Personalized Learning Advice From a Learning Scientist: 5 Questions K-12 Leaders Should Be Asking

April 8, 2019   |   By Benjamin Herold

Education Week | Toronto

How can the science of learning help schools that are part of the personalized-learning movement?

Richard Halverson is glad you asked.

"This is a multi-functional model for schooling. Schools want to produce good outcomes, but they also want to invite student interest," he said. "The ideas from learning science can be good principles to build from."

A long-time professor of education leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Halverson led a team in 2015 that sought to document what personalized learning looked like in 20 of the state's public schools.  Most were traditional public schools, and some were charters. Most were working with a group called the Institute for Personalized Learning, housed at one of Wisconsin's regional education service organizations. None received grant money or extra resources to experiment with the new educational models. And some of the study participants were revamping their entire schools, while others were trying "school-within-a-school" experiments.

At the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, being held here, Halverson presented a paper Monday based on that work, titled "Taking a Learning Science Perspective to Understand Personalized Learning in Schools."

Are you a K-12 educator, administrator or policymaker interested in personalized learning?

Based on his presentation and an interview, here are five questions K-12 educators, administrators or policymakers should be asking:

1. How will you address learner outcomes AND learner interests?

"The policy pressure in recent years are much more towards generating learner outcomes," Halverson said. "But there's also a big motivational crisis in schools, and we need to figure out how to get students more interested in their own learning." 

Figuring out how to navigate that contradiction is key, he said. Some personalized-learning schools Halverson studied responded by placing students' interests at the heart of the educational enterprise. That meant inviting students to set their own goals for their learning, then allowing them to take control of how they pursued those goals (including everything from where they learned, to the pace at which they moved.)

In 2015, though, more common were schools that saw personalization as educators crafting for students a customized path through a set of adult-established academic standards.

The space in between those two approaches is "where a lot of personalized-learning schools now live," Halverson said.

The reality, he said, is "schools have to do both." 

2. Who is creating the learning pathways students are expected to follow?

This is where the rubber hits the road and schools' priorities and choices are really laid bare, Halverson suggested.

"If you're focused on standards-based performance, a lot of times schools will try to get diagnostic data on students' skills and ability levels, then construct learning paths for them," he said.  "If you're going other way, and focus on what students care about, those paths are more co-constructed."

There are tradeoffs with each approach, Halverson said. Focusing entirely on student interests, for example, might improve engagement, without raising test scores.

In response, Halverson said, many schools are trying a kind of hybrid approach.

"I've seen a lot of schools keep math more on the standards-based model, with a fixed curriculum, where teachers intervene with mini-lessons where kids are struggling," he said. "But they also open up the social studies and science curriculum, for example, to allow for more projects and community-based work."

3. How do you build relationships to support students in following a given learning pathway?

"This is the core insight we've had so far," Halverson said. "Building relationships with students so that conversation becomes the main form of assessment is the heart" of learning-science-inspired personalized learning.   

That means building as much interpersonal contact between teachers and students into the school day as possible, making that interaction the "heart of the instructional process," he suggested. Often, that means completely reconfiguring the school day. It's worth it, Halverson said.

"I can tell what you understand by talking to you. Everything else is a proxy," he said. "If I have regular time to check in with you, and you tell me what you know and are interested in, we can construct a learning pathway together, and I can also tell the progress you're making." 

4. To what extent is learning grounded in real-world activities?

This is one of the biggest challenges personalized-learning schools face, Halverson said. The learning-sciences research is rich with examples of why this matters and how to do it, he said. But such work is expensive, hard to coordinate, and often difficult to fit into existing school structures.

"I think personalized-learning schools have a lot to learn from researchers in this area," Halverson said. "All students live in families, cultures, communities. Anchoring learning in those resources that young people bring to school makes the learning come alive."

5. How do you put different technologies together to meet your needs and achieve your goals?

This is another biggie, Halverson said. 

Personalized-learning schools are often using different technologies for different purposes: Google's G Suite for everyday instruction and administration, for example, mixed with adaptive learning software for specific subjects, a student information system to track data on student progress, and new digital media for student creation and connection.

Stitching all that together into a coherent ecosystem has huge potential rewards, he said. Without tech, it's basically impossible for an average high school teacher seeing 150 students per day to keep track of each students' individual learning pathway and progress.

But until the "student-relations management systems" that are just now being conceptualized and built really take off, he said, it's going to be a messy, ad-hoc process. 

And if K-12 leaders truly do want to improve both student outcomes and student interest, they'll be wise to recognize and appreciate that.  

"It's important that [administrators and policymakers] pay attention to the ways that is orchestrated at the school level," Halverson said. "When districts don't understand how people at the school level are building these systems to meet their needs, they end up making decisions that are at odds with successful work happening at actual schools."