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5 tips for making the shift to personalized learning

By Andra Brichacek
August 12, 2014
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The idea that school should focus on the learners might seem like a no-brainer. After all, helping people learn is the whole point of education, isn't it?

Of course, it's more complicated than that. The U.S. education system was based on and most teachers and administrators have been trained for an industrial age model of teaching and learning designed more for efficiency than efficacy. But it's our system, and we're used to it. Plus, change is hard. Even within a single school district, there are hundreds of people to get on board for every transition, from curriculum changes to tech integration. A paradigm shift as monumental as abandoning tried-and-true teacher-centered schooling in favor of student-centered, personalized learning is bound to be a hard sell in an environment that's perpetually short on funding and pressed for time.

"What holds schools and districts back is the time it takes to make change happen," " explain Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, co-founders of Personalize Learning, LLC. " "It takes a shared vision, commitment by all stakeholders, a supportive human infrastructure that is self-sustainable and years to transform a system that is embedded in traditional teaching methods." "

This sounds like a tall order, and it is. Like all great transformations, however, it will happen when the pain of staying the same surpasses the pain of making a change. Has that time finally arrived?

Consider these facts: Those calling for education reform point out that the sage-on-the-stage model no longer makes sense in a world where knowledge is democratized and everyone can be a sage. What's more, recent brain research has shown that learning depends on engagement, and what engages each student varies widely according to interests, personality, learning style and many other factors. Scientists have also proven that when students direct their own learning, they are more invested, have fewer behavior problems and retain more. And personalized learning and its many related approaches including student-centered learning environments, differentiated instruction, and passion-based, project-based and inquiry-based pedagogies are getting results in populations that traditional educational approaches have failed. This, all while U.S. test scores and graduation rates have fallen steadily under the old regime.

All this may not make change easier, but it does make the need for it clear. The good news is that technology from mobile apps and devices to real-time student data and open educational resources has finally become advanced enough and affordable enough to bring the key elements of personalized learning within every educator's reach. The details are doable, and schools and districts are finally doing it.

Want to join them? Here are five tips to help you make the leap:

1. Learn more about the personalized learning revolution.

Although the basic concept of tailoring instruction to each learner may seem easy to grasp, there are a lot of moving pieces, from learning styles and pace to environment and technology choices, to consider. For a basic primer on the recent history of the personalized learning movement and words of wisdom from the experts, read " "Learning personalized: Putting the student-centric approach in focus" " in the first issue ofentrsekt, ISTE's new member magazine.

2. Get inspired by others' success.

If making such a big shift seems intimidating, take heart and find inspiration in the many schools and districts around the nation that are already embracing personalized and competency-based learning. Check out several state-based initiatives and success stories on the U.S. Department of Education site.

3. Use the standards as your guide.

Personalized learning is more than just a good idea in many states, it will soon be required. To successfully meet the Common Core State Standards, educators must master student-centered learning. And to meet the ISTE Standards for Teachers and Administrators, they must empower students to make their own choices in how they learn, what they learn and how they express their learning.

4. Take baby steps.

Don't feel like you have to jump into all facets of personalized learning all at once. In fact, it is often easier for both educators and students to integrate their new roles if they take it a little at a time. " "It takes a process to transform learning environments and change learner and teacher roles," " Bray and McClaskey say. " "This process does not happen overnight." " Read " "Personalize your learning environment" " to find out how they recommend getting through the first stage of the transition.

5. Make a plan.

Once you have a firm understanding of the pedagogy and practice underlying personalized learning, you're ready to plot a course to make your vision a reality. You'll find a step-by-step guide for planning a schoolwide personalized learning initiative in Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology. ISTE members can download a digital version of the book for free.