Shared attributes of schools implementing personalized learning

Schools all over the country are redesigning their instructional models to provide personalized learning for students. The term personalized learning is used in different ways, often interchangeably with blended or competency-based learning. Susan Patrick and colleagues at iNACOL released Mean What You Say in October, which reviews how these terms are used and proposes a way to integrate them. The paper provides a good overview of the terms and some of the overlap between them.

In our work at the Gates Foundation, we sort out the terms this way for now:

  • Personalized learning — students’ learning experiences are tailored to their individual needs, skill levels, and interests. Students engage in a variety of instructional approaches and are able move at a pace that works best for them. The learning experience is also designed to help students build deep connections with their teachers and other students. For us, this is the big idea that has the potential to drive breakthrough results for students.
  • Blended instruction — personalizing the learning experiences of every student is a difficult task, and no one knows better than teachers how hard it can be. Blended instruction incorporates or “blends” the best of what teachers do with the support of instructional technologies that help strengthen the time teachers spend with their students. Not all blended instruction is personalized — some schools layer technology onto their one-size-fits-most instructional models. But when educators commit to personalized learning, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve it for large groups of students without blended instruction.
  • Competency-based progressions — these are a key feature of school models that make learning paths visible to students and allow them to go at a pace that works best for them, moving on when they can demonstrate they’ve learned a concept or acquired a skill. Some schools have been using competency-based progressions for years, but the growing focus on personalized learning has exposed the idea to a wider audience.

We support many new and redesigned district and charter schools built around personalized learning. Over the next couple of years they will produce meaningful evidence of whether they can consistently accelerate learning for students, including those who have struggled in the past. To complement a multi-year quantitative evaluation run by RAND, we are working with a number of partners to produce more qualitative, descriptive data about what these schools are up to.

One effort underway with a number of educators and thought partners is identifying some attributes shared by personalized learning (PL) schools. It’s still very much a work in progress and will serve as a complement to the helpful blended learning taxonomy developed by the Christensen Institute. By making sense of what the pioneers in the PL school space are doing, we hope to make it easier for the next wave of school design teams to get started. Here are the four shared attributes we’re seeing so far, with brief descriptions:

Learner profiles — Each student has a profile that reflects his or her individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests, aspirations and goals. Profiles are refreshed frequently to provide an up to date picture, and are accessible to students, teachers and parents.

Personal learning paths — Each student follows a path through content and skill progressions, in ways that work best for him or her, through a variety of learning experiences. Students have the tools and support they need to develop ownership of their paths. And while the paths vary by learner, the destination is the same — clear, high standards of academic performance and the cognitive and non-cognitive skills students need for success.

Individual demonstration of mastery — Students move along their learning paths as they demonstrate mastery of content, concepts and skills. They receive constant feedback about how they are doing and can engage in assessments and performance tasks when they feel ready.

Flexible learning environments — Time, space, roles, and instructional methods flex with the needs of students and teachers rather than being fixed variables.

Figuring out whether these attributes are present in a PL school isn’t a yes or no proposition. From school to school, some of the attributes are more fully developed, while others are more nascent. To help reflect what the attributes look like in practice, each will include a number of “how” components, which are still very much under construction. The attributes will continue to evolve over the next few months as educators discuss and debate them, and the “hows” will get firmed up and widely shared and shaped.

Please feel free to share any feedback  you might have about the attributes at this early stage.