Educator Competencies for Personalized Learning

by Jean Garrity, Associate Director

There seems to be almost universal agreement that our current educational system needs to be transformed into one that generates more learning, encourages student ownership of learning, and builds the capacity for life-long learning. The work of the Institute for Personalized Learning over the last six years has been in pursuit of that vision. We share the goal of preparing students to be college, career and life ready when they leave the K-12 system.

However, in order to truly transform the learning experiences of students, a fresh approach to teacher preparation and professional development is required. Think back to the teacher preparation program and professional development you’ve participated in. Chances are your experiences focused more on building content expertise, delivering a curriculum or controlling behavior in the classroom, rather than on building learner ownership and independence. This approach, more than 125 years old, has produced and supported many good teachers, but is not enough to meet the needs of all learners today.

The critical shift for educators is to move from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning – to move from the guide on the side or the sage on the stage to the mentor in the middle. To that end, we partnered with the Innovation Lab Network (of the Council of Chief State School Officers), Jobs for the Future, the Center for Innovation in Education, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to research and define the competencies educators must have to succeed in a personalized, learner-centered ecosystem. The results of that study were recently released in a report, Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching.

At the heart of this work is constructivism. While there is nothing especially new about constructivist learning, it serves as a helpful reminder about the nature of learning. We know that many learners cannot develop a deep understanding of content simply by listening to lectures or reading a chapter in a textbook. Rather, knowledge is constructed through multiple, meaningful interactions between the learner and the content. What does this mean for teaching in a personalized or competency-based setting? A significant component is trust. Teachers must let go of some of their perceived control in the classroom to give learners the space they need to be more independent, and trust is essential in this process. Releasing some control helps students discover who they are as learners. Ultimately, this allows learners to grow an individual intellectual identity. In personalized learning, teachers encourage learners to take on the role of experts, providing students the opportunity to develop meaningful connections to content. Rather than serving as the sole repository of subject matter, the role of the educator shifts to a curator of content, by supporting learners in using valid, reliable and varied content sources. All of these shifts in the role of the educator lead to greater ownership of learning by students.

As students grow in their capacity as independent, responsible learners, they are ready for greater opportunities for voice and choice in their learning. Simply stated, voice involves listening to and respecting the ideas, perspectives and concerns of students where possible, while student choice can be exercised by selecting where learning occurs, with whom one learns, or how one could best demonstrate competency or proficiency of learning.

Teachers need new and better tools and methods to manage data to identify next learning, and support students as they guide their own learning activities. These tools allow students to serve as architects of their learning. Learner Profiles, for example, allow each learner to identify their strengths and best approaches to learning. Personalized Learning Plans give learners a means to articulate goals and track progress against academic standards. Personalized learning goals are developed within the context of recognized standards. Teachers need effective strategies to support learners in the development of Personalized Learning Plans and goal setting so that learners can reach proficiency in these standards, by offering multiple work options and active, autonomous and authentic learning.

New approaches to assessment are also critical components of personalized learning. In addition to summative measures, teachers need access to other means of gauging proficiency, including formative and metacognitive strategies. It is this last approach to assessment that has the potential to accelerate a learner’s knowledge of effective and ineffective learning practices, leading to greater levels of efficacy and independence.

There are many places and contexts beyond the school walls in which personalized learning can occur, including online or in the community. Supporting students in such varied environments calls for a much different skill set than teaching face-to-face. Meanwhile, the physical spaces of personalized learning classrooms often look quite different from a traditional classroom. High top tables, sofas and beanbag chairs are common, along with different kinds of lighting and perhaps music. It is important for teachers to be able to help learners identify their best place for learning, which may vary depending on the subject or context.

Every child deserves to have the option to graduate from college and to be career and life ready. The competencies educators need to support this outcome will not replace an educator’s knowledge of their students or their professional judgment. They will, however, provide a useful framework for continued growth in student-centered learning and teaching approaches.