Teaching has evolved from the one-size-fits-all model to the introduction of personalized learning—each student learning according to their own strengths, skills, and interests. Integrating technology into personalized learning is not a new idea, but is it as helpful as we think? To help us understand more about technology and personalized learning, we spoke with three of NASSP’s 2017 Digital Principals of the Year: Jethro Jones, principal of Fairbanks BEST Homeschool and the Golden Heart Academy at Fairbanks Youth Facility in Fairbanks, AK; Stephen Santilli, assistant superintendent of Egg Harbor Township School District in Egg Harbor Township, NJ; and Jamie Richardson, principal of LaCreole Middle School in Dallas, OR. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.

Savicky: How do you perceive the personalized learning movement? 

Jones: I perceive it as misguided. People think it’s all about technology, but it’s really about the hope we have for every educational reform law: that every student should be given a path to success! The point of personalized learning is to help every student be successful, and somewhere along the way we misinterpreted that to mean every student interacting with technology as much as possible. That’s not what personalized learning is really about.

Santilli: I agree with Jethro. Much of it comes down to what I would refer to as modeling and proper professional development of personalized learning. What I have seen over the years is that there isn’t enough support for staff to be able to truly understand the intent of personalized learning. It’s not necessarily putting a device in every student’s hands; it’s more about how that device and technology are going to be used to provide a potential for growth and also to allow for additional information. Personalized learning starts with the staff members and them being comfortable and understanding the true mission and vision of being able to implement initiatives in their school, the district, or classroom.

Richardson: I find the personalized touch intriguing, having gone down the road of project-based learning and trying to get some of those deeper learning practices on board. Like Steve said, I also believe the teacher professional development aspect is missing. We think we’re launching into this great project and kids are going to be engaged, but we weren’t taught or trained to teach that way. So, it gets frustrating. I think for personalization, we still try to just duplicate what we normally do and personalize it, but it’s never personalized—it’s a misunderstanding; I think it’s misguided, and [there’s] just not enough support or good pedagogy around it.

Savicky: Is it possible to make a systemic change to all personalized learning? 

Jones: Yes, it is possible. What you need is leadership that’s willing to rethink everything that’s going on. When I say leadership, I don’t mean just the school principal or the superintendent—I mean the people who are the leaders in whatever space they’re in. So, teachers in the classroom, students in the classroom, principals—everybody needs to be talking about it, parents as well. For some, state testing is seen as a barrier to personalized learning. If that’s the case, we need to have conversations and change what we think is important. We shouldn’t be putting so much emphasis on state testing. We should put more emphasis on local assessments, common formative assessments, and surveys assessing student and family perceptions of schools, and use something like a net promoter score that says, “How likely would you be to recommend the school to one of your friends or neighbors?” When we take that approach instead, we’re looking at different outcomes, and we can get better. We evaluate how our schools are doing as valued by those who are closest to it.

Santilli: Change is possible, but I think it comes down to how we roll it out. We need strong leadership to help develop a plan, a vision, a mission—but I think that success depends ultimately on how the plan is executed. Systemic change is possible if the leaders are solid in their planning, communication, and focus, because then the plan can be clear, and it can be pushed out to everybody; it can be modeled, and then we will have success with whatever that change is going to look like—to really focus in on individual students and their needs.

Richardson: Yes, it’s possible. I was just having a great conversation with a friend who’s working with some inner-city schools. Those schools are moving really quickly to establish a program based on whatever is good for kids, but it’s in a community that needs change. In higher-achieving schools, there’s a set of values that parents expect from their school—high AP scores and SATs. In those communities it’s more challenging to look at making a systemic change, because parents think, “Heck, the system worked great for me, and that’s how my kid’s going to get into college.”

Another barrier is college. We can change K–12, but what does the university system look like? There are some communities that are probably easier to move than others. But, again, like Steve said, having that clear vision and mission are definitely key components. But it’s possible. Absolutely.

Savicky: Can students use technology to aid themselves in setting personalized goals? Are they mature enough to decide how they will be graded or evaluated for themselves?

