Personalized learning’s rationale has strong intuitive appeal: We can all remember feeling bored, confused, frustrated, or lost in school when our classes didn’t spark our interests or address our learning needs. But an intuitive rationale doesn’t clearly translate to effective practice. For personalized learning to actually move the needle on improving student experiences and elevating student outcomes, the question of how schools and teachers personalize is just as important as why.
So how do schools effectively personalize learning? Is it through online learning? mastery-based learning? project-based learning? exploratory learning? Each of these common approaches offers a unique dimension of “personalization.” Yet one of the most important ways to personalize learning may be easily overlooked in the quest for new and novel approaches to instruction.
Across the K–12 education landscape, teachers have by far the biggest impact on student learning and student experiences. Even in classrooms with the latest adaptive learning technology, an expert teachers’ professional intuition is still the best way to understand and address the myriad cognitive, non-cognitive, social, emotional, and academic factors that affect students’ achievement. Additionally, one of the most valuable forms of personalization is authentic, personal relationships between students and teachers. It therefore makes sense that any school looking to offer personalized learning should not only explore new technologies and instructional practices, but also think carefully about how to increase students’ connections with great educators.
To that end, over the past year, The Clayton Christensen Institute partnered with Public Impact to study the intersection between personalized learning and school staffing. Our aim was to observe how schools might be using new staffing arrangements to better meet the individual learning needs of their students. Initially, we tapped into our knowledge of schools (via the BLU_ school directory and Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture schools) and recommendations from personalized learning thought leaders to identify schools that were working to personalize learning using both blended learning and innovative staffing arrangements. We then narrowed our list down to eight pioneering schools and school networks—including district, charter, and private schools—whose practices we documented in a series of case studies. Our latest report, “Innovative staffing to personalize learning: How new teaching roles and blended learning help students succeed,” released last week, documents the findings from this research. Below are brief snippets on three of our most interesting insights.
Team teaching increases supportive relationships
The most common theme across the schools we studied was a shift from one teacher per classroom to teams of educators collaborating to support larger-than-normal classes. At one school, classes of 60 students learned together in a large, open learning space with three team teachers at a time for ELA and math. At another school, students spent part of their day with co-teachers and part of their day in seven- to 12-person groups supported by a teaching fellow. At a third school, students rotated through in-class stations where they worked part of the time with a teacher and part of the time with a small group instructor. With these new staffing arrangements, schools found that having many eyes on each student helped keep students from falling through the cracks; increased students’ chances of forming a strong, positive connection with at least one adult; and decreased the odds that a student risked going through a year with just one “really bad fit” teacher.
Support staff help schools personalize through small group instruction
At the schools we studied, teaching teams included not only teachers, but also other support staff, such as tutors, teaching fellows, or small-group instructors. These support staff members played a critical role in helping the schools offer their students frequent opportunities for personalized learning in small groups. As one teacher explained, “That small group is meant to look at each student and identify their personal needs and assist them.” Another teacher at a different school said that, “Sometimes tutors make awesome relationships with students, and the students can’t wait for the tutor to come for that day; so then, I use [the tutors] also to make sure that students know that they’re being watched and that they can always ask for help.” Small groups gave students individualized support and relationships that helped them see success is possible.
Blended learning complements innovative staffing
As schools used new staffing arrangements to personalize their instruction, blended learning gave them increased flexibility in how to best use their educators’ time and talents. By letting online learning provide some instruction, educator teams could focus more on coaching students and addressing their individual needs instead of worrying about covering their course content. Software also gave educator teams data on student progress that allowed them to make their planning and interventions more targeted to students’ needs. Some schools also used software that recommended student groupings and lesson plans for small group instruction.
All too often, schools may be trying to personalize learning while treating one of their most crucial assets—human capital—as fixed. But as the findings from this report illustrate, many pioneering schools see personalized learning and teacher quality not as separate strategies, but as complementary levers within their broader efforts to better serve their students. In that light, the findings from this report are a bellwether to the field for showing the alignment between personalized learning and human capital approaches that improve access to quality teaching.