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Taking a Look: Mistakes That Can Undermine Personalized Learning

Taking a Look: Mistakes That Can Undermine Personalized Learning

A November 5th, 2019, Education Week article claimed there are six big mistakes that can undermine personalized learning efforts. In the December issue of our newsletter, I want to examine these six points by identifying those with which I agree and challenging others with which I don't.

The first point that was made was failing to define what you mean. Personalized learning is a big word with many components. Some of the components you choose to include can be debated. Path, pace, competency-based, student voice, flexible scheduling and individual interests are just a few of those components. What's important for schools or specific sites is to be clear about what they mean by personalized learning in their setting. Having a clear and common language helps the success of the practice. 

The second mistake mentioned is thinking it’s all about the products. I totally agree with this one. Personalized learning is not a software program, an LMS (learning management system) or a certain device. Personalized learning is about students' learning experiences and focusing resources and time to each individual student's needs.  

Failing to recognize that personalized learning requires a major shift in practice is the third mistake mentioned in the article. This cannot be emphasized enough. Moving to a more personalized approach takes time, energy, shifts in pedagogy and mindsets and major investments in professional development for all involved. One of the main shifts that the article mentions is teachers have spent years seeing their role as delivering the best teacher-led direct instruction. They have spent years on lesson plans, whole group questioning techniques and discussions. Now with a more personalized approach, they are asked to step back and put students in charge of their learning. Instead, they need to create blended and personalized content and allow students to have more of a voice in their lessons. This is no small undertaking, and just as those fine-tuned lesson plans didn’t happen in one year, neither will a focus on personalization in the classroom. 

Has mandating participation ever worked? This is the fourth big mistake mentioned. Forcing every teacher to be totally bought in to personalized learning by August will not work. Districts should provide professional development on strategies and techniques and provide support for wherever teachers are in the process. Leadership must recognize where teachers are in the process and support them at that level. 

Overlooking the importance of measuring impact is the fifth big mistake districts can make. Personalized learning must be implemented to solve a problem. It can’t be implemented as a magic bullet. One straightforward way the article mentions is to measure student growth. Using NWEA’s MAP testing is a great way to do this. Measuring where students are in both summative and formative ways is very important to personalized learning. It is imperative that teachers accurately know where a student is on his/her learning path, what skills he/she has mastered and if there are any gaps in learning. 

The sixth and final point the article makes is assuming personalized learning is new. There are many practices that have been around for a long time; the difference is just varying those practices or tailoring them to meet students where they are in their own learning. It's applying long-used techniques in a new way. 

One thing that I have mentioned a couple times in this newsletter that the article doesn’t clearly state is the professional development aspect of personalized learning. One of the most critical mistakes a district or site can make is not having a system in place to provide ongoing support and timely professional development. It is vital that teachers and principals consistently get the opportunities they need to grow in their skills and ability to focus on students and their needs. 

Implementing personalized learning is a worthwhile undertaking--one that has the ability to transform classrooms, buildings and students forever. However, moving to a student-focused approach has its pitfalls. Learning from others' mistakes is a great way to make a smoother transition to personalized learning.

Jason Midkiff


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