Jones: I’m going to emphatically say yes. I’ve seen kids as young as preschool setting goals and determining how they’ll be successful. My own child’s preschool program—through our school district—used a format called “Plan, Do, Review,” where the child sets a plan, does it, and then reviews how it went with the teacher. It was phenomenal to see these little kids making a goal, doing it, and then sticking with it, and it’s really powerful. Kids try to take the easy way out when we try to force them to do something that they don’t want to do. If they are interested and invested, they don’t.

As a quick example, my kindergarten-​age daughter wanted to read chapter books at the end of her kindergarten year. My wife and I, knowing how she had resisted our attempts to help her be interested in learning, actually tried to dissuade her, thinking that she would get frustrated because she wouldn’t be successful reading a chapter book. What we found, however, was that when it was her idea … [she] made us read to her every night. When she started reading, she would read us books every night, and then she figured out how to read chapter books, and she said, “See, you guys, I don’t need you anymore.” She was able to do that when she put her mind to it, and I’ve seen that happen with kids from every ethnic background and every socioeconomic status. They are definitely capable. We are the ones who are not ready to hand that over to them yet.

Santilli: Adults can be resistant to giving up that power of being in control, to actually set personalized goals for the students, because quite often they may think, “I’m the keeper of this knowledge and I have all this great data. I’m going to make decisions for this particular student,” or “This is my role as an educator to make all these goals.” But I look at it through a different lens. Student voice and choice is extremely important, and I think that students tend to—and it’s just human nature—want to push themselves. Teachers are there to provide guidance for students, and those teachers then need support from administration so they know what personalization should look like in the classroom. But without a doubt, students at all levels are mature enough to have that choice and have the voice to be able to share what they think they are able to manage and are capable of accomplishing.

Richardson: We see it in the classroom and in sports all the time. When we talk to our kids, we ask, “What does success look like?” and they tell us, so I think that as long as there’s that motivation there, they’ll be able to kind of gauge for themselves whether they’re being successful, how to adjust and adapt, but it goes back to the teacher as the guide and having the skills to help coach kids along and give them the structures to be successful, because it’s as new for the kids as it is for the teachers. As leaders, we have to have the right mentality around it. Our job now is to coach these kids through these scenarios, and the kids, more often than not, will succeed on their own. But definitely the teacher has to be prepared to help those kids, and the structures have to be in place.

Savicky: Can technology get in the way of personalization?

Jones: Yes, because if we think that technology is going to do the job for us, then we are woefully mistaken. Richardson said it best earlier when he said to give tech to those who need it, but not to those who don’t. So, we should give tech to assist in that personalization, but not expect tech to be involved in every step of the way. For example, my daughter has Down syndrome, and she had a wonderful teacher who took all of the kids with intensive needs in special ed—I got to see this from a principal perspective and from a dad’s perspective. This teacher was able to personalize her students’ education by using very little technology because she knew them well enough to know what they could do and where their limits were. She used that to help her make the classes accessible for those kids. It was marvelously done, because those kids—from nonverbal to being deaf, to having Down syndrome, to being high-functioning autistic—those students had experiences that they would have never had otherwise because she was so intent on making sure that they got what they needed when they needed it, not on making sure that they sat down and used the district-approved technology program for special ed. They spent very little time on that, and they spent a ton of time working with their peers and having support and help to make it possible for them to do that work.

Santilli: I think that technology can absolutely get in the way. It can get in the way of personalization, because for some students it can help them grow, help them learn, but for others, technology actually is a deterrent. They may be better off with hands-on learning. Maybe they are more artistic, where that technology tool is just going to be almost a crutch in regard to allowing them to continue to grow. At the end of the day, it also goes back to … having the conversation with students as well and finding out what works best for them and providing choice as part of that process.

Richardson: I was just recently reading Vintage Innovation—a new book by John Spencer. It talks about that fact that technology is but a tool. Just access to their social media sometimes is a detractor. It’s always in front of them. That’s what we’re seeing as a barrier. I know there are some systems that shut those things down, but definitely teach them how to use it. We’re working with 11- and 12-year-olds, and their frontal lobe is still developing, we say, so it’s just the distractions that we don’t need.

