When it comes to personalized learning, understanding the problem is everything
May 30, 2019 |
May 30, 2019 |
Late last year, iNACOL published a landscape analysis of personalized learning across the country. The report showed emerging growth, but it also demonstrated how key elements of personalized learning are still not widely practiced in schools. These findings speak to a broader question plaguing personalized learning advocates: what is limiting our ability to scale personalization?
Undoubtedly there are many answers to this question, but one of them relates to understanding the kinds of problems that personalized learning can address. Clayton Christensen frequently notes, “Hard problems often solve themselves after we get the categories right.” Pursuing an innovative approach that’s mismatched with the type of problem at hand may be limiting the growth of personalized learning.
Innovation strategy depends on the problem at hand
One of the biggest misconceptions about innovation is that it takes only one form. A great deal of innovation in schools is sustaining — it seeks to address problems by improving whatever’s currently on offer for students, like adopting a new adaptive curriculum to raise math proficiency or using an LMS to streamline how teachers manage classwork. Disruptiveinnovations, on the other hand, are characteristic for creating new access to a given product or service, like offering a virtual AP Physics course despite a shortage of qualified teachers locally.
Both types of innovation are necessary to extend the reach of personalized learning, and each lends itself to a different kind of problem.
Distinguishing between core and nonconsumption problems helps clarify how personalized learning can be implemented to best suit the problem at hand. For example, our research shows how blended learning can be an engine for personalization at scale. Blended learning takes shape in endlessly variable ways through seven broad models, each with unique implications for the student and teacher experience. But there’s a difference between blended learning’s hybrid models that are sustaining innovations relative to the traditional classroom, and disruptive models that re-architect key elements of the traditional classroom.
Disruptive models of blended learning aren’t “better” than sustaining (or hybrid) ones—rather, they depend on the circumstances. Matching a disruptive or sustaining approach with the nature of the problem at hand is a critical part of the innovation process.
How to help “dream solutions” find the right problem, too
There’s no question that ideally, school leaders should clearly identify and categorize the problem before casting about for (much less purchasing) solutions. But reality doesn’t always start with the problem: sometimes I just didn’t know I needed that new pair of shoes until I saw a friend wear them. Getting excited about a new approach or solution in itself isn’t always bad, but it’s important to identify the right circumstances for it, rather than trying it out just anywhere.
For example, imagine a principal gets inspired by another school whose Flex model frees up space, time, and teacher capacity to help students design projects in the local community. In this case, rather than going straight for a whole-school transformation to Flex, this principal would do well to form a team with significant autonomy to try the disruptive approach during a summer session or another area of nonconsumption.
In light of the distinction between core and nonconsumption problems, the struggle to scale personalized learning begs the question: are there cases where we’re prematurely introducing disruptive personalized learning models too directly into the core traditional system? By the same token, are we failing to spot opportunities for disruptive approaches in the circumstances that would allow them to thrive and grow? If so, we might dramatically power up our ability to pave pathways for the scale of personalized learning by better differentiating between core and nonconsumption problems.