In a previous Flypaper post, Mike Petrilli described the challenge of personalizing instruction for our youngest learners as the “Mount Everest” of education. Allowing students to move at the right pace and access the instruction they need, regardless of grade level, will mean recognizing the natural jagged edges of student learning. Some of these edges may relate to being behind or ahead of traditional age-based learning targets for example, and others might relate to broader, holistic needs like individual interests and motivations. Doing this well will also mean avoiding tracking so that schools can maintain equity and a sense of community, both of which are critical to learning at any age, but especially in early grades.
In a subsequent post, Petrilli pointed to innovative schools like Rocketship, a charter network, and Wildflower Schools, a Montessori-based program, as models for what this could look like, pointing to practices such as grouping and rotations, use of digital tools, and cross-age instruction as potential solutions. These models are inspiring, but as exemplars of personalized practice, they can feel like the exceptions, out of reach for those operating in more traditional contexts or with fewer resources. This feeling of exceptionalism, furthered by their complexity, can lead many to wonder whether any school can personalize learning in a way that supports the type of individualized pacing and interventions needed to address unfinished learning.
The good news is that this wondering should stop. I have worked with personalized learning schools over the last decade, from being on a founding team to having led research on how schools are implementing approaches. And I can say that many schools can and do personalize pacing and instruction. The work they’ve done provides a road map, if not a mandate, for others.
The implementation of school innovations has two components: the teaching and learning practices that take place at the level of the student, and the systemic conditions that exist within the classroom, school, or district that help these innovations take root, scale, and improve over time. Looking at emerging and replicating elementary models, I can report that there is surprising convergence in both practices and conditions across schools and geographies—urban, suburban, and rural, traditional district and charter. Yes, local context means implementation might look slightly different from place to place, but the playbook is consistent. Further, the innovations are more evolutionary than disruptive, often building on existing tools and approaches.
In this two-part post, I’ll draw on my experience as CEO of The Learning Accelerator, and share more on the specific practices our team sees schools pursuing nationwide. In the spirit of “seeing is believing” and providing receipts for my claims, I’ll also be linking to concrete examples from schools across the U.S. Part II will describe the conditions that are most important to sustainably scaling these practices over time.
The three most common practices teachers in elementary schools implement
First, every child has a learning plan. Taking a page from special education, nearly every school we’ve studied has some form of an individual plan for each and every student, often termed personalized or individual learning plans or profiles. These clearly outline the standards and skills a learner has or has not mastered, as well as specific, measurable goals the student and teacher are tackling over a planning period—what they’re working on and how. Some, but not all, plans will also integrate ongoing reflections on critical habits or progress, and non-academic data, such as key information students think others should know about them, like their families, personal histories, and interests. Key to making these plans work, rather than sit on a shelf, is a consistent, ongoing process of planning with each student, often in the form of a weekly or biweekly conference to monitor, revisit, triangulate data, and set new goals together.
Second, teachers use grouping and rotation models to provide targeted, relevant opportunities and interventions. Center-based learning is a tried and tested strategy at the elementary level, and we’ve seen it used often and to good effect to free up time for teacher intervention and conferencing, as well as group and independent practice. Termed a “station rotation” model by blended-learning wonks, students rotate through different centers, working with each other, with teachers, and on their own using different analog materials, like books and manipulatives, and digital tools, like Khan Academy. This rotational model can be as simple as having three group-based stations that all learners work through, or as complex as students having individual agendas that rotate them through some centers, rather than all of them.
To get a sense for this in action, watch this Colorado school’s math station rotation. Schools are also using this strategy virtually during closure, such as is detailed in this example from the Dallas Independent School District.
Simply tracking students by skill level is not the ideal, core strategy here. Rather, students are grouped into skill-level groups for specific interventions, as well as heterogeneously to create opportunities for peer learning and discourse. Whole-class instruction also plays a role for introducing concepts and group discussion, but is often secondary.
Third, instruction is organized around class-level and individual mastery. Building upon existing, standards-based approaches, personalized classrooms have clear and commonly understood standards for learning. These prioritized standards, often more limited in number, may be academic or relate to other learning domains like social emotional competency or twenty-first century skills. Classrooms also have ways of organizing instruction around the standards and for tracking student progress against them. Teachers focus both on where the whole class is in terms of grade-level work, and on providing targeted interventions to individual or small groups of students to give them access to rigorous, grade-level learning.
Practically speaking, this often means that teachers are focusing on sets of standards within grade level units over bounded periods of time—what Elisabeth Stock of PowerMyLearning eloquently terms a “short race” rather than a long one. Students work at varying paces and with different materials, sometimes using playlists or even assessing their own progress. And learners who master a unit of standards early often achieve a higher level of mastery, switch to other content areas, or support others.
Put together, these core practices form the foundation for beginning to determine and support any student’s pacing needs at any time. But effective personalization—providing instruction that addresses the needs, strengths, and interests of every child—isn’t just about supporting individual pacing and skills mastery. Doing this well requires teachers to use a variety of strategies, including differentiating instruction, offering greater choice and flexibility to build skills for student self-direction (which we’ve all learned is critical when learning from home during a pandemic), fostering deep relationships amongst learners, and making learning more culturally and personally relevant to deepen motivation and engagement. Given disruptions, all of these strategies will be critical to effectively reengaging our youngest learners.
Beth Rabbitt, Ed.L.D., is the CEO of The Learning Accelerator.