How Professional Development and Networks for Teacher Support Can Enable 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.

A major part of personalized learning implementation is shifting the focus of the classroom from the teacher to the students. But before teachers can carry out student-centered learning in the classroom, schools and districts must provide instruction around personalized learning for teachers.

To find out how school districts can promote personalized learning for both student and teacher growth, we spoke with Shawn Rubin, Chief Education Officer at the Highlander Institute, based in Rhode Island.

Shawn says that the state of Rhode Island has taken many steps to create a more individualized system.

“We’ve got everything from the MET high school, where students are actually determining their own internships, going out and experiencing those opportunities to elementary classrooms where we’re working with Central Falls Kindergarten classrooms right now to actually develop their own competency placemats,” says Shawn.

As a former classroom teacher, Shawn says implementing personalized learning in classrooms and giving students more autonomy in their learning is very valuable.

“I do deeply care about students being more self-directed and owning more of their own learning opportunities,” says Shawn. “I do deeply care about students having opportunities for agency around where they go in terms of their learning and how they represent their learning. But I also do care deeply that they’re being challenged and that the learning is actually rigorous and differentiating for them based upon whether they need some degree of scaffolding or they need a push.”

But the implementation of personalized learning can’t rest solely on the shoulders of teachers. Shawn says educators need the support of school district leaders to move forward.

“Most superintendents, most district leaders, most building leaders, you know, if you actually sit down and talk to them, they care about those things as well—whether or not they are all going to agree upon one singular definition of what of those levers is the most important to pull first, or what platform or process for resource or curriculum is the right one to actually operationalize that vision.

Raymond Steinmetz, a former classroom teacher now turned K to 8 instructional coach in Rhode Island, agrees that when personalized learning takes the step from a hypothetical model, to tangible changes in the classroom, it has benefits for both students and teachers.

“[It has] been very interesting being in the profession for the last decade and seeing the changes from teacher-centered practices to student-centered practices,” says Raymond. “Especially with the usage of technology to make that […] more efficient and easier for the educator.”

“I’ve seen personalized learning through doing a lot of different site visits, being in a lot of different classrooms. What personalized learning looks like, is it looks different almost in every classroom, to be honest.”

Raymond says implementing personalized learning changes the relationship between student and teacher drastically — and for the better.

“Blended and personalized learning—you’re really differentiating by a pace and you’re really giving students a lot more voice and choice over their own learning,” says Raymond. “Rather than giving the student something, telling them to do it and handing it back, kind of that traditional model of teacher-student interaction.”

“In a lot of personalized learning classrooms, the teacher’s role has really shifted from that gatekeeper of education at the front of the room, to a guide in education, kind of hand-holding students along the way along a path where they, at their own pace, find their own learning.”

Raymond shares that during his time as an instructional coach, he’s seen many different types of classrooms with different styles. He notes that at one elementary school in particular, the fourth and fifth grade classrooms were very different from traditional classrooms.

“The students were engaging in project-based learning at their own pace,” says Raymond. “They were using a learning management system to do kind of structured mentoring with the teacher along the way.”

“But the teacher really once again was the guide to getting them through that material, rather than everybody has to be on the same page all at the same time, regardless of if they’re ready or not.”

Raymond says these changes to the way students are presented information can make learning more fun and more relevant to students’ personal lives. He says giving students choices on activities and projects is an essential part of where education needs to go.

“The research has shown when students are given voice, choice and agency to work through material at their own pace, that the benefits are enormous.”

So what are the challenges of implementing personalized learning in the classroom? Shawn Rubin says the challenges for educators are pretty immense, partially due to the rigid standards and legacy model of teaching.

“Part of the challenge of the legacy models is that it takes long enough for innovations to come to fruition,” says Shawn. “And there really is no opportunity for student voice or student agency or deeper processing because you have to stay to that scope and sequence.”

Raymond Steinmetz explains that new technology is also a major barrier for educators. Not only are teachers afraid of being replaced by computers, but they are also given insufficient training to effectively use the technology, and must learn or select new technologies in their own time.

“I understand the aversion to technology,” says Raymond. “And I think that a lot of people, because personalized and blended learning does involve pieces of technology, they often think that, ‘Oh, blended and personalized learning, that means that someone’s going to come to my classroom and replace me with a computer program.’ Or ‘I’m going to be asked to give time away from my class and control away from my class that I have had for years and give it over to a computer.’

Many teachers are skeptical of the next big “education trend,” which they believe could easily fade out, or cost more money or time than it’s worth. Shawn maintains that personalized learning is worth educators’ time and resources.

“A buzzword can be a buzzword in a bad way if that buzzword is empty and nobody actually is responding to it at the actual classroom level,” says Shawn. “However a buzzword is actually a really powerful and galvanizing thing, if the people at the classroom level feel like somebody above them is actually providing cover for them to actually engage with that buzzword and that there’s actually going to be some degree of reward and some degree of validation if that person who’s working on that buzzword at the classroom level is having success or they know that there’s a little bit of space for them to try some things and fail.”

Raymond Steinmetz expresses understanding about how teachers can be skeptical of personalized learning, even if they want to make their classrooms more student-centered, especially if educators feel they haven’t been properly trained on how to implement these tools in the classroom.

