Personalized Learning and Equity: Back to School

10/07/2019  |  Dr. Robert Furman
Column With Dr. Robert Furman
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There are many educators who have developed a passion for the concept of personalized learning. I am one of those educators. Who can argue with an approach to learning that embraces customization of learning based on the strengths, needs, skills and interests of each student? 

Personalized learning demands that each student has a plan that is based on what he knows, how he learns and at what pace he learns. At first glance, one might think that this can only be accomplished through technologically-based learning. This is not the case. Personalized learning involves more than just technology — although technology plays an important role.

The teacher continues to play a critical role by providing instruction to small groups, creating appropriate projects to accommodate collaboration, and of course serves as the support system for all children. Teachers will never be replaced by computers. Afterall, computers do not create relationships. Collaboration continues to be an important aspect of personalized learning. Students share in goal-setting and self-reflection. When students choose activities based on their interest, we create more intentional learning and motivation to learn.

When trying to share what a personalized classroom might look like, Janice Vargo, in her article titled “Six Examples of Personalized Learning,” shares that students begin by choosing goals and developing a flexible schedule to meet those goals. Students become adept at collecting and analyzing data using digital tools. Teachers create “playlists” which are a variety of activities from which the students can choose those that best suit their needs and interests. A personalized classroom would have center areas and flexible seating as opposed to traditional seating. Grading takes on a very different look when using a personalized approach. Assessment is about quality of learning, not completion of work. Students can be involved in grading conversations and/or student-led conferences. As a result of these interviews, students know what they have learned and what they need to do differently.

Personalized learning seems to me to be a more equitable style of learning. It seems fair to involve students in their learning and their assessment. That word FAIR seems to be coming up quite often in educational circles today. The word FAIR is associated with the concept of equity in education. Achieving this equity has been closely tied to personalized learning because both focus on the success of every student.

One resource describes equity in education as “putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success. That requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers faced by individual students or by populations of students and providing additional supports to help them overcome those barriers. While this in itself may not ensure equal outcomes, we all should strive to ensure that every child has equal opportunity for success.”

The words equity and equality are not synonymous. “Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. Equality is treating everyone the same.” Treating everyone the same is not always fair, but differentiating to suit the needs of all students is both equitable and fair.

In a personalized and equitable classroom, tracking would never be considered nor would it be necessary. In upper secondary education classrooms, alternatives would be made available to students to eliminate dead end learning and eventual student drop-out. There would be no need for students to repeat grades because systems would be in place to give struggling students the help and support that they need when it is needed. Resources would be channeled to the students with the greatest needs — once again fair not equal.

After reading about personalized learning and equity in education, I felt a moment of excitement. This sounds like the perfect marriage of two groups of passionate educators. It seems that equity and personalized learning should be one in the same. What is being said here is to give the students what they need, when they need it and bring down the barriers that may hinder this from happening. I do not know of an educator out there that would oppose this action.

Granted there are still a lot of barriers in our way, including the difficult discussion on standards and testing. The idea of standards became “fashionable” in the 1980s when a report was created stating that schools in the United States were failing. “A Nation at Risk” led to “No Child Left Behind” and the testing frenzy began.

The use of standards to streamline instruction ensures that teaching practices deliberately focus on agreed upon learning targets. Expectations for student learning are mapped out with each prescribed. One can immediately see the problem. Who is setting the learning targets and for whom are they being set? Why did the targets change during the Common Core implementation? How are we to personalize instruction when we are bound by prescribed learning targets and national standards? The two simply do not mix.

When talking about standards and testing, it should be noted that the Rand corporation did a study and found that personalized learning approaches actually improved achievement, but this approach is more closely defined by formative assessment.

Think about it for a moment. If you, as an educator, could go back in time and learn according to your interests and choose your assignments based on your strengths, wouldn’t that classroom be an exciting place to learn and grow? If you could have had the luxury to spend more time on those concepts and/or skills that were difficult, moving on only after you felt assured of your success, would you not have developed a more positive self-concept? That is what the personalized, equitable classroom is advocating: Success for all!

Dr. L. Robert Furman is an educator, principal, speaker, and published author. Furman currently serves as Principal at South Park Elementary Center and is the author of several books including: “Reading, Technology, and Digital Literacy” ,” Are You Future Ready,” and “Engaging All Readers.” He is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post and Ed Tech Review. Furman also hosts a well-known YouTube educational video blog called The Seditionists and educational podcast called the Council on the Future of Education.  Further, he has been awarded the National School Board Association’s“20 To Watch” in technology education and a Pittsburgh Tribune Review News Maker of the Year.
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