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Personalising learning for students who learn differently

Partner story

Photo: © Monkey business images

50,000 students in over 300 schools across the US are using the Branching Minds tool today.

“Despite some hopeful early evidence, personalised learning approaches are not yet delivering on the promise of moving all students toward reaching their full potential,” says Stacy Parker-Fisher, director of Oak Foundation’s Learning Differences Programme. “And if designers fail to consider the variety of learners in a classroom, including those who learn differently, then personalised learning tools and approaches will only further marginalise these students,” she says.

“Personalised learning” is a term that describes teaching approaches and technology solutions that tailor the learning experience to an individual’s learning needs, skills and interests. Personalisation can involve students working on the same content as their peers, but at different paces, or working on different content altogether. In most cases, technology helps make personalisation possible – it is nearly impossible for a teacher to personalise each child’s learning in a large classroom.

As Oak considers how best to support personalised learning for children with learning differences, we consider the following critical questions: What must educators know about learners to personalise their learning? How can systems and technology support teachers in the implementation of personalised learning? And how can the field come to a shared definition of high-quality personalised learning that includes all students, including those who learn differently?

We must answer these questions to solve the challenges around personalisation. Today’s students are a diverse group of learners with a multitude of experiences, strengths, weaknesses and interests that they bring into the classroom each day. In addition to the challenge of gathering and analysing data about academic performance, educators must also consider other factors that impact learning – including health, social-emotional development, motivation and trauma exposure.

Many have turned to technology to do the heavy lifting of personalising learning experiences, but Aylon Samouha, co-founder of Transcend, recognises that “Personalisation, at its most extreme, would look like the movie “The Matrix”, with individual students plugged into their own system moving along at their own pace all the time, and that’s not what we want.” He believes that technology should support learning, not be the centre of attention.

Oak Foundation is committed to supporting partners who will help realise the promise of personalised education – Oak believes that the true test of whether learning is personalised is if it promotes the academic and social-emotional development of all students, especially those who learn differently. We believe that personalisation can occur only when

  • teachers understand their students as individual learners, where they are on their pathways to mastery, and what learning opportunities and supports each student needs to progress;
  • students understand their own learning strengths and challenges, know where they are and where they are going on their learning paths, have learning strategies they can deploy, and are empowered to make choices about their learning experiences; and
  • learning environments, including the use of technology, support teacher and student efforts to personalise learning experiences.

The following paragraphs highlight several Oak partners that are supporting personalised learning in ways that help all students achieve.

Branching Minds

“There have been over three million articles published in the field of learning sciences,” says former teacher Maya Gat, “and very little of this research has been translated into teacher practice. It’s like scientists discovered the cure for cancer, but forgot to tell the doctors.

“When she was a classroom teacher, Ms Gat saw how challenging it was to support all students’ learning needs. “My job was to do the best I could to troubleshoot why a student had a specific difficulty and to figure out what I could do to help,” she says. But this approach meant that she and her peers had to guess the next steps, based on their experiences or what they had time to research on their own. This is why Ms Gat founded Branching Minds – to help translate science-informed approaches to learning into teacher practice in targeted and efficient ways.

Branching Minds has since developed a tool that guides educators in creating student-learning profiles, based on their observations of students in the classroom. Branching Minds then builds a student learning profile of strengths and areas of challenge. It maps this profile to a bank of resources and interventions that are the right fit for that particular student’s learning needs.

Today, Branching Minds is used in over 300 schools serving more than 50,000 students in the US. It plans to expand further, both in the US and beyond.

For more information about Branching Minds, please visit their website


“In most classrooms, the teacher is the hardest-working person in the room,” observes Aylon Samouha, co-founder of Transcend. “Teachers instruct, monitor, encourage, redirect and try to keep all children engaged in learning. Just adding technology does not make a teacher’s job easier, nor will it automatically personalise learning for every student,” he says.

“Learning environments need to nurture students’ creativity and hone their abilities to communicate and collaborate effectively with their peers.”

Dr Jeff Wetzler, co-founder of Transcend

Photo: © PowerMyLearning

Mr Samouha and Dr Jeff Wetzler co-founded Transcend in 2015 to design new learning environments that leverage advances in the science of learning and educational technology. This helps prepare children to lead in this fast-changing, increasingly complex world. Transcend designs new school models which create personalised learning environments to support the academic and social-emotional development of students, while preparing them to guide their own learning.

