Getting off the Blocks: Low-Barrier Entry Points for Personalized Learning Novices

Jeff Liberty

Most teachers have had some experience with and training about differentiated instruction in the course of their careers. Recent developments in learning software design on the one hand and brain science on the other have shifted the conversation about meeting students’ needs away from differentiation per se and towards the concept of “personalized learning” (PL). While there are many definitions of PL, all refer to a suite of tools, strategies, approaches, mindsets and structures that educators employ to facilitate greater student ownership and developmentally appropriate control of their learning. In other words, personalized learning intends to take differentiated instruction to its fullest possible extent: focusing on the needs and opportunities of individual students as opposed to groups of students with common learning needs and interests.

While the shift from differentiation to personalization seems like a reasonable enough commitment to make philosophically, the technical and adaptive shifts required of teachers can be daunting. In contrast with differentiated instruction, very few teachers experienced learning in personalized learning models in their own education, and a small fraction of active teachers was trained to facilitate student learning in this way. As a result, there are many “PL novices” in schools all over the world who will require substantial coaching and retraining in order to take full advantage of the dynamic promise of personalized learning.

Over the last three school years, BetterLesson has worked closely with hundreds of teachers to shift their practice in the direction of PL, including more than 400 teachers from Jewish day schools in the United States and Canada, thanks to the generous support of The AVI CHAI Foundation. Over that time, we have observed that most of the challenges that PL novices face in shifting their practice can be broken into four main interrelated categories:

  • planning and instructional design
  • managing the emotions associated with doing something dramatically different
  • developing specific technical skills required to be successful in a PL environment
  • overcoming resistance to changing past practice

Our coaching team has identified the following strategies and low-barrier entry points that work well in helping PL novices to overcome these challenges.

Planning and Design

Setting a small number of broad goals for students, trying many different strategies connected to those goals, and breaking teachers’ broad vision for student success into smaller steps to get there are useful strategies for dealing with the challenges related to the planning and design of student personalization. Fortunately, all of these approaches to supporting PL novices are connected to the concepts of “chunking” and “scaffolding” that most teachers will be familiar with as a result of their having made various attempts at differentiating learning for their students.

For example, many teachers we support have a broad vision that includes a desire to cultivate in their students “a passionate love of math and problem-solving” and “a fearless attitude towards learning and failing.” But how does one teach and model passion and fearlessness? To answer that question, our coaches probe the underlying trends within each teacher’s classroom and the obstacles that might prevent individual students from developing these dispositions and mindsets. The result is a narrowing and sequencing process that makes a grand vision more actionable and achievable. In one case, our coaches encouraged the teacher to focus on three areas of her practice:

  • developing systems for addressing the needs of organizationally challenged students
  • supporting students to work effectively and productively in collaborative groups
  • using formative data to inform student tasks and drive instruction

Once the teacher saw a connection between these focus areas and her larger vision for student success, she was eager to hear our coaches’ recommendations about specific strategies that would address each area of focus. This explicit chunking of the instructional design and planning processes strengthens the skills of each teacher and simultaneously gives teachers a concrete experience of personalized professional learning that they can apply to personalizing the learning of their students.

Emotional Challenges

In the early stages of implementing PL strategies, there is generally anxiety and uncertainty about what the results will be. Some teachers, especially those lacking fluency with educational technology, may fear losing control of their classes if they experiment with new modalities of learning. Some may not know how to implement technological strategies in their classrooms or may have experienced setbacks in their previous attempts to use technology, and are therefore naturally reluctant. Even experienced teachers may feel uncomfortable changing major components of their students’ experience without having evidence of the efficacy of doing so. For example, some experienced educators don’t initially see the benefits of increasing student voice and letting go of control, because these approaches to learning and teaching are outside of their experience, both as educators and as learners.

Our coaches have learned that telling stories about other teachers’ successes and failures in implementing personalization strategies can make it easier for PL novice teachers to overcome some of the emotional challenges that are a result of making (or even contemplating) a paradigmatic shift in their practice. Highlighting and honoring what experienced teachers already know and do well and demonstrating how important those skills are in highly effective personalized learning environments can make it easier for veteran educators to begin the journey towards higher degrees of student personalization.

