Making personalized learning benefit students and teachers

By

Kari Redfield

When Rhodes Junior High in Mesa, Arizona, started the Rhodes to Success pilot program, it sought to improve the education experience for all students — and teachers, too. The approach delivers personalized learning through teams of teachers that include over 20 student teachers from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, judicious application of Summit Learning technology, increased student autonomy and project-based learning.

“We use the Rhodes to Success pilot program as a case study of what’s possible when redesigning the education workforce building a personalized learning model,” says Brent Maddin, executive director of MLFTC Educator Workforce Initiatives. 

The approach’s components work together to provide students with support to learn in a way that works best for them. More adults in the room means that students receive mentoring and coaching specific to their needs.

“Students can get their questions answered faster and can hear perspectives from different people,” says Marissa Felix, a Rhodes teacher who leads a STEAM team at the school. “Additionally, teachers know there are other adults in the room to support them.”

Having teams of teachers enable Rhodes to break classes into small groups or to have two teachers split up a classroom and teach in parallel.

“I think teachers go into this profession feeling very isolated. We are trying to take away that isolation and make teaching a collaborative effort among all teachers,” says Patricia Christie, principal at Rhodes. “We want to focus on collectively coming together and building a community of people who are learning and teaching at the same time.”

Student choice

At Rhodes, students have a say in what subjects they take (within state requirements) and can choose to double up on subject areas on certain days of the week.

“It’s focused on their needs,” explains Christie. “If they need two blocks of science or English, they can choose those, plus the other subjects.”

This requires coaching and mentorship. “At first, students were choosing extra time in their favorite subjects, not necessarily where they needed more help,” Christie says. “Our jobs as teachers are to collaborate with students and help guide them in choosing schedules for themselves that attend to their personalized needs.”

Rhodes’ teachers work together to develop curricula that shows the connectivity across subjects. An example is Hurricane Michael that occurred on the Florida Panhandle in 2018 — the first Category 5 hurricane since Andrew in 1992 — and looking at hurricanes through all subject areas: science, math, how to report about it in the news, the legacy left behind, etc.

“I think our students appreciate the ability to see the connections,” Christie says. “School here is not about something that is separate. It is about preparing students for the world they’re going to live in as adults.”

Deploying technology


At the end of April, The New York Times ran a story about how schools in one Kansas community are struggling to integrate Summit Learning, a technology and curriculum platform designed to foster self-directed personalized learning. The Times story emphasized how, in these Kansas schools, students were spending less time than they had previously spent receiving instruction from teachers.

The Times article illustrates a perennial challenge facing anyone trying to successfully integrate new educational technologies, which are being developed and marketed very rapidly, into schools: How do you integrate new technologies with good teaching? With student engagement? With those vital relationships between educators and learners?

Rhodes is utilizing Summit, and the experience appears to be very different from what the Times reports from Kansas.

“Personalized learning with Summit Learning at Rhodes allows teachers to have more time with individual students, instead of just presenting at the front of the classroom,” says MLFTC intern Lauren Perri (BAE ’20). “I have more time to walk around the classroom and have one-on-one time with my students.”

“It’s important to start from the proposition that technology is value-neutral,” says Maddin. “It can be used well or poorly. When used poorly, it’s often the case that it is used, deliberately or not, as a replacement for a human educator. When used well, it complements that educator.”

MLFTC Associate Professor Leanna Archambault agrees that, “It’s hard to keep up. Teachers must embrace not knowing everything. Sometimes kids will know more, especially about new technologies.”

Archambault tackles personalized learning, technology use and more in the book she wrote, “K–12 Blended Teaching: A Guide to Personalized Learning and Online Integration,” with coauthors Charles R. Graham, Jered Borup and Cecil R. Short. It is available for free.

“The book is very accessible. We have a chapter dedicated to personalized instruction with a whole series of suggestions,” Archambault says.

She highlights a few suggestions:

  • Don’t go it alone. “Teachers can work together with colleagues, their professional learning communities, and their students to find learning activities that will appeal to a variety of learners,” she says.

  • Get to know your students. “As a teacher, you want to connect with your learner as an individual so you can focus on his/her preferences,” she says.

  • Give students more control. “When teachers give kids more control over assessing and choosing their own learning, it increases student agency,” Archambault says.

  • Strike a balance between structure and flexibility, urges Archambault. “Students don’t always have the self-recognition to have total freedom to go entirely off on their own. For instance, in the New York Times story example, they are all working on different tasks, and then lose the opportunity for collaboration.”

  • Set personalized goals. “Students and teachers can together choose where they are headed and why. Teachers can also allow students to choose a personalized assessment: maybe some students do blog posts and some a podcast. They can help decide on the assessment they prefer,” Archambault says.

Another consideration is the importance of professional development, especially when new technology is being deployed.

“Teachers are at the heart of integrating technology so that it can improve student learning as well as relationships. Providing teachers with professional development that is ongoing and content-focused, and that focuses on students as active learners, is essential,” Archambault says.

Archambault adds: “Utilization of these types of ideas are are all examples of how Rhodes Junior High is delivering personalized learning.”