Away from One-Size-Fits-All

Learning to embrace student choice and voice on the pathway to personalized learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Bailey Mitchell

CREDIT itslearning imageRobert Louis Stevenson once said, “Nothing made by brute force lasts.” Up until recently, the brute force model of curriculum delivery ruled classrooms with a “one-size-fits-all” fist. The “sage on the stage” was the norm, and only a select few administrators and teachers broke ranks to embrace the notion of personalized learning. But according to a research report from the Center for Digital Education, this approach to education, which ties learning to an individual student’s strengths, weaknesses and interests; often lets a student work at his or her pace; and where possible, actually allows students to direct their very own lessons, is trending its way to the head of the class.

But navigating that path to personalized or individualized learning does not happen overnight or follow a straight line. I know – because I’ve been there, done that!

But navigating that path to personalized or individualized learning does not happen overnight or follow a straight line. I know – because I’ve been there, done that!

As the former chief technology officer for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, I led a team that worked tirelessly in pursuit of improving the education experience, which we felt hinged on personalization. But here’s an important footnote: sometimes “personalization” is incorrectly considered to be synonymous with “individualization.” But these are distinctive terms with different pedagogical meanings.

According to the National Educational Technology Plan, developed by the U.S. Department of Education, personalized learning is defined as adjusting the pace (individualization), adjusting the approach (differentiation), and connecting to the learner’s interests and experiences. Personalization is broader than just individualization or differentiation in that it affords the learner a degree of choice about what is learned, when it is learned and how it is learned. The rhetoric is often phrased in terms of learning “anytime, anywhere or any place.” This may not indicate unlimited choice since learners will still have targets to meet. However, it may provide learners the opportunity to learn in ways that suit their individual learning styles and multiple intelligences. And we took that to heart.

We did our homework (and yes, sometimes the dog did eat it and we had to start over!) but we knew that to end this journey in the right place, we had to start the trip with a clear vision. We focused on the mantra: student choice, student voice.

From day one, we were committed to giving students a choice in how they experience their learning and how they demonstrate learning to show mastery. And believe me, student choice is not exclusive to technology use. For Forsyth, “student voice” means giving students the ability to influence learning in some way. They become a part of the decision-making process in the classroom. Let me be clear, we found this part of the mantra to be the hardest to define. We did so by imagining the possibilities. What if a student who is struggling in, let’s say, mathematics had a personalized Learner Plan that through contributions from himself, his parents, support staff, and teachers provided a path for learning to address his individual needs.

Then we envisioned him using his own technology device — he logs into his school system’s role-based portal, which provides him with a display of the most relevant data about his current math performance, including a formative assessment taken earlier in the day. The data show that he has yet to master yesterday’s standards, and his teacher, after analysis of the data, has used her connection into the data system’s Learning Marketplace to identify learning activities and resources to automatically populate his Learner Plan. These are immediately accessible for his use and to formulate a plan for his remediation of standards not mastered.

Compelling, right? But do understand – we zigged, and then zagged our way down the personalized learning pathway. Several years ago, we announced a five-year public/private partnership with the digital learning platform developer, itslearning, to foster Forsyth’s bold new instructional framework, Engage Me PLEASE (Personalized Learning Accelerates Standards-Based Education).

We were steadfast in our core belief that personalized learning was not just a fad, but a contemporary instructional model of learning which holds the promise of delivering better academic outcomes consistently.

This five-year co-development project required us to map out many goals including a “one-stop- shop” learning platform for our teachers, formative and summative assessment tools (both on and off-line), a recommendation engine, searchable content tagged to standards, and we even created an online Community of Practice designed to facilitate professional learning for teachers and leaders. We were very impressed with the willingness the company demonstrated to truly partner and co-develop significant features and functionality that were unique to our needs. (So much so, that I joined the company earlier this month.) But it’s important to note, every school and district needs that same level of personalization. No two students are alike, and either are schools or districts!

This partnership marked a true pivot point in the pathway to personalization – I know it because I have been there and witnessed that…I’ve seen firsthand when personalized classrooms work well, and it’s hard to argue against their success. More schools need to re-imagine and revolutionize education by moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” experience and embracing the “student choice, student voice” approach for this generation of teachers and students.

Bailey Mitchell is Chief Academic Officer of Norway-based itslearning, a K-12 learning management system that enables teachers to better facilitate instructional delivery and engage today’s “digitally” wired students. He is the former Chief Technology and Information Officer for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, where he managed all aspects of the school district’s technology. Write to: bailey.mitchell@itslearning.net

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