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Today’s Education Systems Won’t Support Tomorrow’s Learners

Today CRPE released a report that delivers some hard news about what we broadly refer to as “personalized learning.” As it has come to be defined in the field, personalized learning has little to do with technology and is more about finding ways for students to work at their own pace and in ways that help them learn via their own motivations, interests, and potential. Sometimes this is aided by new technologies but more often, it involves what most of us think of as “progressive” instructional approaches—such as project-based learning—where teamwork and hands-on learning are prioritized, every student has individualized goals and learning plans, and flexible classrooms offer students wide latitude to decide what content and activities will help them achieve their goals. The most prominent believers in this approach argue that fostering students’ ownership over their own learning, promoting deep and creative thinking, and supporting social-emotional development are critical to preparing students for the jobs of the future and civic participation.

Our researchers spent the last two years conducting classroom observations, school and district interviews, and surveys to understand how a large-scale initiative by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design and, hopefully, scale new instructional and school designs played out in practice. The impetus for this study was a conversation I had with a personalized learning advocate who told me that good “PL” designs were taking hold in isolated charter schools but really struggling within school districts. We wanted to look deeply at the Next Generation Systems Initiative and Next Generation Learning Challenges Regional Fund sites where district and nonprofit leaders were trying to create the right conditions for schools to innovate at scale.

Our goal was not to assess the efficacy of the new designs. Instead, we wanted to inform future efforts to redesign classrooms and schools at scale. This wasn’t a study of personalized learning per se. It was a study of how well the public education systems we have today will work for the type of learning many believe we need tomorrow. The bottom line is: not anywhere well enough.

While we saw some isolated examples of exemplar schools and districts, herculean efforts and nearly universal support among educators for the tenets of personalized learning, we also saw widespread problems:

For the most part, goals were ill-defined, academic rigor was left to chance, and schoolwide adoption was rare.

Teachers were asked to innovate whether or not they had the capacity and support for it. They commonly struggled with using data to adjust instruction and adapt to student needs, maintaining order in a less structured environment, and allowing students to move at their own pace but still achieve grade-level subject or skill mastery. In many cases, teachers were at a loss for ways to support students who lacked either the academic or social-emotional skills to participate in rigorous projects or other activities.

Principals often failed to provide the instructional leadership and change management required for successful redesign. Too few schoolwide systems were in place, such as coaching, data systems, and curriculum supports to make teachers’ work easier.

District central offices gave schools a wide berth to experiment with personalized learning, but generally treated it as a side project, creating bureaucratic conflicts and tensions and leaving schools wanting for an “innovation infrastructure” to plug into.

The overall result was often far from what the Gates Foundation had in mind when they asked schools to innovate. We observed too many classrooms that were fun, but not intellectually demanding. Too many teachers were focused on what Betheny Gross has called the “iconography” of personalized learning: how classrooms and desks are organized, proper ways to design a choice board (where students can choose among activities), or other activities, rather than a focus on high expectations and depth of knowledge requirements for every student.

Even in the most well-designed schools and classrooms, learning was often not really personalized at all. The teacher adopted a new approach for all students, whether or not it really worked for them. Teachers were often at a loss about how to get students to engage meaningfully in the designated project, when these students had never been given the chance to develop the skills required to be self-motivated and critical thinkers. Dealing with students’ special needs or other differences was usually done via accommodations, not intentional learning designs. We often saw students who were far behind academically or who struggled with the less structured classroom sitting alone, doing worksheets or online tutorials, or working with an aide rather than participating in the richer group learning experiences.

Rarely did we see strong plans to identify, replicate, and scale what works. Because principals and districts deferred to teacher or school autonomy, there was simply too much reinventing the wheel or isolated successes going nowhere. In short, students paid the price for a lot of random experimentation and wasted time.

Given these findings, it would be easy to conclude that personalized learning has been a failure and is not worth pursuing. However, there is rapidly growing consensus that students increasingly will need the kinds of skills that the schools we visited are trying to develop. We can no longer afford to nurture creativity, independent thinking, and higher-order problem-solving skills in only an elite subset of students and schools. The teachers we interviewed said they would never go back to their old ways of teaching.

In other words, it’s not the core concept of personalized learning that’s the problem. It’s the fact that we have tried to layer a very ambitious redesign of classroom instruction and schools on a system that was not designed to guide and support innovation. Our current public education system is not intentionally hostile to effective innovation, but the existing structures, policies, and traditions work against it at every turn.

Rather than throwing up our hands and going back to lecture-based classrooms, we think the answer lies instead in getting serious about a truly personalized learning system, where rigor is central, effective approaches are scaled, and every student’s talents and skills are maximized.

To do that, our report recommends that districts do what Henry County, Georgia, has done: go “all in” on an innovation infrastructure. There must be clear goals and a full commitment to supporting schools, using evidence, and actively and intentionally aggregating the lessons learned and disseminating this knowledge. Districts should develop new schools and select existing schools that have the capacity to innovate and given them flexibility to do that. Second- and third-wave schools should be supported to seize the best knowledge and apply and adapt it locally.

We also must recognize that school districts may not be able to do all it takes to meet every student’s needs and prepare them to solve the problems of the future. We need to consider new ways to partner with the business community to provide access to rigorous career training, new ways to leverage community mental health and social services so that schools can focus on rigorous instruction, and new ways to allow students and their families to choose among schools and courses to craft learning portfolios that best fit their needs.

The original intent behind more personalized education was not simply to get educators to try out more engaging instruction, or to design classes to build skills—like agency—that students lacked. The early experiments in New York City’s iZone and in many of the blended or hybrid schools were much more along the lines of the “precision medicine” movement that customizes prevention and treatment plans around each individual’s unique needs. Sophisticated diagnostics, advanced medicines, and innovative delivery models all work in service of that goal. Using this analogy, education should consider how the classroom and school and even community can flex to best meet an individual’s learning needs in the most rigorous and innovative way possible.

Today, personalized learning seems to be at a crossroads. The potential is emerging, but unrealized. If we hope to salvage the core idea of educating all students to their full potential, which I believe must be done to prepare them for the challenges of the future, it will take a serious reboot and a commitment to rethinking all current assumptions.

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