How to Best Help Teachers When Redesigning Systems for Personalized Learning
As more schools, districts, and states implement personalized learning strategies, the focus has shifted from plug and play technology solutions to rethinking the structure of the classroom as we know it. So how are states moving forward with personalized learning initiatives?
In this podcast series, Student-Centered Pathways to Student Success, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges that come with this movement towards personalized learning.
When it comes to personalization, one of the major challenges can be the time teachers must spend to prepare individualized lessons for their students. Another challenge can be the time it takes to train teachers on personalized learning strategies. And as most teachers are already pressed for time, finding a solution to this challenge could make or break a district or statewide push towards personalized learning.
So what resources do teachers need to support their efforts towards personalization? To find out, we spoke with Alexander Lucini, a music teacher at West Broadway Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, and the treasurer of the Providence Teachers Union. Listen to our full interview with Alexander Lucini to find out what resources teachers need to effectively implement personalized learning in the classroom.
Hannah Nyren: Hi, this is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times and today I’m speaking with Alex Lucini. Hi Alex, how’s it going?
Alexander Lucini: Hi, I’m doing wonderful today.
Hannah Nyren: So Alex, we’re here today talking about personalized learning. And you are one of the many educators we’re speaking to. So can you tell me a little bit about your job and what you do?
Alexander Lucini: Sure. So I am the music teacher at West Broadway Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island. And I also serve as the treasurer of the Providence Teachers Union.
Hannah Nyren: So tell me a little bit about the teacher’s union specifically, since that’s a little different than some of the other people we’ve spoken to. So how does being in the teacher’s union give you a kind of a unique perspective on education?
Alexander Lucini: Yeah, so it allows me to do a couple of things. First, it allows me to kind of have a really broad understanding of the challenges as well as the highlights of the work that are going on in our classrooms across many different grade levels and many different subject areas. One of the challenges though, is it becomes a situation where you’re splitting your time sometimes between what’s maybe best for the program that you’re running and the work that you’re doing with your students. And then also being able to be that support person or that go-to person for teachers and students in other schools across the school district.
Hannah Nyren: So today we’re talking about personalized learning. How would you define personalized learning?
Alexander Lucini: So I think the best way to look at personalized learning is instead of having a kind of a finish line for students to say, this is where we want them to be Personalized learning, we start with the starting point, and that’s something that’s been largely ignored in traditional education settings over the last hundred years. So whether it is in a flipped classroom where students are looking at their Lexia numbers where they are literacy kind of spectrum. In my classroom, in the music classroom, where I’m able to give a standardized aptitude test to my students to actually find out how well adjusted they are to hearing and understanding and then learning musical content. It allows me to be able to figure out the parameters in which my students need to learn and it yields the best educational outcomes because I can tailor towards whether it’s a small group, a large group or the individual student themselves.
Hannah Nyren: So how do you think personalized learning can be implemented into the classroom?
Alexander Lucini: Sure. So I think one of the misconceptions a lot of people have with personalized learning is it’s not staring at a computer screen all day. And unfortunately kind of the dialogue around the debate of personalized learning has really centered around technology. When really all the technology is is just a part of really a wide menu of choices. And I think that’s where the key point comes in for implementing personalized in a classroom is allowing student choice as well as student need. And so whether it’s students breaking up into smaller groups based on students with similar needs as well as similar strengths. Or whether it is students looking at self-interest as a motivator to develop and learn certain skills.
Alexander Lucini: I think there’s a couple of ways that you can implement it in class. Whether you’re using station rotations to be able to spend time as an educator with a smaller group of students and provide that direct support. Or whether it’s using technology in a responsible way that allows students to be able to create a dialogue between their work. There are just so many different ways to be able to implement personalized learning into a classroom, but I think that’s just a couple of them from a broad spectrum.
Hannah Nyren: So do you believe that personalized learning is important to implement in classrooms? And if so, why?
