In recent conversations with friends and AltSchool families, I’ve noticed a shift in comfort regarding “personalized education.” A term that seemed foreign just a few years ago has taken hold and is used regularly by parents, tech companies, and educational institutions.
While I love the new focus on personalization (I built a career at Google around it), I believe the term shouldn’t mean what many people think it means in education. Too often, people equate personalized learning with self-paced learning - offering students information and tests based on their current skill level and at an individualized pace, rather than at a prescribed class pace.
While this is a great first step, personalized learning embodies much more. Moreover, the mechanism of self-pacing tends to require kids to learn off of a screen. We think iPads and browsers can be a valuable enabler of learning, but we reject the idea that learning should take place primarily on a screen. Instead, we believe that off-screen learning can also be paced according to the needs of each child.
Personalizing the Learning Cycle
At AltSchool, we personalize every key aspect of education for children and their families. From macro-level customization around the classroom environment to micro-level customization around the learning activities for individual students, AltSchool is pushing the envelope on rigorous personalization within a classroom. While this is impossible to do cost-effectively without extensive research and development, pervasive personalization transforms the learning experience. It maximizes student satisfaction and minimizes frustration throughout the pursuit of a particular learning objective.
To give you an example of how personalized learning differs from traditional learning, consider our approach when a new child enters one of our schools:
Our teachers begin the personalization process from the first moment we meet a child in student interviews. During this time, we begin to understand the child’s strengths, learning styles, goals, and interests. Our teachers use this information to fashion a Learner Profile, which becomes the evolving foundation for a tailored educational experience.
The next step in the AltSchool learning cycle involves creating a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP). The PLP is developed collaboratively with insights from teachers, family, and students. It prioritizes a set of learning objectives and milestones that are informed by a standards-based curriculum. It also includes goals for academic, social, and emotional development. The PLP maps from AltSchool’s global notion of what children should learn and how students generally learn best, as represented by their Learner Profile.
To meet PLP goals and milestones, each student has a tailored curriculum, or Playlist, of learning activities throughout the week. Playlists include individualized, small group, and whole class learning experiences. Teachers design weekly activities based on the student’s interests and passions to build basic skills, cultivate higher order competencies, and integrate real-world experiences.
As our students progress along their educational journey, we update the Learner Profile, PLP, and Playlists to take into consideration ongoing reflections and observations from teachers, parents, and the students themselves. This is a key component of our approach - to continuously refine as we go.
Personalization allows us to make the learning experience more pleasurable and more effective for students. Equally important, personalization cultivates the agency of each student and allows them to increasingly know themselves as learners and human beings.