While the rhetoric of personalized learning often focuses on the needs of helping students fill pre-grade-level gaps in knowledge, tailoring instruction to students’ unique needs also means unleashing high achieving students. In traditional classrooms, teachers are often assigned a wildly varied group of students, a textbook covering grade-level skills, and perhaps a bit of professional development. Even with the best intentions, what ends up happening is that most teachers teach to the middle and hope for the best.
Like students not ready for grade-level material, high-achieving students also suffer when teachers teach to the middle. Bored by work that is unchallenging, these students grow frustrated with school and often “check out.” The power of personalized learning is in being able to engage both below-grade-level students and the high achievers, propelling all students to greater academic success.
As a coach for teachers at McClintock Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, I work with teachers to help implement Teach to One: Math. In my role, I’ve witnessed the power of personalized learning to accelerate and deepen student learning—regardless of learning level. One high-achieving student who has thrived in Teach to One is a student named Del.
Del has always been a motivated learner. Yet before Teach to One, Del’s teachers struggled to create challenging lessons for him and other high achievers without leaving other students behind. Many days, his teachers would give him worksheets to do on his own in the back of the classroom while the rest of the class reviewed the day’s math lesson.
"Last year, it seems like you’d be stuck on fractions for like forever,” Del told me. “It was kind of irritating because I’d do the work, and I’d just be sitting there for the rest of the class, like, okay is there anything else I could do?"
Engaging Students at their Learning Level
To engage students like Del, educators must accurately assess where students are academically and then design learning experiences that meet their unique learning needs. This might not sound like such a challenging task at first. But when when you consider that the math teachers at McClintock might see more than 100 students every day, all of whom would benefit from the same type of personalization, you begin to realize that personalized learning is incredibly difficult work. And in a world where school accountability is focused on getting students to grade-level proficiency, kids like Del who are guaranteed to exceed that bar often get short shrift.
Teach To One actually makes this type of personalization possible for kids like Del.
Each day, Teach to One temporarily groups students who all have the same prerequisite skills and are ready to learn a new skill. Teachers are able to work with groups of students with common needs each day. For above grade-level students like Del, this means getting to work with a challenging curriculum with a team of teachers ready to lead and encourage them to move to the next concept once they demonstrate understanding.
“In Teach to One, you never get left behind. If you ever feel like, okay, I don’t have anything to do right now, there’s always something to do,” says Del. “There is no set curriculum. You can keep moving up. Once you know something, you just go on to the next concept, figure that one out.”
In Teach to One, Del’s motivation and passion for learning was unleashed. I watched him grapple excitedly with math content, eager to ask teachers for help with understanding new concepts. Also, because he was now grouped with students whose needs were similar, Del began to engage with his peers in a way that had not been possible in the traditional classroom, where he was often isolated because he was ready to learn more.
Last Fall, Del’s score on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a nationally-normed growth assessment, placed him in the 95th percentile of all 7th graders last year. Personalized learning benefits even the highest-performing students because they get to see how far they can push themselves academically when they direct their learning. Because the work is truly rigorous (not just voluminous), these students re-engage in the classroom and no longer have to struggle with boredom and frustration.
On the surface, students like Del may look like they’re doing just fine—they get good grades, do well on standardized tests, and often end up in competitive colleges; however, as a nation we are neither sufficiently challenging these students nor offering them the opportunities to challenge themselves that they deserve. Many parents and guardians now recognize that their children are not just competing with students in their classroom and community. In the 21st century, universities and employers now draw candidates from across the globe, making it even more important to prepare all of our students demands (and opportunities) of the global economy. To do that, we have to make sure that in classrooms across the country, all students are receiving the personalized education that can prepare them for greater success and achievement.