Alexander Lucini: Yes. So I think that personalized learning is a really valuable way to go about improving student outcomes. I think, unfortunately, what has happened with kind of the 20th century model of education, is that we began to look at ways to generalize or ways to hold the accountability movement to look at, you know, how we are doing from a whole scale? And I think unfortunately what happens with that is we leave behind the learners that are actually doing the work. And we just kind of glaze over the top in and kind of put like a stamp of approval or disapproval on large groups of students. And that’s not good for them as humans, but it’s also certainly not good for their learning.
Alexander Lucini: With personalized learning, it allows educators to be able to see particularly where the students are and where they need to be guided. I think the idea of a teacher is really kind of an interesting concept in a debate all on its own because as we move into the 21st century, we’re looking at teachers more as facilitators and as guides rather than as you know I’m a content master, let me share with you what I know. It’s more about the trail, the path that we’re leading our students down than just that who, where, what, when, and why. I believe that the path is just as important. But I think there are some opportunities with personalized learning to get us out of that to break us out of what that normal traditional 20th century educations looked like and move us towards something that is much more meaningful for our kids.
Hannah Nyren: When it comes to the classroom and the traditional structure, I know that the movement is more towards student-centered over teacher-centered. So can you explain the difference between student-centered and teacher-centered education?
Alexander Lucini: So I think what we want with our students is, we eventually want them to be able to have that intrinsic motivation to be able to go out and grasp the information themselves. Because of technology, the way our world has changed since traditional public education systems came into play. We used to have to look at almanacs or we used to have to look at and do deep research in order to acquire knowledge. And that is just not the case anymore. Anybody can pick up a smartphone and virtually access any point of information on the globe. And I think what it does is it changes our responsibility of teachers from giving direct knowledge to students, to being able to guide them towards how to utilize it, how to adapt to it, and then most importantly for the future, is how to manipulate it for their personal benefit as well as the benefit of our society. When we’re talking about going from teacher centered to students-[centered] we’re talking about the needs of the individuals in front of us and not just what the teacher is supposed to do. Instead, it needs to be about where the students are eventually going to be heading to.
Hannah Nyren: What are the criticisms of personalized learning and what would you say to those who have those criticisms?
Alexander Lucini: Unfortunately, a lot of times it comes down to the implementation that is really where the importance comes out. I think a lot of skeptics of personalized learning are individuals that have lost trust within the kind of climate of education reform across our country. So what I hear from skeptics they talk first about the reliance on technology first. And then they, if the conversation kind of morphs it goes towards certain individuals who might be advocates for personalized learning that in the past have been advocates of other aspects of the education reform movement that have either kind of gone extinct have kind of fallen out of favor or are we found out they didn’t work.
Alexander Lucini: So I think what a lot of times with movements such as personalized learning is it becomes a trust issue. And I think one of the things that’s really difficult is when you have outside factors weighing in on education, what I try to say to those skeptics is that this is not a movement that is coming from wealthy investors. It’s not coming from companies that are looking to make a profit. While they do exist and they’re out there offering their products a lot of the work and the reason why I became interested in personalized learners from hearing from colleagues and professionals around me. So I think for the skeptics I think it’s worth it. If they are skeptical about it, they should talk to somebody that’s incorporating personalized learning into their classroom. And I think that takes a little bit of the frustration down, it lets down our guards and helps us kind of unite around that we’re doing the same work.
Hannah Nyren: So with your work with the teachers union, how have you seen different ways that personalized learning is being implemented and the traditional classroom is changing?
Alexander Lucini: One of the great things that I’ve been able to see is how personalized learning has spread from classroom to classroom from school to school across our district. It has been led by the classroom teachers. So whether it’s developing professional development modules to teach and encourage them. Whether it’s taking some time to do some pure modeling in classrooms, or whether it’s just being able to ask questions and to push against others ideas. I think that’s really been how we’ve seen personalized learning in our district grow.
