In Part 1, based on what I have seen in 17 teachers’ classrooms in eight schools, I tried to explain what I observed by offering a “personalized learning” continuum. As small as the sample is–I will continue with the project in the Fall and add more classrooms and schools–I wanted to take a first pass at making sense (for myself and readers) of what I saw in schools located at the heart of technological enthusiasm, Silicon Valley. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.
This “personalized learning spectrum,” I pointed out, is anchored in the tangled history of school reform, the family fight a century ago among those Progressives who were efficiency-driven and behaviorist in their solutions to problems of teaching and learning and fellow Progressives who sought student agency, growth of the “whole child,” and democratic schooling solving societal problems. Both wings of educational Progressives tried to uproot the traditional whole-group, direct instruction model dominating public schools then and since.
The efficiency-driven, behaviorist wing of the Progressives was victorious by the 1930s and has largely dominated school reform since. Innovations appeared each decade trumpeting the next new thing that would make teaching and learning more efficient and effective. In the 1950s, it was “programmed learning machines” (launched by behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner); in the 1970s, it was “mastery learning” (anchored in the work of University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom) followed by “competency-based” learning in the 1980s. Each of these innovations, in different guises, continue to be found in schools in 2016. In all instances, past and present, psychologists and school reformers broke down knowledge and skills into its small, digestible parts so students could learn at their own pace through individualized lessons and teacher use of “positive reinforcement.” Extrinsic rewards from teachers and, later, software programs, guided students along paths to acquiring requisite skills and knowledge. Promoters of these innovations claimed that these approaches were both efficient and effective in getting students to acquire prescribed content and skills, graduate, enter the labor market, and become civically engaged adults.
Challenges to this dominant approach to teaching and learning occurred periodically from the student-centered, “whole child” wing of the Progressives who championed project-based teaching, student participation, and collaborative learning to achieve the same desired ends. While these determined efforts to individualize lessons to match academic and ability differences among students and create more student agency in lessons and units rose and fell over the years (e.g., the 1960s, 1990s) incrementally increasing within more and more schools, the dominant efficiency-driven whole-group, teacher-directed approach prevailed.
What has happened recently, however, is that those efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives. Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and where students collaborate with one another thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning” has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.
Now consider the “personalized learning spectrum,” my first pass at making sense of this world I observed in Silicon Valley. At one end are teacher-centered lessons and programs tailored for individual students to progress at that own speed. Such “personal” instructional materials and teaching seek efficient and effective learning using a behavioral approach rich in positive reinforcement that has clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century. At the other end of the continuum are, again, century-old efforts to create student-centered whole- and small-group lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle of the range are hybrids mixing the two approaches. To get at this spread in 2016 within the eight schools I visited and 17 teachers I observed, I will give examples drawn from earlier posts on this blog and instances elsewhere in the U.S. of each end of the spectrum and ones that inhabit the center.
At the behaviorist pole of the spectrum where skill-driven lessons tailored to differences among students cluster, different public schools and districts* drawn from across the nation exist such as New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter, USC Hybrid High School, and Lindsay Unified School District (California). While these examples inhabit the behaviorist end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter. Yet I locate these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using existing online lessons (or crafting their own) anchored in discrete skills and knowledge, aligned to the Common Core standards, and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Even though these schools and programs have appropriated the language of student-centeredness and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, their teacher-crafted playlists that vary for each student accompanied by assessments of skills and knowledge locates them here. And, finally, these programs seek the ends of thoughtful, fully engaged, and whole human beings–the same as other programs along the spectrum. And they still operate within the traditional format of K-8 and 9-12 age-graded schools
In the middle of the spectrum would be classrooms, schools and districts that have blended learning models (there are more than one) combining personalized lessons for individual students and teacher-directed classroom lessons such as ones taught by Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons. Urban Rocketship schools in Silicon Valley, for example, has students working on online math and literacy software geared to questions students will face on tests. They sit in cubicles for part of the day followed by chunks of time spent in classrooms where teacher-directed lessons occur.
The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting a bit toward the behaviorist end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on. Also in Oakland is James Madison Middle School using a rotational version of blended learning for its 6th through eight graders.
I would also include teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed (Summit Prep–here–and Summit Rainier–here) who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards. While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands (the nine classes I observed at Summit schools were, for the most part, lodged at the second stage (see here) of putting project-based learning into practice. This is why I placed these teachers and schools in the center of the continuum.
Such schools mix competency-based, individual lessons for children in large cubicle-filled rooms with teacher-directed lessons, project-based teaching. Like those at the behaviorist end, these programs lodged in the center of the spectrum contain differences among them. Yet they all work within the traditional age-graded school organization.
At the pole opposite the behaviorist end is the student-driven, “whole child” set of arrangements that prize multi-age groupings, high student participation in their learning through working on projects that both student and teacher develop, cultivate cross-disciplinary linkages, and dispense with age-graded arrangements (sometimes called “continuous progress”). Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are less than two-score of these schools nationally.
For example, there is High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning (and, from documents and exhibits, seem to be at the fourth stage of PBL). The teacher-led Avalon charter school in St. Paul (MN) relies on PBL implementing it through individualized learning plans. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Sycamore school in Claremont (CA), the Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as The AltSchool, a series of small private schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. They say that they, too, “personalize learning.” Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum and in the middle, much variation exists among these schools harbored here.
In the few months I observed schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley, I saw instances of technology being integrated into lessons and school programs aimed at achieving larger purposes of public schooling mentioned above. However, I saw no examples among these schools of multi-age groupings, advanced stages of project-based teaching, and other features listed above for this end of the continuum.
These two posts are my first effort to make sense of the uses of technology to “personalize learning” that I have seen over the past few months in Silicon Valley schools and classrooms. Highly recommended to me as instances of teachers and schools that integrate technology seamlessly into their daily work, I found that their uses of technology to teach content and skills through “personalizing Learning” fell into types of programs that I could array along a continuum. All of these schools sought similar ends of producing graduates who could be problem-solvers, find jobs in a competitive labor market and become engaged in their communities.
I would appreciate comments from viewers about this first pass at understanding what I observed in these classrooms and schools. I welcome comments on the clarity (or lack of it), coherence (or lack of it) and helpfulness (or lack of it) of this spectrum in draining the semantic swamp of “personalized learning.”
*None of the 17 teachers I observed taught wholly online so I do not include any examples here. Many of the teachers I watched, however, used a combination of online resources, teacher-directed lessons, and small-groups to “personalize learning” while conveying prescribed knowledge and skills aligned to Common Core standards adopted by the state of California.