For teachers who have a specific fear of or aversion to introducing educational technology into their classrooms, it can be helpful to “shrink the change” by picking one strategy or one small iteration of practice that is connected to a specific goal the teacher wants to achieve or a problem in their practice (for example, using technology to set learning goals). Our coaches have also learned that choosing and modeling tools that don’t present huge barriers to entry (such as Google Forms or Socrative for formative assessment or Google Docs for conferencing and giving feedback) can be appropriate entry points for tech-phobic teachers. This approach can also be enhanced by sending personalized, coach-developed how-to videos/screencasts about new technologies.

For teachers who are the most tech-averse, it can be helpful to start the conversation about personalization by suggesting an interactive, no- or low-tech strategy that increases student engagement and personalization and offers a change in instructional modalities (e.g., students acting out physical gestures to illustrate academic vocabulary or traditional vocabulary cards) before introducing a technology-based solution (such as Quizlet) that addresses a similar area of learning.

Technical Skills

Another set of challenges PL novices commonly face has to do with discrete areas of their instructional practice. For example, if a veteran teacher is used to lecturing, the shift towards more personalized modalities of learning can be difficult. New technologies that enable students to work on different skills and content simultaneously have created additional opportunities for teachers to meet one-on-one and in small groups with students. However, the shift towards more frequent student conferencing can be challenging for teachers who have not yet developed the pedagogical skills to use conference time effectively. In cases like this, providing teachers with proven strategies can be enormously helpful to them and their students.

Early-career teachers tend to be digital natives who are comfortable with technology and eager to integrate it into their classes. At the same time, many early-career teachers are still developing their management skills and content mastery. In these cases, the implementation of technology strategies and solutions—even those designed to improve culture and student engagement—can exacerbate already-shaky classroom culture if an early-career PL novice has difficulty in making apps and other ed-tech solutions work in their classrooms the way that they expected.

These types of problems of practice are nuanced and often require highly personalized solutions. However, most PL novices who face discrete technical challenges can make significant progress by focusing on cultivating student collaboration skills so that students can learn explicit strategies for working through their challenges and focusing on improving student discourse so that the overall tone and tenor of classroom dialogue can be elevated.

Strategies that are appropriate for PL novices who are comfortable with technology but are still developing their basic classroom-management repertoires include:

  • Early in the school year or during a “reset” period, focus on culture-setting strategies and building confidence and competence with classroom routines and procedures (e.g., transition strategies from one platform, modality, tool or station to another).
  • Encourage proactive contingency planning and other troubleshooting planning when technology fails or works more slowly than anticipated.
  • Focus on one station at a time in station-rotation models.
  • Implement classroom management tools like Class Dojo and non-tech culture-building systems like “Morning Meeting.”

Resistance to Change

As in other areas of teaching and learning, and in life more generally, mindset challenges can be a PL novice’s greatest obstacle to implementing PL strategies. Some experienced teachers are fairly comfortable with technology but are unconvinced initially that new approaches are any better than what they were doing before. Many early-career teachers have been trained to focus on classroom management and control, and so personalization is not necessarily the first analytical lens they use to think about their practice. The following strategies can be effective for working with PL novices who initially appear to have mindset challenges:

  • Encourage them to tell stories about their students until they give the coach a way in.
  • Focus on “the why” when thinking about introducing new strategies and linking strategy recommendations to outcomes for students. Show how new strategies can motivate/engage students or help them collaborate more effectively.
  • Help them learn how to self-assess.
  • Get them to buy into the path they’re taking by asking, “What does this strategy enable you to do that you couldn’t do before?” and “How might this strategy help you solve a problem in your practice?”

Today’s classroom teachers have incredibly powerful learning tools. We also know more about the way the brain works and how we learn than at any other time in human history. Unlike when I was coming up as a young teacher in the early 1990s, the question is no longer whether we can differentiate learning for groups of students with diverse needs, but whether we have the will and the wisdom to train (and retrain) teachers to think of their roles as planners and facilitators of learning that is highly personalized and student-driven. As with most dramatic shifts, there are significant emotional and technical challenges that PL novices face in taking the initial steps towards making the learning experience of their students more engaging, personalized and authentic.

The good news is that we already know much about the support that adult learners need to transform their practice, and it’s not radically different from the needs of their students. Remembering and applying what we know about scaffolding learning and managing complex change and emotions will help us address the most significant human capital challenge of our generation as educators.

Adapted from Personalized Learning on a Continuum: Strategies that Work for Different Teacher Archetypes, a recently released white paper published by BetterLesson.

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HaYidion Differentiation Fall 2017
Fall 2017