Stacey Childress, Deputy Director, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Schools around the country are moving from traditional instructional approaches to personalized learning for students. Personalized learning happens when teachers form a powerful one-on-one connection with their students and tailor lessons based on their individual needs, skills, and interests. When students are able to take the time they need to truly master a concept before moving on, they are more motivated and engaged. Teachers have known this for a long time, and researchers have demonstrated over and over how large an impact personalized learning can have on student outcomes. In fact, the average student who receives one-to-one, mastery-based instruction performs at the same level as the top 2 percent of students who receive traditional group instruction.
Of course, it’s not feasible to have one great teacher for every student. But by supporting teachers with emerging instructional technologies, schools are trying to create the equivalent of one-to- one instruction and free up time for teachers to engage more deeply with every student. Great digital tools can help extend the reach and effectiveness of teachers so that more students get what they need, when they need it, so they have every opportunity to reach their full potential and achieve their dreams.
At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we envision a future in which students’ learning experiences will be markedly different than they are today in several ways:
• On any day of the year, students will be able to see how they are doing, where they want to be, and how they might get there. They will feel ownership of their learning and motivated to succeed. They will collaborate and connect with their peers in ways that reflect how they live now and how they will work in the future.
• Schools will be designed to optimize time, pace and instructional methods to make the most of teachers’ time and to create learning paths that work best for each student. Teachers and other adults will have more diverse roles in and out of schools based on their strengths, from coaches and guides to content experts.
Teachers and school leaders will have the flexibility, autonomy, and information they need to select content and tools that work best for their students.
• The technology to support such learning will integrate seamlessly into the environment and offer intuitive user experiences and smart recommendations. It will “just work.”
What might it take to make this vision a reality? Here are three ideas to help us get there:
1. School and district leadership teams should develop a strategy and specific goals for why and how to implement personalized learning, and only then make operational choices to
Too often, school systems launch one-to-one device initiatives or make platform and application purchases without having a clear view of how teachers will use them to improve instruction or why they will help accelerate student learning. Simply buying tablets for everybody is not an instructional strategy. The Alliance for Excellent Education has great diagnostic and planning tools for school systems to help leadership teams start with instruction, then move to technology choices, available here: http://plan4progress.org/get-started/districts/
2. Academic leaders and CIOs must work together to plan and implement the technology, content, and infrastructure that teachers need to support personalized learning for their students. Collaboration between academic and technology departments is improving, but most school systems have a long way to go to productively link these two groups. Technology leaders often plan and develop RFPs for major technology purchases, from devices to platforms, without partnering deeply with instructional leaders. And, many instructional leaders plan for shifts to personalized learning environments without working with technology departments from the beginning to assess what teachers and students need and how to get there.
3. School and district leaders should prioritize product efficacy when evaluating options for content and tools to support student learning.
Multi-year commitments to one large provider that can provide many products can seem like a safer choice than assembling a suite of best in class products from multiple providers. However, this approach can also promote comprehensive mediocrity, leaving teachers and students with learning technologies that do not meet their needs. It also makes it harder for developers with promising new products to compete with existing providers, thereby dampening the incentives for innovation in the market. As leaders work hard to put personalized learning into practice, they should preserve the flexibility to mix and match among providers and quickly evaluate how products are working, and drop those that do not demonstrate student learning gains on some reasonable time horizon.
Adding or upgrading technology in classrooms is unlikely to create much of a difference in student outcomes unless it is in service of more personalized learning experiences. Schools that have taken the time to create student-centered learning environments that blend the best of what teachers do with the smart use of instructional technologies are producing some promising early results. We have a long way to go, but the examples of pioneers offer hope that meeting every student where they are and preparing them for success throughout their lives is within our grasp.