According to Learning in the 21st Century: the 2019 Digital Promise LVP Survey, 83 percent of teachers think students are capable of high achievement, but just 26 percent think students are reaching those levels today.

As part of the Learner Variability Project, which “seek[s] to uncover strategies to meet learners where they are across varied contexts and needs,” Digital Promise’s team is examining the key factors for different grades and subject levels that impact student learning. During the edWebinar “Learning in the 21st Century: What Teachers Think Matters,” the presenters talked about the science of individuality, how they’re using the research to help developers create products to meet these individual needs, and examples that show how the Learner Variability Project can work in the classroom.

First, Patricia Saxler, head of education at Populace, explained the science of individuality and why it’s important for educators. Often in science we are taught to ignore individual differences, said Saxler, and look for the average on the bell curve. In education, though, if we’re designing for and teaching to the average, we are leaving out too many students. Instead, she invited educators to think about three concepts—jaggedness, context, and pathways, which are based on the work of Todd Rose in The End of Average—and how they can apply to K-12 education.

The importance of jaggedness in personalized learning
  • Jaggedness: Learning is not one-dimensional; there are many factors that make up a student’s learning profile that can indicate where they are on the path to mastery. In preK-3 reading, for example, students need alphabet knowledge, narrative skills, print awareness, and sight recognition. Students may be above average on some skills, below average on others, and right in the middle for the rest. When schools talk about personalized learning, one of the first things they need to do is consider these jagged profiles.
  • Context: The context of a student’s home and learning environment matters too. Educators need to think about what elements are impacting a student’s ability to learn when they’re examining assignments and assessments. For instance, if a student is stressed while taking an assessment, it can affect the results.
  • Pathways: While the ultimate learning goal may be similar for most students, there are multiple valid ways to get them there. Rather than creating one route for every student for the school year, teachers should look at the students’ individual skills and needs and create a path and time frame that works for them. Most important, said Saxler, teachers should remember that pace is unrelated to ability. If the goal is proficiency, then the pace shouldn’t matter.

Following up on the principle of jaggedness, Vic Vuchic, chief innovation officer at Digital Promise, talked about how Digital Promise is helping developers understand these key learning factors. Using research, they created factor maps, hosted on the Learner Variability Project website, that show the different pillars and underlying elements that impact student learning. In addition, there are strategies for content creators and educators to help them assist learners. Currently, Digital Promise is working with developers to implement the strategies in their products. Eventually, it may be possible to certify products that meet different learning needs.

Some schools are already focused on adding learner variability. Dr. Baron R. Davis, superintendent of Richland (SC) School District Two, discussed how his schools are taking the idea of personalized learning to the next level. For example, in the high school they are gradually introducing teachers in main content areas that focus on highly personalized learning. They are taking a similar approach in the elementary schools, in addition to a blended learning model that allows students to work at their own pace with digital curricula.

About the Author:

Stacey Pusey is an education communications consultant and writer. She assists education organizations with content strategy and teaches writing at the college level. Pusey has worked in the preK-12 education world for 20 years, spending time on school management and working for education associations including the AAP PreK-12 Learning Group. She is working with edWeb.net as a marketing communications advisor and writer.


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