Moving past a personalization algorithm

Two years ago, we launched a school built around the concept of extreme personalization. Even though the concept of personalization was still raw, we knew that we wanted to push really hard on what personalization could look like in schools. As we struggled to unpack personalization an interesting phenomenon emerged. No matter what question we generated about personalization, the answer seemed to be an algorithm or a platform. This could be a geographic problem; we are located in the Silicon Valley, or it might be because we had a narrow view of personalization. As we refined our concept of personalization and tested out different ideas, we realized that the ed-tech version of personalization was not going to make the full impact on our students we had hoped for them when we opened Design Tech. As we enter year three we have created a concept of personalization that will guide us for the next year.

After developing numerous strategies for personalization, perhaps our biggest learning is that we didn’t know enough about our students to use the strategies for maximum impact. The prevailing concept of personalization has largely focused on personalizing the academic portion of the student experience. Teachers (or software) gain an understanding or each student’s knowledge and skills and then the students are guided to the appropriate resources. This definition has been driven primarily by the ed-tech sector with personalization provided by educational software. We agree that the academic portion of the student experience must be more personalized, but we have broadened our concept and approach to personalization. For, effective personalization rests on 5 elements:

1. Knowing each student in the following areas:

Academic — students’ knowledge and skills in areas such as math, science, and humanities (this knowledge is most closely embedded in the classroom experience, and computer programs have made this area much more efficient)

Personal — students’ interests outside of school and their goals

Cultural — students’ identity and customs rooted in family, socioeconomic status, and race

Scientific — how the brain works and the scientific research regarding theories of learning

2. Equity

Giving every student what he/she needs based on what the teacher knows about the student in the four important areas.

3. Appropriate rigor for all

Although appropriate rigor for all is closely related to the idea of equity, we feel that there is a need to call it out separately. We do believe that students should have multiple ways for demonstrating understanding of certain concepts, but it cannot be at the expense of important skills. A student should not be able to submit a poster instead of a 5-page essay because students must know how to write. Creating appropriate academic challenges cannot come at the expense of rigor.

4. Opportunities for students to develop self-direction

Personalization and self-direction sometimes get conflated in a way that does a disservice to both. Personalization is an instructional strategy, while self-direction is a student outcome. We believe that a personalized experience must provide opportunities for self-direction, but self-direction is not inherent in personalization. I can finish an episode of a show on Netflix and then another show will start playing 30 seconds later based on an algorithm that analyzes my viewing preferences. While the show is personalized to my preferences, the selection did not rely on self-direction.

5. Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice must be intentional, aimed at improving performance by knowing and addressing weaknesses and combined with immediate feedback. This is at the heart of academic personalization.

After teachers or as we call them, learning experience designers, understand the student within the context of the 5 key elements, they can select from some of the following personalization levers:

  • Metacognitive practices
  • Feedback, iteration & competency-based grading
  • Space design
  • Groupings
  • Extra support
  • Pace
  • Choice / menu of topic
  • Choice / menu of task type
  • Student schedule
  • Tech Tools

In future posts we will go more in-depth on the personalization levers and our experience in tackling the first two elements of personalization.

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