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Personalized Learning: What Do We Know About How Kids Learn To Do This Well?

Boy looking at a globe of the world

Personalized Learning: From an Idea to Infrastructure

Earlier this spring, Chicago Public Schools announced an opening for a position it called "the nation's first": an Executive Director of Personalized Learning.

"The Executive Director will work with a highly skilled team of internal stakeholders to improve the way schools deliver instruction to 21st century learners" and be responsible for executing a "Personalized Learning vision to increase the number of personalized learning schools within the district."

Nearly 400,000 students are enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, according to statistics compiled by the district. 86-percent of them are economically disadvantaged. Nearly 17-percent of them are English Language Learners. The largest racial groups are African-American and Hispanic students.

Driving the Conversation

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Pearson produced a conceptual video titled "A Vision for Personalized and Connected Learning." We've also embedded the video at the end of this story.

You're likely familiar with how personalization of learning is a hot topic in education at the moment.

Maryland's Baltimore County Public Schools is in the middle of a multi-year plan, called Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT), to provide personalized learning "to our increasingly diverse student population at a time when the economy requires more from our students for future success."

And it's not just a K-12 phenomenon.

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, an advocacy organization that represents institutions with a total of 5 million-plus undergraduates and graduates, has launched the Personalized Learning Consortium to "improve student learning, retention, and graduation."

Breaking It Down Into Fundamentals

"Everyone is talking about personalization of learning," says Kristen DiCerbo, Pearson's Vice President of Education Research. "Often, there are a lot of disparate conversations and studies that are not in synch."

"From my perspective as a researcher," says Kristen says, "I'm thinking: what do we need to know from the research about how kids learn to do personalization well?"

"How can we pull together a cohesive framework to link all this research in a way that helps educators tailor the best learning to students' needs and goals?" she says.

The Research Building Blocks of Personalization

Kristen has started crafting an approach to this cohesive framework with four "building blocks of personalization":Box Progression


Building Block 1: The Map

How do students progress from novice to expert in a particular learning topic?

"Students could be learning calculus, how to compute area, or the best way to apply critical thinking skills to a passage in literature," Kristen says.

"What does a novice look like? What does an expert look like? And what does the path look like as students move from being a novice to an expert?" she asks.

"This is one of the key things to know before starting students through a personalized learning process."


Building Block 2: The "You Are Here Sticker"

How do we assess where a student is in the progression process defined by Building Block 1?

"Where are students on the progression spectrum?" Kristen says.

"We're also looking for ways to understand their position without having to test them all the time," she says.

LearnED previously posted a story about how an iPad game helps teachers in this way called: "How An iPad Game With Robots Teaches Kids the Art of Persuasion."


Building Block 3: The Map Offers Directions

What should a student do next to move forward in the progression process?

"What should a student do next?" Kristen says. "What are the next activities and then the next activities and then the next activities to help a student learn?"

"Learning science already has a lot to say about learning and memory during this process," she says.


Building Block 4: Trip Review

What are the best ways to provide feedback to students, teachers, and parents?

"Sometimes immediate feedback to students while learning is not the best approach," Kristen says. "When students have already developed some expertise in a topic, they can learn more productively when feedback is delayed."


Challenges to Personalization

"One challenge, of course, is a large classroom," Kristen says. "How can a teacher provide personalized learning across a large number of students every day?"

huge"Technology can help," she says, "but not everyone in the world is totally hooked up to the Internet yet."

"The other key challenge is how a student's pathway is governed during the learning process," Kristen says.

"Sometimes it's best if a student decides to take the next step in a progression," she says. "Sometimes it's best if it's a teacher. And sometimes technology or software can make a good decision."

"Figuring out the best way to do this is a currently a huge research question."

A Global Approach

Kristen wants to apply an eventual framework to learners at all levels—in any school across the globe.

"There are additional factors like cultural differences and disparities in technology," she says.

"We're still looking for the best pathways to tailor learning experiences for every student."

LearnED will return to this story in the coming months to explore more of Kristen's research.