Best Possible Experience

A different take on personalized instruction.

GUEST COLUMN | by Cliff King

CREDIT Skyward students.jpgAs a grandfather, I’ve been around long enough to see some major changes in what education looked like for my kids compared to what it will look like for theirs.

Most of these changes are for the best – more curriculum options, more student ownership in the process, and more transparency about what’s happening in the classroom. Sometimes, however, it seems as though the pendulum might be swinging too far away from the personal relationships that were the highlight of my own educational experience.

Personalized instruction cannot come from an app. It can only occur with a unique blend of parent awareness, teacher insights, and school culture.

Personalized instruction is one of the topics that leaves me scratching my head. This phrase is brought up in a lot in discussions about algorithms, machine learning, and app development. In my mind, personalized instruction isn’t about that at all. It’s about a teacher understanding what each individual student needs to reach his or her potential and working with the other adults in that student’s life to make that happen.

Personalization through Parent Awareness

It’s disappointing to me that only about 22 percent of parents can name a basic milestone their child should have reached in school during the previous year. This should be a point of emphasis in parent-teacher conversations throughout the school year, from open house to parent-teacher conferences and less formal interactions.

Informed parents can take steps to nudge children toward their learning goals, but if we don’t know what those goals are, we may be nudging in the wrong direction all along. It seems simple, but one brief, personalized message from teachers to parents every day can reduce dropout rates by 41 percent, to say nothing of the individual learning benefits.

To make the leap from “improved communication” to “personalized instruction” requires more than just regular progress updates. This is where parents need to be proactive about using their unprecedented level of access to support what teachers are doing in whichever way makes the most sense for that individual child. With the knowledge of what assignments are coming up and what the learning objectives are, parents can fulfill their end of the bargain with informed dinner table conversations, book selection, and thematic weekend trips. That kind of interaction can mean the difference between mastering a concept and falling behind.

Personalization through Teacher Insight

Time and data analytics are two of the most obvious barriers to personalized instruction. Teachers are stretched thin as it is, and the amount of effort it once took to curate, organize, and analyze data was not feasible for most. However, with the capabilities of any modern student information system, that time has passed.

Most teachers today have instant access to valuable gradebook analytics, enabling at-a-glance identification of students who are trending in the wrong direction or who seem to be struggling with a certain standard or assignment medium. Response to intervention tools, automated notifications to parents about behavior or attendance issues, and improved collaboration between counselors, support staff, and educators are just some of the advantages my grandchildren’s teachers have over those who came before.

Personalization through School Culture

One of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the willingness of innovative district leaders to challenge such pillars of the school day as attendance, grading, and behavior management in pursuit of the best possible experience for every student.

Positive attendance is having a particularly strong impact on personalized instruction. Take Nicolet High School, just north of Milwaukee, for example. They have turned an entire class period into a flexible resource hour for students (watch the video here). Need some extra tutoring in math? No problem. Want to get the blood flowing in advance of an afternoon test? Check into the gym for fourth period. You can’t have personalization without putting some of the responsibility back into the student’s hands. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some variation of positive attendance becomes the norm before my grandkids are out of school.

Bringing it All Together

Personalized instruction cannot come from an app. It can only occur with a unique blend of parent awareness, teacher insights, and school culture. With the leaders and tools available, it’s exciting to imagine the personalized opportunities available to my grandkids’ schools today.

Cliff King is the CEO of Skyward and has over 35-plus years of experience in the education and technology industry.

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