What's the role of the teacher in a personalized learning classroom?

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Abbie Forbus

As schools and districts across the country work to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” traditional school model, more and more are moving toward personalized learning. Its benefits are promising, but many people have questions, especially when it comes to the role of the teacher. With new technologies, innovative practices, and students taking leadership in their own learning, the work of teachers looks a little bit different. But it’s more important than ever.

As an educator and someone who is working alongside teachers and district leaders to implement student-centered practices, there’s one thing I know for sure: The role of the teacher is irreplaceable and extremely important in implementing personalized learning. The model allows educators to use data and technology to enhance learning within the classroom, deepen relationships with their students, and empower their pupils to recognize their impact on a classroom community, all while creating personalized pathways for success.

When I was Dean of Culture at Lindsay Unified High School in Lindsay, California, I was charged with maintaining a positive school culture. But I wasn’t doing the work. Our learners were, having been given the tools to take ownership of our culture. And amazing things happened.

Personalizing learning builds a strong classroom culture in which learning targets are transparent, environments are flexible, and instruction is tailored to meet each student where they are. Though practices differ from the traditional classroom, they enhance the role of the teacher in a unique way. Teachers can get to know their students in a way that they never have before, building relationships that empower students to own their learning. Personalized learning requires educators to develop cultural competency and get to know their students: Whom do they consider family? Who lives in their home? What do they do afterschool? What are their interests? When, where, and how do they learn best? When teachers know their students well, they can help students better know themselves and become agents of their own learning.

Teachers also know their students better than anyone else in their school, and better than any computer, so they’re ones who must thoughtfully shape the right experience for their pupils. Technology and innovative practices should just be used to help personalize a student’s education. A teacher in a personalized learning environment uses a variety of instructional methods and strategies that they determine jointly with individual students, based on needs, preferences, and interests. The teacher then acts as a facilitator, employing flexible pacing and differentiated assessment practices.

During this process, students are aware of the curriculum and what’s expected of them. They know what they’ve mastered, what they’re currently working on, and what they’ll cover next. To accomplish this, teachers might use learning playlists, blended learning, or individual learning plans, relying on technology as a tool, not as the curriculum. In Lindsay, we were doing personalized, competency-based learning years before students had access to computers; the overhead projector was my best piece of technology.

The idea of students choosing how they learn may sound like a daunting task, but many educators are already doing this in their traditional classrooms today. It isn’t rocket science. But teachers in personalized-learning environments must be supported at the building and district levels. Only then can they reliably and consistently create classrooms where all kids can learn and thrive, where traditional barriers have been broken down, and where the learning process necessitates developing a positive relationship with students. In a personalized learning environment, educators aren’t just teaching. They’re teaching their learners how to learn. And once students learn that, they can learn anything, anywhere, any time.

Abbie Forbus is the Director of Teaching and Learning at KnowledgeWorks.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.