Two of the biggest names in technology and education philanthropy – Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – are jointly funding a $12 million initiative to support “personalized learning” in schools across the country. When any new educational strategy receives money and attention, questions arise. What is “personalized learning,” and why could this approach matter to your gifted student? Personalized learning (“PL”) is a specific type of instruction that creates a learning environment that responds to individual student needs. Clint Christopher, Associate Superintendent of Eastern Carver County Schools in Minnesota, has described PL as education that “Allows [gifted students] to continue learning at a pace that works for them, so that, as they move forward, [educators] are not artificially putting a lid on their learning.”
Here are four quick facts to help you understand more about the method that CEOs and philanthropists like Gates and Zuckerberg are investing millions to support:
- Personalized learning and technology work together. PL itself is not a new concept. But contemporary interpretations of the PL model seek to adapt the pace of learning and the instructional strategies with technology to help match each child with customized learning experiences.
- PL can be experienced in many forms. In practice, the term “PL” is used to describe many types of experiences. For example, a student in a PL program could take automated assessments that provide precise, personalized progress reports. PL could also be experienced through online courses.
- Personalized learning is different from ability grouping and acceleration. PL is tailored to the individual child rather than based on groups. Personalized learning is also different from acceleration, although the two approaches are similar. Acceleration refers to programs like subject-specific acceleration (e.g., moving ahead in math), starting school early, graduating early, Advanced Placement, etc. Acceleration programs themselves still rely on a kind of standardization, with score cutoffs and required testing. This is different from the premise of PL, which is that every student has a unique combination of individual skills, abilities, and preferences, so that no educational experience should be the same.
- One assessment of PL suggests that it may help close the achievement gap. Recently, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ (“CMS”) Department of Research, Evaluation, and Analytics in North Carolina conducted its second evaluation of what they called the Personalized Learning Initiative. This initiative compared results of students who had and had not participated in a PL program in math and reading for gifted students, as well as by racial group. Certain subgroups showed higher achievement gains in PL environments than in regular learning environments, specifically African American students. CMS also found that, in math, Personalized Learning gifted students showed more growth than the gifted students who had not received PL. The authors note that understanding the factors involved in this difference could lead to the development of better methods for closing achievement gaps.
Personalized Learning: Uncharted Territory?
These four quick facts tell the story of what is known about Personalized Learning, but much remains unknown. Although PL has been embraced by some researchers and educators as a great way to meet the demands of an increasingly diverse student population, there still is not much evidence on PL’s effectiveness. Also, there is even some criticism that personalized learning boils down to kids working alone on software, an approach that some say ignores the crucial social aspects of learning and reduces teachers to the role of “facilitators.” As more and more research emerges on this trend, we look forward to continuing to monitor and report what this could mean for your gifted child.