From track to field: how personalized learning changes more than the player

Personalized learning received some hot press in the last month. First, in an open letter to their newborn daughter, Max, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan shared their hopes for personalized learning. To make good on their intentions, they’ve announced that they will donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock, currently valued at $45 billion, of which a portion will support personalized learning efforts.

The media quickly lit up with news surrounding the letter and promised donation. One notable response was that of Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and creator of the now-popular psychology concept of multiple intelligences. Gardner outlined four possibilities of individualization that he saw shaping the future of the young Max.

Zuckerberg, Chan and Gardner celebrate the potential impact of personalized learning on students. Working for Education Elements, a company that directly supports schools’ implementation of personalized learning, I agree: personalized learning can have a huge impact on how students learn.

Yet personalized learning has implications that are much more radical than how a single student learns. Personalized learning, when implemented with fidelity, can re-define how an entire school district operates.

Think of conventional learning as running on a track team. Everyone starts at the same time and runs in the same direction. You win by running fastest.

Now, imagine personalized learning as playing on a soccer field. Suddenly, there are many directions to run and many metrics of quality playing. You can block, pass, score a goal — everyone can work towards success while using their own unique skills and playing style, just like in personalized learning.

The change from track to soccer is huge for an athlete but perhaps even more profound for a coach. A soccer coach must take into consideration substantially more variables than a track coach to help each athlete achieve in a way that promotes both personal growth and the overall success of the team.

Teachers, principals and district leaders are faced with a similar dilemma. When switching from conventional to personalized learning, the rules of the game transform. Personalized learning changes how students learn, but implementing personalized learning changes how the entire education system operates. Educators and administration are pushed to re-examine the processes and behaviors that previously supported a one-track approach to learning. At a systems level, personalized learning affects:

  • Teachers. In this video about blended learning, one social studies teacher at District of Columbia Public Schools shares how she can now facilitate three simultaneous forms of instruction in her class after having adopted a station rotation model.
  • School Leaders. This guide, “The Principal’s Role in Personalization,” explains how principals must re-think staff professional development to support a consistent philosophy of personalized learning for both students and teachers.
  • District Leaders. At the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, district leaders tackled personalized learning by promoting an entirely new process for planning instruction: design thinking. Watch this video from the MSD Warren district team on their learnings from an Education Elements’ Design Academy.

The shifts above comprise only a small portion of a much longer list that should be considered before making large investments in the name of personalized learning. Zuckerberg, Chan, and Gardner acknowledge this. Zuckerberg and Chan mention community buy-in; Gardner introduces the nuanced importance of supporting multiple intelligences. While personalized learning is inspiring, it’s far from easy. It’s essential that education leaders consider how it will impact the entire system that supports student learning, thinking about players and coaches alike.

Photo Credits:(100 M Sprint) William Warby, (Kids playing soccer)Susan Lloyd, (Blocking goal)Woodley Wonder


Originally published at www.edelements.com.