In part I of this two-part series, I wrote about three of the most common practices teachers implement in elementary schools that successfully personalize learning: giving each child a learning plan, organizing instruction around class-level and individual mastery, and using grouping and rotation models to provide targeted, relevant opportunities and interventions. Any of these practices can usually be used well by a single teacher in any school, with an exception being one where instruction is rigidly prescribed to the minute and teachers don’t have flexibility to try them out. But scaling these practices consistently and with quality across many classrooms or schools relies more heavily on the common conditions leaders put in place, such as those related to policies, financial and people resources, and supporting partnerships.
As we’ve often seen The Learning Accelerator, where I’m CEO, when individual teachers are forced to go it alone, they “drive with the brakes on,” working against friction that can disempower if not disable personalization efforts. But these conditions can “put gas in the tank” when set correctly. The more aligned they are to schools’ learning models, the better. And at a minimum, leaders in personalized learning schools can do the following to grow the work:
Invest in high-quality instructional materials, including technology. We’ve seen classrooms where teachers have figured out how to personalize some amount of learning using a combination of binders, printed materials, wall trackers, and far too many hours of Sunday-night planning. Technology is the major accelerant that helps teachers assess, plan, and offer individual supports and options. Access to quality, standards-aligned curricular materials that can be used in concert with tech is what makes these individual supports and options effective. Leaders work with teachers to create “suites” of materials that support personalized instruction while maintaining rigor.
The good news on this front is that remote learning during the pandemic has rapidly advanced access to the basic technologies students and teachers need, as well as significantly increased comfort and experience with them. It’s also improved the availability of curricular materials through Open Educational Resources initiatives and quickened the development of better, interoperable tools for assessment, independent learning, and practice. Teachers are increasingly turning to these resources rather than DIY-ing the curriculum. We have momentum on our side.
Have teachers work in teams, rather than alone. Meeting the needs of twenty-five students with heterogeneous needs at once is a yeoman’s task for an individual teacher. Meeting the needs of seventy-five students in a team of three can be considerably easier because students with similar needs can be grouped together more efficiently. In schools where personalization is the norm, teachers work in groups to plan and execute, dividing and conquering more dynamically to meet needs. Colleagues at Public Impact have done a terrific job exploring different innovative staffing models, but one I’ll point to specifically as a common convergence point with our work at The Learning Accelerator is multi-grade teams. While it’s important that students still have a home-base classroom (relationships matter!), we’re seeing many schools bring together second/third and fourth/fifth grade bands to tackle learning needs that span multiple levels.
It’s important to note that, perhaps in contrast to typical Montessori early-learning models, we often don’t see cross-grade teaching at the kindergarten and first grade levels. Leaders who have experimented with this note that these younger learners often need deeper consistency in structure, classroom environments, and relationships with adults. In many cases, teaching teams at these levels consist of a lead teacher and aid, who divide and conquer in much the same way that teams at older levels do to support differences in pacing.
Use time and space more flexibly to support planning around and instruction aligned to data. Leaders figure out ways to put slack into the system to give educators time to plan together and use classroom spaces to accommodate different configurations. Doing this often doesn’t require negotiating a new contract with the unions or making radical changes to physical buildings. On the time front, schedules can cluster lunch and specials, freeing up grade-level teams to meet more often, for more time to look at data and plan. Many schools offer tutoring “flex” blocks or interdisciplinary enrichment blocks, where students work on passion projects or in larger groups, creating more time for educators. On the facilities side, solutions are as simple as creating multiple flexible zones for learning by opening doors between classrooms, using hallways for additional space, and/or moving furniture.
Offer professional learning that models personalization. Teachers are learners, too, and professional development is often unengaging, not relevant or targeted, and focused on units of time. Does that sound familiar? It should because it’s the same set of challenges we face at the student level. What we model in training and what adult learners experience matters. The same practices that support personalization for elementary students—developing and supporting individual plans, differentiating learning experiences, and organizing for group and individual mastery—are core places to start. (As my former professor and advisor Richard Elmore frequently noted, system problems are fractal; they show up in different scales, everywhere.) Luckily, we have many examples and research-based starting points for the personalization of adult learning if we only look for them.
As Mike Petrilli said in the Fordham essay that motivated my two-part series, no, pushing personalization isn’t for the faint of heart. But candidly, neither is the entire enterprise of American schooling, which boldly envisions systems that prepare every student, regardless of demographics like income or race, to participate and flourish fully in our democratic society. With greater understanding, training, and aligned conditions, educators can pursue personalization as one aim in our efforts to stabilize and recover from everything Covid-19 took from us, as well as advance towards better approaches over time. With a belief and commitment, I hope they will.