What’s the goal of personalized learning, and why did it come about? The Glossary of Education Reform states that personalized learning “is intended to facilitate the academic success of each student by first determining the learning needs, interests, and aspirations of individual students, and then providing learning experiences that are customized—to a greater or lesser extent—for each student.”
All of that sounds amazing, of course, but it’s a mighty task to accomplish. At its core, personalized learning allows students to have an educational experience that takes their needs, interests, and aspirations into account, and then gives them exactly what they need. What more could we want as educators? I’m not against personalized learning as a concept. In fact, I wish my own education had more of this; I want my own children to have some personalization, and I want it for all students.
That said, in my experience (and I know I’m not alone in this), personalized learning hasn’t quite turned out to be the promised land of differentiated instruction we all hoped it would be—especially not in the way many schools have approached it.
Common Approaches to Personalized Learning
There are two common approaches I want to shine a light on today: small-group-instruction and the use of technology programs. While these approaches are frequently part of schools’ personalized learning strategies, they’re not always used effectively in the classroom. With this in mind, I caution against jumping onto the personalized learning bandwagon—at least not with both feet.
Oftentimes, small-group-instruction and technology are combined together with students rotating through two to four centers or stations during each class period. One center is the small-group-mini-lesson with the teacher; in one or two other stations, students work through individualized pathways on a technology program, and then there may be one or two additional stations—maybe a fluency station or spiraled review or problem-solving.
I want to be clear that I’m not against the use of technology in math class. In fact, I draw a lot from NCTM’s position statement on the Strategic Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning Mathematics. It reads:
“It is essential that teachers and students have regular access to technologies that support and advance mathematical sense making, reasoning, problem solving, and communication. Effective teachers optimize the potential of technology to develop students’ understanding, stimulate their interest, and increase their proficiency in mathematics. When teachers use technology strategically, they can provide greater access to mathematics for all students.”
Especially in this day and age, our students need to be familiar and fluent with technology. There are many ways that technology can support learning of mathematics, but as NCTM’s position statement states, tech-based instruction should “advance mathematical sense-making, reasoning, problem-solving, and communication.” As helpful as tech can be in the classroom, computer-based math programs often take the place of actual Tier 1 instruction with a teacher and, instead, place students on individualized tracks based on a diagnostic test or gaps that have been identified. Because of this, I encourage educators to consider the impact of personalized learning approaches on students’ mathematical identities and confidence as well as academic proficiency. Here’s why:
Three Reasons to Reconsider Your Approach
1. Time spent on the most important grade-level work is not prioritized.
Focused instruction is one of the three principles we always want to orient to in relation to the math standards.
When the college- and career-readiness standards were published, the Major Work of each grade level was identified for us with the recommendation to spend 65%-85% of instructional time on those key concepts and skills. The remaining time should be spent on Supporting and Additional standards.
Even if we carve out a small amount of time to revisit previous grade-level content, say 5%-10%, we should still spend the large majority of time on the most essential grade-level content that students need to be successful in their current grade, future math courses, and in life.
There’s one big problem, though: Many ed tech programs start out by giving students a diagnostic assessment and then, based on the results, they assign students an individual learning path starting from where the program thinks they are. Because of this diagnostic data, many teachers believe their students are “three years behind” or “at the 4th-grade level” when in reality, they have some unfinished learning from previous grade levels.
So, what happens? Students start working through their pathway and months go by while they continue working on below-grade-level content that may or may not have anything to do with the content they’re supposed to be learning in their current grade. Or teachers are given guidance by administrators to assign students specific topics, usually in the domain or strand where they scored lowest on the assessment.
Both cases lack focus on the most important grade-level skills and concepts, which is what students need for equitable instruction, equitable opportunity, and equitable outcomes. Anything less contributes to the disparities we see in student data and actually increases the opportunity gap.
As educators, that’s the last thing we want to do!
2. Leveled groups may contribute to students’ negative math identity.
One of the purposes of small-group-instruction is to “meet students where they are,” which can often mean that small groups are leveled. Students are grouped by skill level (low, medium, and high) and that can be problematic for several reasons, chief of which is that it’s usually not too hard for kids to figure out which group they are in. Thirty years later, I can still remember which reading group I was assigned in first grade! This can easily lead to a lower level of confidence in their math ability which, in turn, can affect their drive. When students have a negative math identity, they’re not as willing to take risks or share an answer they’re unsure of, which ultimately impedes learning.
The second part of this is that leveling the groups and “meeting students where they are” means we’re essentially tracking students within the classroom. Students in each group receive different instruction, and, frequently, different content. Oftentimes, one group receives below-grade-level work while another receives on-grade-level content, and the “high” group learns math from future grades. The truth is that this practice contributes to the opportunity gap, and it’s inequitable. Furthermore, when students see that what they are learning is different, easier, or less rigorous than that of their peers, it reinforces the negative beliefs they have about their capability in math. And over time, low confidence can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: when students believe they’re less capable than their peers, they’re less likely to try for fear of failure, rejection, or ridicule.
3. Best practices can fall by the wayside when tech and small groups take precedence.
Math educators can agree that eliciting student thinking, using multiple representations, and engaging in mathematical discourse are integral to the learning process. Class discussion supports students in making sense of the math and clarifying their own thinking. But in every classroom where I’ve seen technology used as part of math class, students work alone without a thought partner. Oftentimes, every student is working on a different lesson, so there’s no one to turn to for support. After all, the teacher is busy working with a small group. However, if reasoning, sharing thinking, and discussing solutions are among the most powerful
and effective ways students learn math, then where does that fit in a classroom where students are all on devices, working by themselves, learning different content? How is it possible to include these effective mathematics teaching practices? In cases like this, educators have to get creative and strategic. For example, you might start by assigning a few students the same lesson in the same week and allowing them to be study buddies, either working through the content side by side or coming together at a few key points.
Could Whole-Group Instruction Be A Solution?
Possibly. For starters, whole-group instruction allows teachers to prioritize grade-level work and lets them focus attention on all students, all at once. Instead of managing multiple groups working on different things and switching gears every 12-15 minutes, teachers can truly focus on the lesson at hand. With more time, teachers have greater opportunity to incorporate effective mathematics teaching practices and engage students in mathematical practices such as reasoning, modeling, and discourse. What a gift for both teachers and students!
Additionally, teachers can “meet students where they are” by choosing problems with various entry points, multiple solution strategies, and low floors/high ceilings. These rich math tasks allow students to engage in on-grade-level learning while meeting them where they are. Teachers help students move through the learning progression by strategically selecting and sharing student work and facilitating whole-group discussions to connect ideas and stamp the learning. Two of my favorite places to find math tasks are Illustrative Mathematics and Achieve the Core’s Coherence Map.
In the whole-group model, we don’t risk students in the “low group” taking that label on as part of their identity. Instead, they have shared experiences with their peers, and one powerful outcome is that students gain a sense of belonging through the exchange of ideas and their own contributions to the lesson. Students gain confidence as they persevere through challenging problems and have opportunities to share their thinking—and have it validated.
Many students come alive in these moments, and the energy can be palpable. When I think back on math lessons—either as the teacher myself or as an observer—these are the moments I remember and the ones that warm my heart and make me smile. They are the moments that make all the hard work worth it: seeing students exchange ideas, push each other’s thinking, have aha moments, and support one another.
These are the moments where we learn new things, not only about what our students are thinking and where they may have misconceptions, but also about how creative and logical and brilliant they are.