‘Varying degrees of success’: Betheny Gross on personalized learning

Betheny Gross

Personalized learning has been lauded as the next major shift in education, with policymakers stating it is the best way to increase student achievement.

However, like with any major shift, there are bumps along the way.

For example, in Lake County, Fla., it was not implemented consistently across the district, prompting school officials to change course.

And education experts state there is not one concrete definition or universal plan for implementing personalized learning.

Betheny Gross, a senior research analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, helped lead a multi-method study of schools implementing personalized learning. We spoke with her about the new learning method. Gross and her team visited more than 40 traditional and charter schools in  17 cities across the country.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: What, exactly, is personalized learning?

A: It is obviously a fairly broad concept. It is a strategy and approach to provide a personalized experience. It emphasizes crafting education experiences around student interests and talents. It is the idea that you are tailoring the child’s experiences to what they need to learn and for the talents and interests they possess.

Q: Did the schools you visited have successful personalized learning programs?

A: What we have seen are varying degrees of success. We have been in places where schools have identified an approach that they want to take and goals they want to achieve for changing teaching and learning in their schools. They have made a transformation.

(But by the same measure), we have been to many places where the changes have been isolated in individual teachers and not gaining traction schoolwide. What appears to be a significant distinction in the places you see that good schoolwide transformation and where we don’t is the engagement and role of the principal.

Q: What are the challenges to implementing personalized learning in classrooms?

A: It is a complex shift. It involves a lot of aspects of what students do. It is not something that is 100 percent known. In many of the schools we visited, they were discovering what a personalized learning environment looks like. It requires education and learning and figuring it out.  It is something that runs against the grain in a lot of systems in place in our schools.

Q: Even so, do you remain optimistic?

A: There are things that I recognize in what is happening that are very promising. Teachers do talk about this as something they want to do for their students. They want to reach their students on an individual level.

Q: Are studies conclusive on whether personalized learning results in higher achievement among students?

A: We don’t know. There are some studies that are very promising. … It is much harder to assess whether it has impact. This is a new system of learning. It is a lot harder to accurately measure the impact of the system. It will take some time.

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