Leadership 'key' to personalized learning success

(Brad Flickinger / Flickr)

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Personalized learning is flourishing in K-12 schools, but needs support from top leadership to succeed, state education leaders told an audience at a national conference this week.

Educators attending the State Education Technology Directors Association conference in Washington D.C. praised personalized learning for its benefits to students while recognizing the importance of administrative support for the model’s durability and scalability. 

Often supported by digital tools and resources, personalized learning approaches have grown more popular in recent years in part due to advances in technology platforms and digital content. However, according to a 2018 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the district level, personalized learning often lacks consistent engagement by school leaders and needs to be established as a district priority to succeed.

“The leader is key in helping innovation come to fruition,” Nancy Mangum, associate director of Professional Learning and Leading Collaborative at the The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, told SETDA conference attendees on Tuesday.

Mangum said schools should develop a unifying vision around personalized learning with common commitments and approaches. “It can’t be ‘I want to do this,’ it has to be, ‘we,’” she said.

This position is supported by a 2018 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education that found a successful transition to personalized learning requires buy-in and a common action plan at all levels.

Supplying evidence supporting personalized learning attempts is critical to getting administrator support, Magnum said. “We need data to back up some of the reasons we are doing this,” she said.

Compared to their peers, students in schools using personalized learning practices are making greater academic progress, according to a 2015 Research and Development Corporation study. Even students successful in the traditional classroom model see cross-subject performance improvements when learning is personalized, according to the RAND study.

Although administrative support remains an obstacle for personalized learning, according to SETDA’s Navigating the Digital Shift 2018 study, state policies have begun to support the transformation to a personalized learning plan supplemented with digital materials.

The study identifies the current movement towards digital learning and highlights states that have already taken steps toward implementing digital learning in their classrooms. Six states require the implementation of digital instructional materials and 30 more allow it. Twelve states have dedicated state funding for devices and 29 states define instructional materials as including digital resources, according to SETDA.

In addition to focusing on student learning, SETDA encourages states and districts to provide professional learning opportunities to help teachers excel during the shift to digital learning. Professional development is necessary, according to CRPE, to support innovation and benefits the implementation of personalized learning.

Though funding personalized learning initiatives and managing the data that’s collected after they’re launched are both sizable challenges for districts, leaders like Mangum are calling for changes in the classroom.

Students have different and diverse learning styles, Mangum said. “That’s why we need personalized learning,” she said. “By designing for the average, we are designing for none.”

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