Walk into any school classroom these days and there are signs of the personalized education approach — students discussing ideas in small groups, teachers rotating among students to provide one-on-one instruction.

The concept of personalized learning has been percolating for years in education circles, and yet, there can be some disagreement about what it is exactly.

“It means different things to different people,” says J.P. Culley, head of school at Holland Hall. “But there are at least three hallmarks educators can agree to define personalized learning.”

First, there is student choice. Students have much more freedom to dive into subjects of personal interest, but they must be born from the basic curriculum the state and school have laid out as measures.

“There is a lot of student choice embedded, but it’s not wide open. Kids can’t just do what they want,” Culley says. “They are still guided by their teacher.”

Shelbie Witte, head of the School of Teaching, Learning and Education Science and Chuck and Kim Watson Endowed Chair at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, says personalized learning is an approach that, if implemented properly, can allow students greater input into topics and concepts they study and the way they show mastery of the material.

The second characteristic most educators can agree on regarding personalized education is timing.

“When a child is in ninth-grade algebra and learns how to solve for X before his or her peers, shouldn’t they be able to move on? Should the student’s level really matter if the child is 15, 16 or 17?” Culley says.

As long as they prove mastery in a way decided by school officials, such as testing, students should be able to move forward to the next concept, he says.

A third component Culley refers to as the “badge system.” Each teacher may implement such a system differently, but it is basically an individual competency-based tracking system in which students earn a badge — such as passing a test for mastery — and then move on.

“It’s kind of like a checklist where students can earn something to show they mastered a concept and can go to the next concept,” he says.

Witte says schools and educators have long leaned toward the personalized education philosophy, particularly the best teachers.

“Student choice in reading, student-driven inquiry projects and student reflections have been important in classrooms for a very long time,” Witte said. “It is not a new concept, not even close. Personalized education and learning have always existed.”

Many classrooms and teachers use personalized learning in a variety of ways and have for decades. These teachers develop relationships with their students and know them, so they are inclined to tailor the curriculum to each child’s strengths and weaknesses.

However, the idea behind personalized education continues to evolve.

Many point to technology as a distinctive factor when it comes to personalized education. But most educators say technology is simply a tool that makes personalization available to more students.

In fact, a New Yorker Magazine article last summer credited Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist with being among the first in the nation to push the idea — with a technological focus — in 2014 in Rhode Island, where she was then state commissioner of education.

She was a champion of public-private “innovation partnerships,” which joins schools and technology companies to implement computerized learning alongside traditional methods, the article says. Rhode Island became a sort of incubator for the partnership concept.

However, many educators point to such deals as big technology’s push into American classrooms for financial gain, similar to creating and selling testing software to school systems. Companies market their products to schools as personalized learning software, but Culley says technology shouldn’t be the major driver of the trend.

“Technology is a flywheel, a way to balance between computerization and personal learning,” he says. A student’s relationship with their teacher is always important.

Data on personalized education is scarce. Yet according to a 2017 RAND Corporation study, albeit based on a small sample, teachers reported more one-on-one time with students in personalized learning schools.

Seventeen percent of surveyed teachers say they spend at least a quarter of class time with students individually, compared with 9% of teachers nationwide in more traditional classrooms. In addition, they report slightly higher math and reading scores among students.

At Holland Hall, Culley says it will take 5-10 years and an intense focus on personalized learning to implement it as it should be.

“We have to define what it is to us, what our common understanding is,” he says. “We believe many of our top priorities — teaching self-regulation, autonomy and problem-solving — will fit in well with this concept of learning.”

Witte said she believes Culley’s assessment is on point.

“The level to which educators are comfortable with students being the driving force in their learning, as well as to the degree to which students can make those choices from a desire to learn, are critical to the success of the implementation of personalized learning.”

Nicole Marshall Middleton