Alexander Lucini: Also one of the other things that I’ve really enjoyed seeing with personalized learning has been stationed rotations with teachers in classrooms, particularly in literacy classrooms, where one of the fixed the stress the challenges and struggles for students, including my own children at home, is just having that ability to work one on one or in a very small group with the teacher—In those station rotations, where you’re giving students that gradual release model of maybe 10 or 15 years ago. And we’re implementing it where we can have a student start with an activity or start with something like an investigation or an inquiry based kind of process on a skill or a certain standard and then really work with a teacher in a small group and really get to the fundamentals of that. And then be gradually released into either a small group work session or back into an individual work session and be able to work at that skill and play with it a little. I think play is a big part of this idea of personalization to be able to have an opportunity to make a mistake.
Alexander Lucini: And that’s really something I think in station rotations is really helpful when they rotate back to that small group work the teacher. The teacher has the ability to say, “hey you did something. It’s not quite right. If you make this adjustment to the skill now you’ll have it in the right way. And like I alluded to earlier, I think education needs to be more of a dialogue between student and facilitator or teacher. I’m going to share my knowledge with you and kind of fill you up with knowledge. I think that those kinds of examples or ways that I’ve gotten to see this individualized work really come in and make up a direct benefit. To not only student achievement but to students self-esteem and student intrinsic values.
Hannah Nyren: So what do you think are the biggest challenges when it comes to creating more individualized, student-centered education?
Alexander Lucini: Well, I think there’s a couple of areas and they kind of always seem to fall into three categories: time, money and consistency. I think as we retrain or as we bring in more teachers into this conversation of personalized learning, there’s an amount of time that is needed for teachers to be able to learn about it, to experiment with it, and lastly to be able to kind of push back against it. I think we become better educators when we push back against things and then continue to work with it. So time is something that’s a real issue.
Alexander Lucini: I think it’s challenging under the kind of confines of the accountability movement. We’re asking teachers at the beginning of the school year to say I want you to kind of flip your classrooms so to speak. Move to a more personalized model and you’re learning how to implement it along with your students. And at the same time there are factors where you’re being evaluated, or your students are being evaluated. Whether it’s standardized scores from the state or national tests, or it’s a teacher evaluation that is determining you know your ability to be certified or keep your employment. I think that time can be a challenge. We’re asking teachers to do a lot and we’re not giving them the time to make mistakes or to make changes before they are really comfortable with it.
Alexander Lucini: I think money can be an issue. Whether it’s changing the physical properties of the way that our classrooms look like. Whether it’s moving from traditional rows of guests to tables to flexible seating arrangements to just changing the physical structure of our schools in general I think money is a factor. It can also be a challenge for adding in technological components to it. I always talk about it— in my school. My school has been reopened within the last five years. And the first year we were open, we had sets of iPads for our students and they were very expensive. We had less of them and at the end of the year the updates that needed to be made to them made it so that we actually weren’t ready to roll with them when we came back to school in September. Over the five years we’ve gone from having a hundred percent iPads to having a hybrid of laptops iPads and chrome books. To moving to chrome books exclusively. And then just this year having the entire school finally be one to one with the technology where the students move to classroom the classroom with the technology.
Alexander Lucini: That financial investment is really a challenge and that it moves further into the third point which is consistency. And I think consistency is really where the challenge of any educational changes. There’s only two things I view in a classroom that’s consistent and that’s the educator and the student. Superintendents and school boards come in and out. You have system changes. You have technology changes that come in and out of favor. And that consistency is really a challenge when you’re looking at developing an educational philosophy. You want something to be able to last the distance so that you can put in your philosophy and see the fruits of that labor. If the mindset of your district is changing every two to three years, it can be very challenging to be consistent with personalized learning or students’ perception of personalized learning as they’re going on a longitudinal manner. From kindergarten through 12th grade the definition of personalized learning might change for them in an urban district, for instance, six or seven times based a leadership changes. So I think that that’s really some of the challenges when it comes to trying to incorporate personalized learning into our traditional school settings.
Hannah Nyren: Can you give me a few examples of practical solutions that you’ve seen to some of these challenges? Have you seen anyone successfully overcome these challenges?