Savicky: Has technology co-opted personalization? Has it given personalization a bad name?

Jones: I see personalized learning as helping students be engaged, lifelong learners. But if we do all the same things we’ve always done, but now with technology, or we put the student in front of a computer and say, “This is now personalized learning,” that’s not what it’s about. It’s about empowering them to have the ability to say, “This is what I want to learn. This is how I’m going to learn it. And this is how I’m going to know when I have accomplished it.” That’s what personalized learning really is. And I don’t see technology anywhere in that. At its very face value, I see technology as a tool that could help you learn something that the teacher in the room doesn’t have the ability to be able to do. For example, in Kodiak [Alaska], where I used to be, we had a long-​distance welding program. The teacher in Kodiak would teach welding to students a hundred miles away on the other side of the island over the internet. That was using technology and personalizing what those kids needed in the village school to be able to get their credentials so that they could then come into the high school in town later, complete their certification, and then go back to the village and have a job doing welding—a needed skill in rural villages. In that case, technology made it possible for a student in a village without a certified welder to learn how to weld. But, if we were to just say, “Go watch videos on how to weld, and use the software to learn how to weld,” we’re still missing a key element.

Santilli: Overall, I’d have to say that technology has given personalization a bad name. So, a lot of the data’s been collected on the back end—everything from academic data to behavioral data—to be able to really create almost a picture of a particular student. But we can’t just use that data to drive what we think the student needs. We need to have a conversation with each student. That is truly where personalization comes in—trying to really home in on the students’ strengths, their skills, and their needs. But most importantly, we must use all team members—intervention, referral services teams, guidance counselors—to identify [what] the students’ interests are and then find a way to personalize their learning to be an effective supplement for their classroom learning.

Richardson: I think the idea of technology taking over personalized education is dependent on how you roll it out. Too many larger entities in education probably have just looked at technology as the “big fix” and don’t necessarily have staff buy-in. You have to have staff buy-in before you can move anything because they’re the ones in the trenches doing the work every day. If they don’t understand it, then they don’t have a purpose for it—the same concept is true for students and their learning. You really have to get to that level. I taught alternative education for 10 years, and I just know that every kid needs something different, so that one-size-fits-all idea is what people may envision—that students are going to be plopped down in front of a computer, and that’s going to be their education, without the personal touch of a teacher.

Savicky: Do you think technological personalization will ever replace the role of the teacher, or do you think it will simply change the role of the teacher?

Jones: “Simply changing the role” is anything but simple. People have created their identities being the teacher—the sage on the stage, the dispenser of information—for generations. And so, it is a huge deal to change the role of the teacher from someone who gets their identity from doing that work. I take issue with the use of the word “simply” because it’s anything but that. It’s monumental, and it will take a huge change for teachers—from when they are college students finding a career, to the university teacher-​preparation programs, to how we run schools on a day-to-day basis, including how we schedule teachers and the size of their caseload.

I met a woman who was teaching advanced math in a high school. I asked, “When you first teach a lesson …” and she interrupted me and was incredulous that I suggested that she teach a lesson. I said, “What do you mean?” and she said, “Why in the world would I try to teach something in Algebra 2 or precalculus when I can find 10 videos of someone else explaining that concept better online and have that be my students’ first introduction?” She said, “My skill isn’t in dispensing the knowledge—my skill is in diagnosing why kids aren’t getting it, and then providing support.”

She changed her role from being that sage on the stage to the skilled clinician who can diagnose an error and help the student know and understand how they made that mistake. What I learned from that is that she had a completely different definition of a teacher. A teacher was someone who gathered resources to support kids, and then diagnosed problems that the kids were having with those resources. Taking on that different approach and thinking about it differently really changed how she taught and how her students learned. I think that that kind of approach is absolutely necessary for what we are doing with personalized learning.