Although using technology to personalise learning will be an aspect of  Transcend’s new models, it knows that truly great learning happens when there is a mix of approaches. These include children working together on a shared topic and talking to each other about what they are learning.

Transcend’s leaders recognise that good grades are not enough to prepare children for their futures. “Students need to develop mindsets as lifelong learners,” says Dr Wetzler. “Learning environments must be designed from the beginning to support the learning of all students, including those who learn differently.”

“Learning environments need to nurture students’ creativity and hone their abilities to communicate and collaborate effectively with their peers.”

Washington University Center for Game Science

Most current education technology does not provide much flexibility to respond to learner variability. The programmes provide limited problem sets or strict time limits, which result in poor outcomes for children who need more practice. “We have found that if we design our math programmes to respond to the learner variability that exists, then the vast majority of students can master math concepts,” says Dr Zoran Popovic, who leads the Center for Game Science (CGS) at the University of Washington.

“The student who takes the longest to master a particular algebraic construct may need to practise solving six times as many math problems and might take ten times the amount of time as their fastest peer,” he says. “But if given that opportunity, they can learn these skills, too. There is no reason for them to fail.” In response, CGS has developed math games that provide unlimited practice and builds in opportunities for students to help one another within the game.

Much work has been directed towards providing personalised and individualised learning experiences directly to each student. Far less is known about the ways in which teachers can be supported to deliver classroom learning experiences that promote individualised learning. Most personalised learning technologies attempt to replace student/teacher interaction with online practice, assessment and support. However, teacher and student interaction is still critical to learning and cannot be replaced by technology. CGS is working to make it possible for teachers to deliver personalised instruction to all the students in classrooms in real-time.

Dr Popovic’s team has developed a programme called the Teacher Co-Pilot, which analyses data, including information on students’ performances, reading levels and the time of day. The goal is to learn from these interactions and recommend new learning paths for each student. As students learn, the Teacher Co-Pilot makes recommendations about what to do next in order to optimise learning. “The programme can tell a teacher when to give a particular student a high five because he just made a breakthrough in his learning,” says Dr Popovic. Teacher Co-Pilot also lets teachers know when multiple students are making mistakes based on the same misunderstanding and offers the teacher guidance on how to review a specific concept with the group. The Teacher Co-Pilot has been designed to be easy to use for teachers, with minimal need for prior knowledge or time to operate.

Georgia State University – personalising classes for dyslexic students

Despite significant field-wide advances in understanding brain development over the last 20 years, we still do not understand why some students with dyslexia do not respond to reading interventions that work for their dyslexic peers.

“Estimates are that between 5 and 20 per cent of children with dyslexia will not make strong progress with their reading fluency, even with our best-designed interventions,” says Dr Robin Morris at Georgia State University, a developmental neuropsychologist. Despite having nearly four decades of experience researching dyslexia, he does “not yet know why”.

Our lack of understanding comes from the fact that research to date has not developed good descriptions of the types of learners with dyslexia who do not respond to treatment. “Often students have multiple learning differences – such as attention deficits and specific language impairments,” says Dr Robin Morris, “and researchers typically exclude children who also have these differences from dyslexia studies to make the analysis of the condition of dyslexia more “pure”.

Unfortunately, that also means that the findings may fail to apply to the majority of students with dyslexia.

“In addition, research designs have not typically included the assessment of multiple types of intervention on literacy development in those children with dyslexia who are treatment resisters. “Those are the answers we’re seeking,” he says, “and our current studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and Oak Foundation will help us get there.” The goal is to identify simple, in-school tests to accurately predict which reading interventions will work for individual students with dyslexia. This personalised approach will avoid many wasted hours and discouraging results using the wrong intervention, potentially helping struggling readers avoid loss of confidence as learners.

Going forward

We believe that personalised learning can serve all students well, by increasing educators’ understanding of: individual learners; students’ ability to make choices on their own education; and the use of technology. However, schools are still struggling to make the vision of a personalised learning environment for all students a reality.

In the coming year, Oak partners featured here, as well as others, including Digital Promise, the Center for Individual Opportunity and Education Reimagined, will build demand for personalised learning that responds to a more comprehensive learner profile. This will incentivise the development of tools, systems and approaches that make this response to learners an achievable goal for classrooms across the US and around the globe.

Friday Institute for Educational Innovation

To help students with learning differences understand their own learner profiles and adapt their strengths to personalise their own learning experiences, the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at North Carolina State University is providing a free online course, available in 2017.

Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report 2016