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.

  • 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.

The district also has several programs tailored to underserved populations. Pathways 2 Promotion, for instance, offers an alternative to expulsion. With support from a teacher and a counselor, students develop a plan to keep them on track for promotion or graduation. They take distance learning classes, receive counseling, and focus on foundational skills like oral and written communication, studying, and test taking. Project Search is for students with special abilities who’ve demonstrated an interest in healthcare. These students do regular schoolwork and participate in internships, gaining significant experience and (if possible) certification.

While Digital Promise and the Learner Variability Project are focused on how technology can impact learning, Vuchic emphasized that their goal is to make sure the edtech supports the teachers, not supplants them. “I think that where you see the most powerful uses [of edtech] is…integration,” said Vuchic. “Where it’s really integrated into the pedagogical approach and the teaching and learning strategies, that’s truly where you see the power and where it supports a broader series of learners.”

About the Presenters
An educator for more than 20 years, Dr. Baron R. Davis is superintendent of Richland School District Two in South Carolina and the first African American to hold this position. Reaffirming that learning is the cornerstone for everything in Richland Two, Dr. Davis spearheaded multiple initiatives aimed at ensuring consistent high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom in every school. He rolled out “Pathways to Premier,” the district’s 2017–2020 strategic plan, in which he presents his vision for partnering with families, staff, and community to make Richland Two the premier school district.

Reared in the public housing system since age two, he knows the struggles associated with poverty. In 2014, Dr. Davis joined the City of Columbia’s “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative,” which empowers boys and young men of color in low-income minority communities to thrive and become productive citizens. He has been a member of the planning committee for the City of Columbia’s Black Male Achievement Conference for three years. He is an inductee of the Columbia Housing Authority’s Wall of Fame.

Patricia Saxler is the head of education at Populace. She is also a research fellow with the Laboratory for the Science of the Individual. Saxler earned her master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in mind, brain, and education in 2007, and her doctorate in human development and Education in 2016. A Montessori teacher prior to graduate studies, her research has focused on the development of self-regulation in early childhood. Working at the intersection of education and cognitive neuroscience, Saxler conducted her research at the Gabrieli Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, where she also collaborated with colleagues in investigating self-regulation in relation to early life stress and experiences, dyslexia, and neural development.

Vic Vuchic, chief innovation officer at Digital Promise Global, is a seasoned thought leader in education technology and philanthropy. He received his master of education from Stanford University and is an expert in learning science, innovation, and scaling what works. He has launched game-changing initiatives that have increased access to education and improved learning for tens of millions of learners in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Prior to Digital Promise Global, Vuchic consulted with a number of foundations and organizations on education technology, innovation, and philanthropy. Prior to consulting, he developed strategies and managed over $100 million in technology-focused grants at the Hewlett Foundation to launch and grow the Open Educational Resources movement and create and advance the Deeper Learning strategy.

About the Host
Barbara Pape is the communications director for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise Global. She has 20 years’ experience in strategic communications, writing, and policy analysis, primarily in education. Previously, she served as executive producer of the award-winning Teaching & Learning conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she developed content and oversaw outreach and communications. As a writer, she has written for numerous publications, including Harvard University, the National Education Goals Panel (U.S. Department of Education) and Parents magazine. Pape also served as editor and publisher of the first electronically delivered education newsletter, the Daily Report Card. She earned an EdM at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and launched her career as a middle school language arts teacher.

Join the Community
Personalized Learning for All is a free professional learning community on edWeb.net that brings together researchers, educators, entrepreneurs and product developers to share the latest research findings, best practices, and success stories that are shaping the development of research-based programs and products to address the growth of learning variability in today’s schools.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Digital Promise. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

[Editor’s note: This piece is original content produced by edWeb.net. View more edWeb.net events here.]

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.