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The path to personalized learning

By Lizzie Choi
February 1, 2017
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What happens in classrooms is magic. On the best days, when everything is clicking, students are engaged in collaboration and discovery. From the outside, it looks completely natural — but it doesn’t happen by accident. The magic in classrooms is borne out of a bond between teachers and students based on mutual understanding and respect.

I fell in love with education and became a teacher because I knew that great schools — combined with the right public policies — change students’ lives. As a new high school math teacher, I quickly learned how challenging it is to build the kind of relationships that lead to magic each day.

I knew my students, and I worked hard to nurture their success. But I realized I could do more to understand how they learn best and respond to their individual needs. I began experimenting with new ways to customize my teaching. I created playlists that allowed students to choose the instructional resources that worked for them and gave them the freedom to move at their own pace through the curriculum.

My students responded well to a more personalized learning environment, and I became convinced the personalized learning done right is critical to helping students develop the skills they need to succeed in college and beyond. Although many educators approach this concept from different angles, there are five key components that I believe are essential to making it work.

  1. Goal setting. Students plan their academic, college and career goals, coached by a teacher who understands their aspirations.
  2. Cognitive skills. Teachers facilitate collaborative projects where students can build and demonstrate cognitive skills.
  3. Content knowledge. Students work through content and assessments at their own pace. Teachers individualize instruction using real-time data.
  4. Habits of success. Students work with teacher mentors to develop a growth mindset, emotional intelligence and self-directed learning skills.
  5. A credible path. Students are able to connect their vision for the future to what they are doing in school, and they understand the path to achieving their goals following graduation.

Teachers are searching for ways to bring these principles to life in the classroom. In my current role as chief program officer at Summit Public Schools, a network of public charter schools in California and Washington state, I’ve worked with a diverse range of schools across the country — rural and urban, traditional district and public charter, elementary through high school — to help teachers build stronger relationships with their students. Equipped with the right tools and strategies and a desire to empower their learners, many of the educators I’ve talked to say they know their students better and are finally teaching the way they always wanted. 

Here are five snapshots of schools that have embraced personalized learning and seen positive change:

  1. Truesdell Education Campus serves nearly 600 students PK-8 in the District of Columbia Public Schools system, almost of half of whom are English language learners and all of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Since Truesdell introduced personalized learning last school year, students have become more confident learners, parents are more engaged in their children’s education and teachers have more time to “really look at the data and know what the next step is for each and every kid,” according to Principal Mary Ann Stinson.

  2. St. Regis Schools is a tiny district in Montana, but they have big plans to “re-envision high school” through personalized learning. St. Regis teachers have become mentors who work one-on-one with students, and students now move at their own pace through course content. Those who have mastered content can move on to more challenging material, and those who struggle receive more support. According to teacher Chad Eichenlaub, “Instead of teaching to 15 kids, I can take two or three to the side” and give them some extra help.

  3. Walsh Middle School in Framingham, Massachusetts, is using personalized learning to challenge sixth graders to “get away from memorization” and “gain ownership of their own learning,” says Principal Patrick Johnson. The 725 students — more than a third of whom are English language learners — now choose how they want to learn content through videos, simulations, or online games just to name a few. Within just a few months, student attendance is up, discipline referrals are down and teachers report that parents are more engaged.

  4. Educators at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy see personalized learning as a way to encourage their students, 96 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, to gain the skills they’ll need to succeed in college. Students set their goals and track their progress through an online platform. “We know that it’s more than just about getting good grades,” Principal Judith Parker says. “It’s also about managing your time. It’s about seeing the big picture of everything you’re working on.”

  5. At Mill Creek Middle School in the small town of Dexter, Michigan, students are learning at their own pace — and learning more. For example, sixth grader Zach Ferree has set a personal goal to complete a full year of math by the middle of the school year and get a head start on his seventh grade math curriculum. He and his classmates also apply their learning in cross-curricular projects, such as writing Greek myths and analyzing scientific claims in TV commercials.

These five examples are just a few of the many stories I hear from students and teachers who are demonstrating personalized learning’s promise and potential for all types of schools — maybe even yours!

Lizzie Choi leads the Summit Learning Program, a free program that provides the tools, resources and support needed to bring personalized learning to schools across the country. She is invested in putting the student at the center of learning and excited about reimagining the high school experience for students.

Want to learn how to expand personalized learning at your school or district? Check out Summit Learning.