Students go from conformity to individuality with one-on-one learning

By Shannon Gilchrist
The Columbus Dispatch

The old way of teaching is unlikely to survive another 20 years, many educators say.

"There would be 30 to 40 students in a room and you'd just have the only worker in the room working on each 'widget,'" said Cliff Hong, a principal in California who is guiding his school away from the old "factory model" of learning, as people have called it. "People were expected to conform."

Students are participating in Teach to One: Math, a math curriculum that gives students daily individualized lessons based on what they mastered the day before. [Photo Provided by Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland, California.]

With that model, some kids get left behind in a fog of confusion and check out. Others, light-years beyond their peers in understanding, get bored and check out.

In an age when people can order any of millions of items online, and when nearly every song is available for listening, why shouldn't education meet people right where they are, too?

It is starting in some schools: Children following a curriculum, but at different speeds and in different ways.

The concept of personalized learning has been around for decades, but this era of computing power and big data has made it workable like never before. Personalized learning is defined as figuring out the strengths, needs and goals of each child — a "learner profile" — and creating a learning path through the curriculum for that student. Then, what the student has learned is assessed to see whether the lesson has been mastered before moving on to something else.


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Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland, California, uses technology that adjusts each child's math lessons daily so the student builds on knowledge mastered the day before.

Students go daily to a "math homeroom," where they log in to their Chromebook to see which classroom they need to head to for the day, what section of the room they will be in and with which students they will be grouped.

Then they find their place to work on a daily lesson, which picks up right where they left off the day before. The lessons in each section come in different forms: on a computer, in a student pair or small group, or instruction from a teacher.

After class, they go back to that math homeroom and take a short quiz on what they've learned. Those results are uploaded to a computer, which figures out what the child mastered and what still needs to be learned. By 4 p.m., it spits out the student's lesson plan for the next day. The teacher is free to override the plan.

Students are participating in Teach to One: Math, a math curriculum that gives students daily individualized lessons based on what they mastered the day before. {Photo provided by Roosevelt Middle School.]

It's an experimental approach called "Teach to One: Math," created by national education consultant New Classrooms. Variations on Teach to One are being tried around the country, including at Roosevelt, which expanded it to all 500-some students in 2016-17 after piloting it with half the sixth grade.

The academic results have been impressive, Hong said. On the Scholastic Math Inventory, a test that the school has given for the past three years, students doubled their scores last fall over the previous year.

On a national test, Roosevelt students performed 25 percent better than the national average; students who are considered English language learners did 51 percent better than their nationwide peers; and students with disabilities who have written plans did 59 percent better than their peers.

"There's dramatically more engagement," Hong said. Students ask questions when they previously didn't, in part because more adults are there to work with kids in small groups or individually. Also, "when you're completely lost, you're not even sure what to ask."

"The danger of personalized learning is that you stick a kid in front of a computer and you think that's learning," Hong said. "Teach to One intentionally tries to make it not that."

Lots of companies and consultants are building and launching similar programs, and schools are adopting them to varying degrees.

RAND Corporation released a study in July of 40 traditional and charter schools that started personalized learning programs using grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Teachers reported some challenges, including:

• A "tension between offering student choice and the need to address standards"

• Limited time to create the personalized learning paths for students

• A student's progress, if it's slow, is hard to explain to parents

• Many students had trouble organizing their time to complete work at a reasonable pace

Researchers pointed out that some of the schools were in their first year of attempting personalized learning and hadn't worked out all the bugs. Plus, "none of the schools look as radically different from traditional schools as theory might predict," the study's authors wrote.

They did see promising signs, including that teachers who reported dedicating more time to one-on-one, tailored support for their students.

Students involved in personalized learning showed modest gains in math and reading over the school year, based on scores on the NWEA MAP test. Among the 16 schools that used personalized learning two years in a row, students started out the first year significantly below the national norm score in both math and science and, by the end of the second year, were just slightly above the national norm.

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