ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of the hottest trends in education right now is something called personalized learning. The promise is that with technology, we will finally be able to allow each student to learn at their own pace. Supporters say that personalized learning creates students who are happier and more prepared for the workforce of the future. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been looking closely at these claims, and her reporting has turned up some growing pains. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: First, describe what personalized learning is.
KAMENETZ: So what I found is that people really mean at least two very different things by this term. So the more widespread trend is to have students spend some time with software, especially with math, that's allowing them to go at their own pace and move ahead when they're ready, take more time. And there's a lot of tech-based philanthropy around this idea of kind of software-enhanced personalized learning. Much of it's coming of course from Silicon Valley like the Gates Foundation, which also supports NPR. Mark Zuckerberg's Foundation, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards personalized learning.
SHAPIRO: OK, so that tech focus is one of the two visions. What's the other one?
KAMENETZ: So at some schools, we found educators are really drawing on a long, progressive tradition like Montessori to take personalized learning much farther. They are ripping up the class schedules, ripping up the calendars and allowing students to choose much more of when they learn and how they learn. You may be in multiage groupings. You may be doing, you know, math in the morning and a special project in the afternoon. One of our member station reporters, actually, Robbie Feinberg in Maine Public Radio, actually visited a district that's been doing this kind of teaching for nearly a decade. And here's some of Robbie's reporting on what that sounds like.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Quickly and quietly come sit at the front of the room.
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Inside Marcia Buker Elementary School, class can often feel chaotic. All of the fourth- and fifth-graders in this small, rural school are mixed together and constantly rearranged based on how much they've learned in a certain subject. Over the course of the day, they dart from room to room in a way that feels more like high school.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK, let me see you at round tables. I see some kiddos not at tables.
FEINBERG: In the afternoon, they get mixed up again to take part in applied learning seminars, big projects instead of lectures or quizzes. Today's seminar is about personal health. But the students explore the subject by learning about how to survive in the Maine wilderness. They gather in small groups and brainstorm.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: How would you get fish?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: You could make a spear.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: How would you make a spear?
FEINBERG: Over the next few months, the students will choose some of those questions and design projects around them. Last year, students created life-sized replica skeletons and homemade MRI machines. Fourth-grader Kaylee Bodge says she likes having a say in what she learns.
KAYLEE BODGE: We got to choose what we wanted to do first. You get to make choices instead of the teacher choosing what we get to do.
FEINBERG: But the added responsibility and independence aren't easy for every student. Fifth-grader William Cooper says last year, he'd often get distracted and talk when he was supposed to work on his own. However, a few months in, the teachers moved him into a more difficult math group. Cooper says it forced him to concentrate.
WILLIAM COOPER: I wasn't expecting it (laughter). It's just - I'm like, whoa (laughter).
FEINBERG: So did you like the fact that you got moved to a place where you were being challenged?
WILLIAM: Yeah. You're - it moves you out of your comfort zone, but then it extends your comfort zone once you get used to it.
SHAPIRO: That report from Robbie Feinberg of Maine Public Radio. And NPR's Anya Kamenetz is still here with us. Anya, that classroom in Maine sounds very different from a traditional school. What do advocates of personalized learning say are the benefits of teaching in this way?
KAMENETZ: Well, you can kind of hear it in the kids' voices, right? We get to choose what we want to do; I'm moving out of my comfort zone. These are sort of bigger than what you can capture in test scores because kids are getting a sense of agency over their own learning, say boosters, school's a more positive place, and that all of this looks a lot more like the modern workplace. I mean, we're usually moving from project to project, and we're working in different groups. So it helps kids get ready for the future.
SHAPIRO: How do parents feel about it?
KAMENETZ: So let's take that question to another member station reporter. Kyla Calvert at Wisconsin Public Radio visited a K-8 charter school which also is a national leader in personalized learning. And here's her report.
KYLA CALVERT, BYLINE: Amy Bigelow's daughter was never big on school.
AMY BIGELOW: And she would come home after school just really in a funk every day.
CALVERT: But Bigelow says she saw a change right away when her daughter started middle school at Waukesha STEM Academy.
BIGELOW: In the first week, I could tell already that we found the right style of teaching and learning for her.
CALVERT: That style pairs personalization and traditional topics like math, science and English language arts with a focus on learning through projects. In one workshop, students are designing and building an original toy or game. In another, they're planning what a natural disaster-resilient city might look like a hundred years from now. Bigelow says her daughter is excited about work like that.
BIGELOW: She can think outside the box. She can be creative and do things with her hands. And she came home the first week, and she said, Mom, I didn't realize I'm learning, but it doesn't feel like I'm learning.
CALVERT: The math and science focus at the STEM Academy was the original draw for Bob Gross' son. Now in eighth grade, getting to direct his own work has made his son more engaged in subjects he's not as excited about. At the end of the first week of school, he reported being 80 pages into a book for English.
BOB GROSS: For a week of school, that's (laughter) - that's pretty good. And for him who - you know, it would be months to just get him to open a book.
SHAPIRO: So a supporter of personalized learning there, and that report from Kyla Calvert at Wisconsin Public Radio. Anya Kamenetz, we're hearing parents and students say, we like it. What does the research say? Is it actually more effective?
KAMENETZ: So it's so interesting. There's some evidence of positive impacts on learning with personalized learning, but it does vary widely. And some research actually found that some schools had negative impacts as well.
SHAPIRO: What's the difference between the schools that had positive impacts and the ones that had negative ones?
KAMENETZ: I think the bottom line is it's hard to do personalized learning well. It takes a lot of support. And so there's lots of variations. I think the case with Summit Learning is a little bit of a cautionary tale. That's a software platform backed by Facebook and The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. It's been implemented in almost 400 schools, but it's drawn protests in several states. And there's been issues with the laptops, the bandwidth, the curriculum, students saying they just don't like spending several hours a day in front of a computer.
And even in districts that aren't doing the more tech-focused version of personalized learning there's been some issues. Back in Maine, for example, which has been doing a form of personalized learning since 2012, we talked to Heather Finn, a veteran math teacher at a high school. And she said keeping up with a whole class of students all working at their own pace is overwhelming.
HEATHER FINN: It works really well, like, the first month. And then all of a sudden, like, the separations start happening. And so I have the kids who are on pace, and I have those kids who are perpetually always behind. And it got to the point where I had 20 kids in 20 spots. And it was impossible - impossible - to teach. It was so, so frustrating.
SHAPIRO: Anya, we hear so much about educational disparities based on race and class. How does personalized learning affect those factors?
KAMENETZ: You know, Ari, personalized learning - it's not just for rich, white kids. It's being implemented successfully in all kinds of classrooms. And all the schools that we talked to are public schools, it's worth noting. But there have been two areas of equity concerns that people have raised. One is that, you know, schools with more resources might be more naturally inclined to gravitate toward the kind of progressive, project-based learning, and schools with less resources might have more parking kids in front of the computer for, you know, kind of endless, uninspiring drills on basic skills like math and reading - so different kinds of personalized learning in different places.
But on the other hand, other people raise the exact opposite concern, which is that if you have kids who started far behind, they need to be spending their time directly being instructed on the basics. And if you leave it up to them to choose what they learn, that's not going to serve them super well. They're not going to end up catching up.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz with help from our member station reporters in Maine and Wisconsin. Thanks, Anya.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Ari.
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