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personalized learning
Phyllis Lockett

Having worked in education reform in Chicago for more than a decade, I’ve learned many things, one of the most important being this: reform is not enough. Sure, we’ve seen the headlines – students across the country are graduating high school at record rates. But are these students really prepared for success?

Many are not. Right now, only 25 percent of high school students are graduating with the skills needed to succeed academically in college. Continuing to tweak a 19th century system will not be enough to prepare students for a 21st century world. It’s time to stop solving old problems. By innovating – not reforming – we can create a new paradigm that personalizes learning for each child, instead of forcing them en masse into an antiquated, one-size-fits-all education system.

That is why I founded LEAP Innovations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to connecting innovation and education to transform the way kids learn. We work directly with educators and innovators to discover, pilot and scale personalized learning technologies and innovative practices in the classroom and beyond.

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By now, almost anyone interested in solving this problem has heard about “personalized learning,” often lumped in with other promising education buzzwords: “blended,” “competency-based,” etc. But these words are not interchangeable, and they are often confused.

Personalized learning is more than just an idea – it is manifesting right now, all over the country.

At LEAP, we define personalized learning as learning – anytime, anywhere – that is focused on, paced for, and led with the learner and designed around each individual learner’s needs, strengths, interests and goals.

Blended learning is teaching and learning infused with technology to better inform and direct the learning needs of each student. Personalized learning has two critical components that make it different — and more impactful: Personalized learning includes both a tailored learner profile and pathway and evidence of competency-based progression. These two things don’t necessarily require technology, but the real-time access to data gives educators the ability to personalize learning like never before.

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Simply adding technology to a classroom isn’t going to fix anything. Learning decisions centered on each student’s individual needs, influenced by the data gleaned through technology in combination with the expertise and human touch of a teacher are — together — what will drive true education transformation.

One example is our Breakthrough Schools Chicago program. Breakthrough Schools is one of six regional funds of the national Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative. In Breakthrough Schools, LEAP supports educators as they develop transformative, school-wide personalized learning approaches through workshops, access to national experts, and funding.

Through this program, we are seeing real change in real time. Traditional schools are breaking free from the constraints of the way things have always been to reinvent themselves. By adopting a learner-centered approach, schools are finding ways to better prepare their students for success in college, career, and in life.

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One Breakthrough high school is implementing interdisciplinary, problem-based student experiences – think science, computer science and math tied together – to improve learning efficiencies and help students develop better critical thinking skills. This same school is working to progress students on a competency basis, prioritizing the mastery of skills.

This is just one example. Other Breakthrough Schools are exploring multi-age classrooms with student groupings based on skill level; community partnerships that give students real-world, interest-driven education opportunities; and accelerated pathways, allowing students to complete high school content by grade 10, granting them access to college credits in grades 11 and 12.

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While we are just getting started making significant changes, these programs are geared toward accelerating implementation.

To truly fast-track change in schools, the education community needs to do a number of things:

Speak the same language. To make personalized learning more than a buzzword, we need to have a clear and shared understanding of what it is, and what it is not. To this end, LEAP is working with educators, researchers, and other experts from across the country to develop a framework that defines the actual teaching and learning practices for personalized learning. At the same time, we need to develop standards for edtech tools to differentiate between those that truly personalize learning for students, and those that simply say they do.

Show what personalized learning looks like in a classroom. There is no single solution – every community, school and child is different. But the early personalized learning adopters will serve as valuable examples from which to build. Beyond this, teachers need tools and resources to drive and measure personalized learning practice in the classroom, and administrators need tools to support their teachers and know what to look for. LEAP is also working with experts across the country now to build these tools, including a national personalized learning survey tool for students and teachers, as well as an observation rubric.

Measure success. Finally, we need to make sure this is working for the people who matter most – the learners. We need a new assessment system that is not based on yearly, high-stakes tests that capture one moment in time. Instead, we need real-time measures that provide useful, actionable data to educators, and ways to capture the non-cognitive skills that go beyond academics and are critical for college, career and beyond.

Personalized learning is more than just an idea – it is manifesting right now, all over the country. In less than two years, LEAP has worked with more than 40 schools across Chicago, and we are not alone: schools all over the nation, from Boston to Silicon Valley, are developing their own approaches. Together, we can build a new system of education, one that truly tailors learning around the student, and allows each and every learner to realize their full potential.

Phyllis Lockett is the founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations. The founding president and CEO of New Schools for Chicago, she previously served as executive director of the Civic Consulting Alliance.

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