Alexander Lucini: Yes I think one of the areas that is really helpful for teachers when they’re incorporating this type of work into their classroom is to not be afraid to fail and to try things. Students are pretty flexible if a lesson doesn’t go properly. And I’ll just give an example from some work that a colleague of mine tried she was really working on flexible seating to meet the needs of her students. She was noticing that some of her students that were diagnosed with ADHD had a difficult time sitting in the normal classroom chairs. And so she went on this kind of kick of finding what worked for them. She started by getting like milk crates and putting the seat covers on top of that. She tried things like bean bag chairs. She got a grant and tried this like weeble, wobble—almost like a bar stool type thing that students were able to kind of actively engage in. She also tried those large exercise balls for students to kind of bounce on it and be able to keep their mental focus while being able to get out some of those physical needs as well.
Alexander Lucini: And in watching her kind of struggle with that I learned a lot from her and she also learned a lot about her students. Because she learned that while she was trying to meet the needs of just four or five of her students, by creating all these options she was actually finding comfortable places for all of her students to sit in.
Alexander Lucini:And when the students were completing their work or she was giving out an assignment she started to notice that students were being self sufficient in finding where the best kind of physical presence they could be in the class to complete the assignment. And you know it might not be something as deep as choosing a learning platform or looking at certain type of curricula. What’s so important about personalized learning is that students need to find out what works best for them. And when they get out into the real world and they are looking at how they can be successful in college, career, just general life, they need to find situations and an atmosphere in which they work to the fullest of their ability.
Hannah Nyren: So what do you think needs to change in the classroom in order for personalized learning to be implemented effectively?
Alexander Lucini: So one of my big kicks is around just redefining what schools look like and I think kind of in the days of having students in rows at desks actually hinders this type of work. So I think we have to kind of get out of that mindset all of the physical properties of the classroom. I also think we need to find a better way to grade our students.
Alexander Lucini: I talk with my students all the time in the music classroom about how the idea of individual grading is very challenging. If you are in a math class and you get 85 percent on a test, you get a B, and if a student doesn’t do as successful they might not receive a passing grade but in kind of the real world in a business standpoint or just a regular job support we’re relying on other individuals to succeed. And that’s kind of where my mantra for why music education is so important is that in a music classroom setting or working in a larger ensemble we’re working together and we hold a responsibility to two entities: ourselves and to the other individuals within our group to make sure that we are succeeding at the highest level that we can.
Alexander Lucini: In order to implement personalized learning at an optimal level we have to look at how we grade our students and how we’re focusing or our assessments on students. I would personally look at, you know, they’re building skills as individuals and we should monitor that. But I’d also like to see more work towards how are we implementing those skills together in a society because that’s really how it works when we leave school and we head on into our adult lives.
Hannah Nyren: How can professional development support this need to constantly adapt to a changing workforce and a changing future for our students today?
Alexander Lucini: I think we have to look at professional development as something that we are doing rather than being done on to.
Alexander Lucini: So I look at the professional development kind of our realm as being instead of receiving professional development, it’s something we have to be more active in. So professional development should be more along the example where you’re a kind of the meeting norm take a penny, leave a penny kind of comes into come to play here. Where yes you’re going to learn something but you’re also there to share your expertise, and your dialogue and your part actually adds to that. And I think that’s really important.
Alexander Lucini: I developed this philosophy because I’m a lifelong punk rocker at one of the reasons that I love the music so much is because the audience and the performer are equal. If you’re in the audience and you feel that you really liked the song, in that community you’re allowed to jump on stage and yell into the microphone with the singer.
Alexander Lucini: And I view that as being kind of exactly how we need professional development to be. We get more out of it than your next participant in it.
Hannah Nyren: So you talked a little bit about school redesign. So most of us have a traditional notion of what schools are. Many people think of buildings with individual classrooms with students in rows and teachers at the front. So what do you think might be wrong with this model and what do you think needs to change in order to meet the needs of all students.
Alexander Lucini: So I think we have to take a step back and we have that traditional mindset of what a school is. You go to school the principal opens the door for you and in the morning and then you file into your classroom and you spend the bulk of your day with that classroom educator. And they have lunch, recess. You go back to the classroom educator and then before you know it you’re putting on your backpack and your jacket ready to go home. That traditional model is extinct.
