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Personalized learning: Not just for students

Data can, and should, help K-12 leaders offer personalized professional development as well

We’ve done so much to personalize learning for students. Now, let’s do it for their teachers.

For more than 20 years, educators and ed-tech companies have pursued the promise that technology and personalized instruction can raise student achievement. Sophisticated educational software now can adapt to students’ content knowledge, language skills, and engagement preferences to provide truly unique learning experiences.

So why has so little work been done, similarly, in professional development for adults?

Personalized instruction—often technology-enabled or supported—is a proven approach for students that builds competencies by allowing kids to work on the things they need to work on first, then build on those successes by setting ever higher goals.

But when it comes to teachers, so much of what passes as professional development is not even tailored to the school, let alone each educator. There are a plethora of pre-packaged workshops, content libraries, free online resources, and reams of materials to be used. And while the quality of the content is sometimes high, the tools are too often provided as “one-offs” rather than as part of a system to address teachers’ initial or ongoing development needs.

One thing that all high-performing schools have in common is a culture of high expectations—not only for students, but also for teachers and school leaders. In these schools, principals are instructional leaders who foster a collaborative environment. They believe in, and invest in, sustained, job-embedded professional development.

Schools that have made this cultural shift empower their teachers to own their professional development. These schools do not “hand down” the plan to the teacher; instead, teachers collaborate around student data and evidence collected from direct observations. They use these data to help build the plan and engage with mentors, coaches, and the school leadership to grow as individual educators and collectively as a faculty.

Some of the initial efforts in offering personalized professional development are too simplistic and prescriptive. To summarize that approach: Consider the evaluation data, then prescribe content to read or videos to watch.

(Next page: What’s wrong with this approach)

This idea misses the mark in two ways. First, an effective process needs to be designed for low-stakes coaching and ongoing development. Second, the teachers need to own their development and build their plans collaboratively with other professionals: peers, instructional coaches, or educational consultants.

The smart use of technology can revolutionize the process of providing high-quality professional development. Similar to how adaptive learning programs work for students, data can inform development plans and suggest next steps for teachers’ development.

Rather than prescribing specific resources, the technology should provide insight into the data, helping to illuminate what resources are relevant without dictating specific content or resources. To use a medical analogy, the technology and data provide diagnostic support. But the doctor uses that information and his or her own professional judgment to determine the right course of action.

Once initial plans are created, technology can play a major role in facilitating execution and action. A blended approach to professional learning—one that includes job-embedded coaching with a technology platform—provides both human coaching and data needed to set, meet, and refine individualized goals.

In our work, Generation Ready consultants work with teachers and education leaders to help build the skill and capacity to enable this process. Other school systems might have their own dedicated staff for coaching and professional development. Either way, the importance of executing these plans within the school environment—modeling, providing real-time feedback, facilitating collaboration—cannot be underestimated. Again, a shared technology platform to manage and monitor the implementation of ongoing professional learning activities, offline and online, can help increase the chances that these data-based plans are followed in the classroom.

Today, we are collecting vast amounts of data on students and teachers. Technology can help us sift through these data to gain insights into how we can improve educational practice and student outcomes. The data should be used to inform professional learning—and to tell us if what we’re doing is actually moving the needle. This is truly a new opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of professional development efforts inside schools, and it should be used to judge the value of commercial providers as well.

When we marry together modern technology and the professional judgment of educators, and empower the adult learning process, we will unlock incredible human potential and have a profound impact on student outcomes.

We have done so much to individualize learning for students. Now, let’s do it for their teachers.

Justin Serrano is the Chief Executive Officer of Generation Ready.

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