Santilli: Without a doubt, we are never going to be able to replace a teacher in the classroom. Do I think that the teacher’s role will evolve? Absolutely. In the time that I’ve been in education, I have seen the teacher’s role change. I think back to my first years as a teacher, and I realize that I was teaching the way I was taught. We have had a natural evolution over the past 20 years. It continues to evolve with the different types of technology, but the classroom teacher is the person who drives the success of the students. And while there may be continued evolutions of the classroom teacher, I would say that the first thing that has to happen, without a doubt, is relationships, because if you remove the teacher from the classroom, all you have is a generation of children who are staring at a screen.

Richardson: In that whole vein of relationships, having worked with some of the tougher kids, they need relationships. They need connections. They don’t care about anything else until you get to that point. So, we talk about the volume of kids who need personalized instruction. I don’t know if you experience it where you are, but we have a large number of trauma kids who are coming through. Students are lacking some of these really basic skills on how to self-regulate. Those are some of the things that go along with school. So, no, I don’t think the teacher will ever be replaced. One of the interview questions we ask our new incoming teachers is “How do you teach collaboration? How do you encourage creativity?” Those are some of the new skills of a teacher, those are the 21st-century skills we want kids to be doing and practicing. It’s different. It’s going to be a different world for teachers.

Savicky: How can professional development for personalized learning be improved?

Jones: The professional development that we’re giving teachers needs to model what we’re expecting them to give kids. So, if you’re doing a professional development on personalized learning, and you say, “Our outcomes for this are determined by me, and you need to fit into my expectations of what we’re doing,” we’re doing it totally backward. We need to be focused on letting teachers decide what their outcomes are going to be and letting them evaluate whether or not they met those—same as the students. If we do that, we’re going to be in a much better place.

So, starting with that, we need to just model and say, “We’re going to do personalized learning; let’s define it together. However, we need you as the individual to come up with your own plan for what that’s going to look like and how you’re going to accomplish it. As a skilled professional development facilitator, I have a bunch of resources here to help you with that.”

The other problem with this is that teachers are already doing a ton of off-the-clock professional development. It just doesn’t count as professional development because, just like kids are doing a ton of learning, it just doesn’t count as learning because it doesn’t happen within the four walls of the classroom. Every time a teacher goes on Pinterest to find some new ideas for a class, she is engaging in professional development, but it just doesn’t count. That’s the same thing with kids. So, this idea of seat time and being there and having the adults dictate everything for the kids, if that’s what we’re doing for [professional development], that’s what teachers are going to continue doing in their classrooms. When we let that change and we actually allow teachers to make their own plans for their own professional development, then they will, like the kids, probably exceed our expectations of things that we want to happen and the change and growth we want them to experience.

Santilli: Ultimately, professional development is unfortunately centered around “stand and deliver”-type methods with little choice. A lot of that has to do with, of course, state mandates—things that have to be done to really, ultimately, check a box. However, if we’re going to provide professional development that’s meaningful to teachers to help them evolve, to help them grow with personalized learning, it comes back to modeling with the expectation that the outcome will be chosen by the teacher.

In New Jersey, when we have what we call a professional growth plan, many times there’s a disconnect. The professional growth plan cannot be dictated by administrators just so we can check off our boxes. Teachers need to develop their own growth plan—and they should. It’s supposed to be personal to them. By doing so, they are truly modeling what it is that personalized learning is to our students. You have to provide opportunities for the teachers during the course of the professional development day to actually get with like-minded individuals—because that’s where that collaboration and articulation take place—then they will have a true outcome.

Richardson: When we put teachers in those types of scenarios, they become the student. Some of the most impactful professional development seminars that we have run here are just that—putting our teachers in situations that we would put our students in, having them practice with the tools, having them practice with the strategies, and having them work together. Those are hard things, having to work together with other people. It’s one of those things they have to see, smell, touch in order to understand it. We can stand up there all day and say, “We want personalized learning for everybody. Let’s go to work,” without any guidance, but you put them in that situation where they have to do it, and they have to be a part of it all, and once they see it … they can replicate it with kids. It’s practical.