“We’re talking about some educators that have been in the classroom for 10, 20, 30 years, and of course they should be skeptical when new things come in,” says Raymond.

“But I think at the core, most educators would agree that we need to run student-centered classrooms that give students agency and voice in what they do.”

So once the skeptics are convinced, and challenges are overcome, what additional changes need to happen in the classroom for personalized learning to be successful? Shawn Rubin says there are many factors for teachers to keep an eye on.

Shawn says that educators should be, “Looking at outcome measures to make sure that students are actually progressing in terms of their scores, [and] also their attendance, their engagement, their social-emotional learning status.”

There also needs to be more attention paid to data, and to feedback from stakeholders.

“You want to use surveys and focus groups and really be able to understand whether the changes that are being done to students and families in these classrooms are actually valued by those stakeholders. You want to make sure that you’re not creating unintended consequences by making changes that people don’t actually feel resonate with anyone.”

Raymond Steinmetz encourages educators to remember that students learn in different ways.

“I think that the uniqueness of individuals has been embraced by adults,” says Raymond. “But I think that when a lot of adults look at the way that children are to be taught, they really expect a lot of compliance and don’t take into account, traditionally, the differences amongst human beings.”

Raymond wants teachers to think about how they would like to be taught, and mirror their lesson plans with their learning styles in mind to encourage communication and collaboration among students.

“A lot of adults who would prefer to be taught in a personalized way, then turn around and don’t expect the same experiences for kids,” says Raymond. “I think all of us know that if we’re in a class for an entire hour, and someone is talking to us and we are not allowed to collaborate with one another, we are allowed to choose what we learn—I think a lot of adults would be pretty upset, especially just sitting there for an hour listening to someone talk. So if we have, I think, that own expectation for our own learning as adults, we have to keep the students’ interests in mind as well.”

Shawn says a major aspect to rework and reconsider is how educators and leaders think about time.

“If you look at some of the schools that are really doing great work around this,” says Shawn, “They have a lot of teachers’ [professional learning community] time to be able to actually build out some of their own curriculum or vet some of the curriculum that’s already out there.”

Shawn emphasizes that personalized learning can address issues of inequity in classrooms, promote diversity, and provide more opportunities for students of all learning types and backgrounds to succeed. He says a lot of legacy curricula have systemic racism built into them, which makes it difficult to help all students succeed.

“We’re actually victim blaming in a lot of ways. Because the curriculum and the platforms and the things that we’re actually giving to the teachers who work with those particular populations of students are not actually taking into account those students’ cultures and identities and passions and own desires to be self-affirming.”

Raymond also says that educators are better off when there are different voices at the table making decisions.

“I think that we’re better because of our differences in education oftentimes,” says Raymond. “And we want a diverse set of voices at the table when it comes to education. Because more and more, that’s what our students are. And our students have a variety of voices as well. So we need to kind of honor that at our core as a profession.”

Change in the classroom starts with change in the mindsets of educators. Raymond says districts have to provide instructional coaching, technology coaching, subject coaching and more for their teachers — to make sure best practices are implemented consistently among all classrooms. But he says that this often is not done.

“What you see in a lot of districts, are these islands,” says Raymond. “You see these islands of people who are trying new things and being successful with technology and trying and trying and trying to get some sort of change going in their district. It’s great that people are innovators and are willing to try new things and it’s great to have that culture of innovation. But it can’t just be here and there.”

“If you want proper implementation of any technology,” says Raymond, “You need to make sure that there’s consistency. The only way that happens is to have someone besides someone who is tied to a classroom […] leading that charge.”

Shawn notes that although personalized learning structures have not yet become widespread, you can see the seeds planted of new ways teachers are leading their classrooms.

“I think we’re seeing teachers […] think about themselves more in a coaching mode,” says Shawn. “Helping students to set their own goals, helping students to more deeply articulate how they feel they’ve done with regard to mastery of a particular subject or a particular concept or a particular skill set.”

“So those are some of the early shifts you can start to see even before the larger system itself really shifts from this teacher-centered model.”

Raymond says that when it comes to personalized learning, teachers need to make sure that students are at the center of everything educators do.

“Students are at the center of everything we do,” says Raymond. “And I think it’s oftentimes easy to get lost in the weeds of kind of the density and difficulty of the teaching profession. It’s easy to put our own needs I think in front of other people’s. But always putting students and their needs in the center…. And if you start doing that you’ll start realizing that running a teacher-centered classroom is not conducive to students needs.

Shawn says changing from a teacher-centered model to a student-centered model shows that educators are committed to putting their students first.

“We’re seeing some really good examples of students that have gained a lot of confidence,” says Shawn. “Students that may not be successful on paper-based, worksheet-type tasks, but in those collaborative environments are able to, you know, take on leadership roles, create things with their hands, design things, build things that actually represent their understanding of a particular book or a particular novel or something that they maybe they were excited about being able to learn about.”

So what kind of specific individual plans need to be put into place for personalized learning to thrive across districts? Stay tuned for the rest of our series to find out.

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.

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.