Personalized Learning is Really About Teacher Adaptivity

Jeff Grabill, wearing a lavender shirt, addresses seated faculty during a meeting.
By Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology & Director of MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

This post is the third in a series about ed tech. For more on this topic, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

I am writing about “personalized learning,” but with a focus on teachers. Consistent with my two previous blog posts, the frame here is educational technology and learning. There has been much focus on “personalized” and “adaptive” learning, mostly with regard to technologies. And as I have noted in the past about educational technologies, lots of promises have been made. Magic is almost always on offer.

On this topic, I am a fan of the recent writing of Michael Feldstein and his colleague, Phil Hill. Feldstein and Hill write:

“Let’s be honest: as an academic term of art, personalized learning is horrible. It has almost no descriptive value. What does it mean to “personalize” learning? Isn’t learning, which is done by individual learners, inherently personal? What would it mean to personalize learning? And who would want unpersonalized learning?”

And, most importantly, Feldstein notes that personalized learning “is a set of things that you do, not a set of things that you buy.” This introduces the technology-pedagogy confusion that permeates the personalization/adaptivity conversation. In the marketplace, “personalized” and “adaptive” are too often used interchangeably. There are better narratives about how adaptive technologies can help personalize a learning experience for students. But, even here, the story is unsatisfying, largely because the story is about technologies, not pedagogical practices. Feldstein and Hill are correct on two fronts: (1) personalized learning is a set of teaching practices, and (2) the phenomenon it addresses is better thought of as “underpersonalized teaching.”

Clearly, I want to take what Feldstein and Hill have written as a given for what I am writing here. I agree with them. My departure, however, is to shift from students to teachers. That is, the focus of many stories about personalized learning is on student personalization, often in the form of providing information (ideally feedback, but mostly information) to the student via a computer.

But these same technologies also provide important information to teachers. Most critically, if we are to honestly move away from underpersonalized teaching, then teachers must be able to see, understand, and act on the information provided to them in a timely and effective fashion.

Feldstein and Hill are correct to locate the hard work of personalized learning in the course and pedagogical reforms that must accompany the move from underpersonalized to personalized teaching.

The really, really hard work, in other words, falls to teachers.

To put it differently, personalized learning is really about teachers, not students.

But teachers are not accustomed to having information—ideally as the fruit of formative assessment—from their students. True, technologies such as clickers help, as long as they aren’t used to take attendance (directly or indirectly). In general, however, teachers simply aren’t accustomed to having good information on student learning at a time and place when/where they can act on it, and because of this, they don’t know what to do with it. In the teacher professional learning that I have done with high school and university teachers, I think of this as a “formative assessment data literacy” issue. Yet, even when teachers start to focus on the fact that this information exists and that they can use it in a systematic way, they often resist using it. To do so means to change the way one teaches. It means teaching differently.

I get it. It feels uncomfortable.

It often challenges our identities as teachers because it changes what we attend to, how we spend our time, and our deeply-ingrained notions of what teachers do.

To become a personalized teacher, however, means to double down on the practices we already use to provide personalized attention to students and their learning. We need to devote more time and energy to these practices, not less.

To close, let me name some categories of teaching practice that might very well be familiar to many and that are likely required to personalize teaching. These practices are well-tuned to feedback rich teaching: (1) sweeping across the class, (2) leaning out so that students can learn from each other, and (3) leaning in to help individual students.

Sweeping entails identifying trends and patterns in the information on student learning. This is why teacher information literacy is a key issue. Once trends and patterns are identified, teachers can certainly make adaptations, which is not uncommon to what good teachers already do. What might be less common is the practice of sharing trend and patterns findings with students. Such “sweeping stories” can quickly be turned into moments for students to revise their thinking.

“Leaning out” is to move to peer learning, which is not commonly paired with “personalized” learning.

It should be.

It should be because those same streams of formative information that produce patterns for sweeping also produce opportunities for students to learn with and from each other. Indeed, particularly in the large classes in which we often see the most underpersonalized teaching, peer learning can be “magic.” Teachers must do lots of work to make peer learning effective. I’m under no illusions in this regard. But high- quality personalized learning enables humans to engage with each other, not with a machine. We should make it so.

“Leaning in” is what teachers often do. Love to do. It’s a set of practices focused on helping individual students that rely on the teacher to student relationship:

  • Commenting on visible student thinking
  • Finding the struggling students
  • Helping students be reflective
  • Challenging advanced students
  • Correcting misunderstandings
  • Holding conferences or other direct intervention (“tapping on the shoulder”)

Lots of hard teacher work. No magic. And while technologies are fundamental to the work, they can’t do it for us. At least not yet.



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