Defining and Measuring the ‘Personal’ in Personalized Learning

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The notion of mass education emerged at the start of the 20th century in response to the need for a more literate workforce, increased urbanization, and a surge in immigration. Early structures such as the Carnegie Unit (which directly tied learning to seat time), the age-graded school, and standardized assessments not only institutionalized the idea of schooling but also of sameness. This emergent system formalized the notion of an “average student” and codified the assumption that all individuals can (and should) learn the same things, the same way, and at the same time.

This system stood in stark contrast to what preceded it. For centuries, learning was defined as personal cognitive growth, manifesting as a result of asking questions, engaging in social interactions, and developing self-awareness. Prior to schooling, all learning was personal—whether in the form of a private tutor or an apprenticeship. Educational psychologists such as Piaget and Vygotsky validated this idea of learning as a personal endeavor, asserting that learning develops through language as each person actively constructs their own understanding. More recent scholars like Deborah Meier and Lillian Weber have expanded on these ideas, advocating for the design of learning experiences that value the personal attributes of students and foster community understanding.

Today, schools and districts have returned to this notion of learning as a personal endeavor by adopting official personalized learning initiatives. Unfortunately, most must do so inside of an institutionalized system that rewards convergent thinking and compliance. As a result, many of these learning initiatives are only personalized at a surface level, adjusting pacing and difficulty without addressing the larger challenge of developing language and vision around the personal parts: interest, agency, and self-actualization. Schools and districts that truly want to adopt personalized learning must first address the twofold challenge of defining new practices and developing new measures.

A Partnership for Personalized Learning

Summit Public Schools, one of the better-known systems to adopt personalized learning, explicitly focuses on developing individual student understanding. From its inception in 2003, the underlying idea driving Summit’s approach has been that the teacher adapts to the student. Although many people know of the Summit Learning Platform—which allows students to progress through custom content at their own pace—the personalized parts of their model rely on teachers creating face-to-face and project-based learning experiences that meet their students’ needs as they develop into self-directed learners.

While Summit envisioned their model for personalized learning outside of the institutionalized system of school, Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California began on the inside. In 2007, the district embarked on a mission (see video below) to move from assessing learning based on seat time to measuring learning as a demonstration of mastery. Several years later, they recognized that they still needed to define and measure personalized learning.

In addition to partnering with Summit, LUSD began collaborating with Transcend Education and Columbia’s Center for Public Research and Leadership to build a shared definition of personalized learning. They developed a set of principles and values to describe the student experience: rigor, customization, purposefulness, relevance, collaboration, and community. Each principle adheres to what has always been known about great learning. As Meier and Weber advocate, it includes relevance and community. As Piaget and Vygotsky would assert, it requires collaboration and rigor. Collectively, these principles define what could—and should—be personalized. Individually, they allow for the development of shared language and a measure for change.

Defining and Measuring the ‘Personal’

School districts that are beginning to move toward personalized learning often focus on data and tracking. This thinking conforms to the standard of sameness rather than the ideals of learning. It assumes that ALL students should ultimately achieve the same measure regardless of their prior experience, existing skills, or innate talents.

To build understanding around the quality of personalized learning, LUSD looks beyond assessment scores. They operationalized the six core principles that represent their ideals for learning—not tenets of schooling—into 26 separate indicators or ‘Look Fors.’ Each Look For then contains specific student actions that correspond to educator strategies that can be explicitly observed and measured. For example, the principle of Rigor includes four separate Look Fors:

  • Cognitive-Lift: Students do the majority of explaining, making connections, and addressing questions during written work and discourse. To accomplish this, educators design inquiry-based learning experiences that provide opportunities for students to ask questions and practice skills.
  • Higher-Order Thinking: Students employ skills such as applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating to complete learning activities because educators provide opportunities for students to apply their learning and wrestle with problems that have multiple solutions.
  • Essential Knowledge: Students engage deeply with complex and challenging facts and concepts that build a meaningful foundation of knowledge within an environment that contains both formative and summative assessment as well as opportunities for spiraling through self-directed learning cycles.
  • Social-Emotional Habits: Students consciously apply key social-emotional habits necessary for lifelong success to their interpersonal and intrapersonal activities. Educators both model these habits and provide explicit instruction when necessary.

In addition to examining the presence of the Look Fors, LUSD measures students’ personal learning growth based on their achievement of specific mastery goals as well as more traditional assessments in English Language Arts and math. Initial research conducted in collaboration with The Learning Accelerator revealed strong relationships between the presence of the Look Fors and student performance on some of these more traditional assessments.

Many schools and districts currently find themselves at a crossroads, caught between the structures of schooling and the ideals of learning. And yet, educators inherently recognize that not all students are the same and that the system of schooling was not designed for all students. With the creation of the Look Fors, LUSD has found a way to travel down both paths simultaneously and address the twofold challenge of defining and measuring the “personal” aspects of their personalized learning initiative.

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