On Joel Rose’s first day as a fifth grade teacher, he was greeted with some disheartening news: some of his students were on the second grade level, and others, the eighth. While he tried his best, Rush says that he couldn’t meet the needs of every student.
That didn’t necessarily have to be the case, though: Enter personalized learning.
Joel Rose and Chris Rush are co-founders of New Classrooms Innovation Partners, a non-profit organization that collaborates with schools to implement personalized learning models.
Each day, New Classrooms students walk into school and are faced with a variety of teaching styles and activities. Some sit down alone and are directed by a screen to their math lesson. Other kids learn in a group, or directly from the teacher – and then everyone rotates.
For the work done independently on a computer, progress is tracked with quizzes — if successful, students move on; if not, they will revisit the idea. In the meantime, the data is analyzed and New Classrooms pinpoints what learning methods are most effective for particular students, making their next lesson even better.
When you think of personalized learning, thoughts of a room full of glazed eyes fixed on iPads and laptops might come to mind, but that’s not what New Classrooms is about. Rose and Rush stress that it’s essential to learn in different ways, and that no student’s educational experience will be completely reduced to screens and software.
Changing the classroom space itself is also vital to the mission of New Classrooms. The traditional 30 desks facing a chalkboard are long gone, and so are the walls that housed them. The new larger spaces make lots of room for workstations.
“In some stations kids work with teachers, and in some stations kids work on different projects with each other, and in some stations kids work with software,” explains Rose.
This physical restructuring produces major benefits. Rush explains that there might be several students spread out through separate classes that are struggling with the same topic. By removing the classroom boundaries, they can learn together.
“It could have been that with Mrs. Harris there were three students who need to work on square roots, with Mr. Jones there are another three who need to work on square roots. So you can start pulling them together to create larger groups in order to do the lessons and serve as many kids as possible.”
So far, the model’s results are impressive. Each year, they have handed their data to the Teacher’s College at Columbia University to crunch, and in 2014, their “Teach to One” model resulted in 1.5 years of progress on average for students surveyed.
While they’ve shown that personalized learning has a bright future, Rose and Rush don’t think it's education’s savior. Rush says, “Personalized learning is not pixie dust. You don’t just sprinkle it over a school and suddenly everything is wonderful. It is part of what we think is a powerful learning experience for kids, but it's not the beginning middle or end.”