Alexander Lucini: So we talk about school redesign. I like to think that school is just part of our community and maybe it’s because I’ve been an urban educator for more than a decade but I look at the wraparound services that our students need as being a foundation for what our students need when they come into our schools.
Alexander Lucini: We deliver content to our students. Traditionally, a six to seven and a half hour school day for 180 days a year. We start September and we end in June.
Alexander Lucini: And the reason why we do that is because students used to do that so they could work on the farms in summer. So just that idea of how we’ve built our school calendar is stuck in this almost 19th century kind of model that we still adhere to today.
Alexander Lucini: We really have to look at. What our students need when they come to us. Our students don’t just need math and reading and writing. Our students need warm clothes, they need access to healthcare, they need access to housing. So there are so many needs that need to be met.
Alexander Lucini: There are so many issues that they come to us with that we really have to start looking at school redesign and break out of this traditional school kind of idea and start thinking about how we can deliver a quality lifestyle to our students. And I know that sounds really challenging and largely it’s outside of the norms of what a school provides. But we have to start looking at schools as part of our community and to be quite honest our community owes our schools and owes our children a lot more than what they receive on a daily basis.
Hannah Nyren: So are there any other things that you think are particularly important to teacher’s unions or your union members when it comes to personalized learning? What are their biggest needs and how do you think this could relate to the changes that are happening in the classroom right now?
Alexander Lucini: In my district and the teachers that I represent I think that the vast majority of them are interested in implementing or learning about or participating in anything that they can do to increase educational outcomes and increase life outcomes for our students. I’m very fortunate to represent 2000 professionals and the vast, vast, vast majority of them give everything they have every day. I think one of the biggest focus areas that I get from individuals, particularly those that have really immersed themselves within the personalized learning environment is that they’re working every day to show growth within each student and they’re doing it in a way that is individualized to the student to be skilled to the standard.
Alexander Lucini: So I think that what happens is two weeks every year we put down all of that great work and we take this state-driven standardized test and what happens is that that test doesn’t measure the growth that our students are going through. It doesn’t take into account their personal lives. It’s very challenging because you’re going to have a student that was two points under that cut score the year before and moved themself up to one point away from being the cut score. Or you could have a student that was nearly illiterate at the beginning of the year and fall just short of that cut score and the story still comes up the same in the way that we assess and evaluate our schools, our teachers and our students.
Alexander Lucini: And I think from a teacher union standpoint, I think from an educator and a professional educators standpoint, I think from a student’s standpoint that that’s a disservice and I think it’s the most frustrating thing to us. And I think that it’s also something that hinders the personalized learning movement because we can do all this great work. But if that work is not encapsulated within the assessments that are what we use to determine success of our schools, then we’re at a disjunct and I think that is really the most dangerous thing for personalized learning is I think for the people that make decisions or policy decision makers say, “Hey, we’re doing this it looks really nice. And people seem happy about it. But we’re still not meeting these results.” I think that’s the greatest threat is that if we don’t change the assessments in which we’re using to encapsulate this work I think this work it could be in jeopardy. I guess I’m very fortunate because I get to view things district wide or sometimes even statewide from that perspective which not every educator has that opportunity to.
Alexander Lucini: But I don’t take that for granted. I always take that back to teachers and I I always say to them very quickly that one of the greatest things about my position is that I’m able to view the unbelievable work that people are doing every day and then I’m able to go in and let that be known to those policy decision makers. And it makes my job a lot easier when I’m surrounded by fantastic professionals that really are engaging in this work every day. It helps that I’m trying to engage myself as best every day in that work as well but it’s inspiring when you have so many people around you that are making the effort and the impact which they do.
Hannah Nyren: Anyway, thanks again for speaking with me. We’ve definitely gained a lot from your perspective today.
Alexander Lucini: Thank you.
This podcast episode is brought to you by Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a nonprofit organization designed to empower excellent, experienced teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. To learn more about Teach Plus, visit teachplus.org.
Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.