How to create effective personalized learning professional development

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Feb 18, 2020

According to a 2019 Education Week Research Center survey of nearly 600 teachers, 11% view personalized learning as a passing fad, 10% say it’s not on their radar screen, and 8% see it as a “threat to public education.” The survey reveals that professional development (PD), specifically, is seen as a major challenge. Indeed, failing to recognize that personalized learning requires major shifts in practice is one of the biggest mistakes practitioners make today concerning personalized learning; and defining those practices could be a big step forward.

The solution to better PD, as many funders, experts, and school leaders see it, is collective action. They talk of bringing together a diverse array of stakeholders to define a common set of educator competencies and then working with established teacher education programs to create new pathways for developing next-generation educators.

On the surface, this tactic makes sense—no single organization today has the scale to impact all of K–12 education. But if we look to how many innovative approaches have played out in other sectors, it’s clear that the “collective action” pathway will likely flounder at creating the pipeline of excellent personalized learning teachers that classrooms need. Here’s why:

When collaboration hinders instead of helps

A close analogy is a problem that the computer industry wrestled with when trying to launch touch-screen devices. Most know that Apple created an entirely new product category with the iPad. What’s less known, however, is that PC makers tried for roughly a decade ahead of Apple to launch mobile tablets. So why did the PC makers flounder and Apple succeed? Modularity Theory makes clear that “collaboration” was a major hindrance to success.

PC makers, like many education thought leaders today, tried developing something new with an ecosystem of partner organizations. No one company had enough scale across PC components to make a complete touch screen device, so companies like HP and Lenovo worked on the overall hardware architecture; Microsoft made the operating system; and a host of other companies supplied the central processors, hard drives, etc. These companies thought they had everything they needed to make a successful mobile tablet: the core components and specifications were basically the same as the desktop and laptop machines they had built together in the past; the new devices just needed to be compact and touch compatible.

But the devil was in the details. No one really knew how to design a great mobile tablet because it had never been done before. Getting the compact form just right meant making important tradeoffs between interdependent components—things like processing speed, weight, software compatibility, and cost. However, with all the companies relying on predetermined standards and specifications to define how the interdependent components would work together, no one had the design freedom to experiment with important feature tradeoffs needed to get the user experience just right. This freedom to test and experiment with new designs was critical for early innovation since no one had yet proven how to design a great tablet. In other words, a potentially great tablet design was sacrificed in the name of group standards. 

The result: devices born of these partnerships came to market, but they never gained much traction beyond tech enthusiasts. They were too heavy to carry comfortably in one hand, their screen buttons and menus didn’t work very well with fingers, and their battery life didn’t last very long when they were untethered from a power cord. Apple beat the competition by engineering the iPad from end to end, allowing for more strategic tradeoffs between various design decisions to make sure it could deliver the optimal user experience. 

Moving past mistakes to solutions

Hopefully, those working to develop teacher pipelines for personalized learning don’t make the same mistake as PC makers with tablets. Although we have a rough idea of the instructional models, teaching practices, and educator mindsets and skills (i.e. interdependent components) we want teachers of the future to have, we’re still far from having clear and reliable blueprints for effective personalized teaching and learning. Given this current reality, there’s little chance any collaborative group of stakeholders is going to collectively develop clear and common standards for defining personalized learning teacher practices at this stage in the field’s development.

So, what should proponents do instead? Currently, the best solutions are going to come from leading innovators, like Summit or Lindsay Unified, that are developing their own integrated talent pipelines to meet the needs of their particular contexts and instructional models.

This integrated approach is not without precedent in the education space. A decade ago, when a few equity-focused charter school networks in New York City found that traditional teacher preparation programs weren’t preparing teachers for their instructional philosophies and approaches, they launched their own teacher preparation program, which went on to become the Relay Graduate School of Education. Now with sites in 17 different metropolitan areas, Relay provides a unique, practice-oriented approach to teacher preparation, and its graduates go on to work across the district and charter landscape. In a parallel fashion, I can imagine Summit’s teacher residency, or something like it, becoming for personalized learning schools what Relay is for equity-focused schools.

When it comes to training personalized learning teachers, a collaborative approach will have lackluster results. However, a single organization with an integrated solution could prove how to do personalized learning and teacher development effectively. With time, as strong integrated programs prove what effective personalized learning preparation looks like, it will become easier for other partnerships to collaboratively develop effective educator development programs for personalized learning. But for the time being, the best strategy is to place our bets on integrated solutions.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute. His work focuses on identifying strategies to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education through Disruptive Innovation. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.