school-wide basis by focusing on “individual, team, and whole school learning.” Ultimately, principals should act as the glue that binds all this together by providing support to students and teachers alike, as well as by repeatedly emphasizing the student-centered vision behind personalized learning.
In Epstein's Chicago school, personalized learning is an approach that—when done right—can unleash rather than undermine the potential in “great teachers.” That may be reason enough for administrators to give personalized learning a chance, however they define it.
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