How to Personalize Learning - 6 Findings from Silicon Schools

Silicon Schools provides the funding to launch or redesign schools that are laboratories of innovation and proof points for personalized learning. It’s portfolio of charter, district, and independent schools serves a diverse mix of students in the San Francisco Bay Area. Back in August, it released a report titled All That We’ve Learned which discusses its findings on personalized learning from the last five years. In this piece, we take a look at 6 important conclusions from the report and provide several suggestions for how educators can modify them for any school setting. Be sure not to miss item #4 which includes excellent resources on helping students set and reflect on goals.

To begin, let’s present a definition of personalized learning.

Silicon Schools defines it as seeking to “accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, where, when, and how students learn – to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student.”

The 6 conclusions below also reflect two very important assumptions.

First, Silicon Schools has found that in order to be successful implementing these ideas, school leaders need to view every aspect of the school day as a design decision. Leaders will challenge norms like: why the school day needs to run from 8 am to 3 pm, whether every class period needs to be the same 55 minutes in length, or how student groupings are created. Secondly, it’s supremely important for students to make connections between subjects and to learn through different modalities. For far too many students, classes are completely distinct from one another (that is, information learned in one subject isn’t utilized in another) and the learning modalities employed are exactly the same (lecture, group work, homework, and test). The conclusions below assume that developing multifaceted students is important.

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To accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, where, when, and how students learn – to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student.



1) Personalized Learning Doesn’t Mean Isolated Learning

For many educators, the phrase “personalized learning” is code for students, screens, and silence. But as Silicon Schools has realized, “The goal of personalized learning was never to have students sitting alone on a computer all day long.” Such environments are largely devoid of social interaction and student joy.

Takeaway: Silicon cites research from Michael Horn and Paul Peterson that suggests students in personalized learning environments should spend no more than 20-40% of their learning time on computers. It’s very important that students learn through a range of modalities – using academic language, collaboration, and peer-to-peer conversation. “We have come to listen for that productive hum (discussion with teachers and with each other) rather than silence as an indicator of success.”

2) Students Benefit from Working at their Instructional Level and their Developmental Level

For students, working at their instructional level means completing tasks for which they’re ready. Working at a developmental level means completing tasks based on one’s grade level or age. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools don’t allow for students to experience both. Even Silicon Schools admits that when they first started their work, they were mostly focused on meeting students at their instructional level. It now appreciates that there is a proper mix of both.

Takeaway: Silicon cites two of the networks in its portfolio – Summit Public Schools and Navigator Schools – as examples where students can wrestle with concepts at their developmental level and work on topics that might be grades above or below their age level. Silicon has found that when schools separate struggling students into purely homogenous groups, students at the bottom stay at the bottom. On the other hand, when they’re allowed to work on both levels, they receive instruction that meets them where they’re at and they gain exposure to more challenging tasks. The same applies to students at the top – working at an accelerated pace allows them to be challenged while heterogeneous groupings help them work with diverse learners. Silicon Schools doesn’t have a definitive answer as to how much time students should spend on each level, but it’s finding the most successful schools in its portfolio are “close to a 50/50 mix.”

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3) Provide Agency to All Students

Agency refers to the amount of control or autonomy students have in directing their own educational experiences. This might include making decisions about learning environment, pacing, or the subject being studied. Within clear boundaries, Silicon Schools believes that students should have the ability to make choices in how they spend their time.

Takeaway: Silicon Schools has found that all students benefit from some degree of agency and that they should be given that opportunity when they’re still young. As students get older, teachers find it increasingly more difficult to undo the passivity that students learn from years of traditional schooling. In other words, students don't learn how to prioritize what’s important and don’t gravitate towards what’s exciting. Citing Montessori schools in its portfolio, Silicon recognizes that the role of teachers also changes in this environment. They need to encourage a love for learning while also occasionally nudging students towards activities that need more attention.

4) Goal-Setting and Reflection are Very Important

 Most everyone would agree that goal-setting for students is good. However, it’s rarely given the classroom time that it needs and it’s largely uninformed by research on effective reflection. Silicon Schools argues that if a student spends 5 hours a week working independently, an investment of 10 minutes during that same time to meet with their teacher (to set appropriate targets and reflect on progress against goals) would be a reasonable investment into this process. In other words, “Too often we see schools commit significant time to independent learning without building in structured time for goal-setting.” The same idea could be applied in a traditional school – if students spend a certain amount of time on independent homework each week, they’d likely benefit from a goal-setting process that helps them direct and reflect on their learning.

Takeaway: The report goes on to discuss the shortcomings of a lot of the goal-setting that takes place in classrooms. “The examples of homemade goal-setting systems that we’ve observed in schools rarely include the elements that academic research has determined are key.” Here are a few best practices to implement: 1) Mental Contrasting - where students contrast their desired outcome with relevant obstacles (research has shown this to be much more effective than simple visualization), 2) Implementation Intentions - how students will react when they do encounter obstacles, and 3) including self-transcendent motives, like “helping others” (because this has been shown to help students persist when tasks become difficult).

Here are a few resources that can help you implement improved goal-setting in the classroom:

Character Labs (Includes research-backed student activities that can be used for most student levels)

MCII Paper (This is the Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions mentioned above) and an article discussing its application more practically

Silicon Schools’ chart for helping schools implement goal-setting:

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5) Personalized Learning Still Needs to be Rigorous

It doesn’t matter what curriculum you’re using or what school environment you find yourself in – students need to be challenged with high-quality, rigorous curriculum. “Personalized learning will not help students if they are working with content that is below their capacity. Rigor and personalization need to go hand in hand.”

Takeaway: Silicon Schools believes this is still a significant hurdle for personalized learning environments. It has found that most of the best curriculums out there are being created for more traditional classrooms. For instance, in its visits with several East Coast charter networks (Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First), they found that teachers are usually provided with strong base curriculums, rather than being asked to create their own lessons from scratch. The logic here is that teachers can now spend time thinking deeply about how they’ll best implement the curriculum rather than trying to create something brand new.

6) Ensure New Practices are Backed by Evidence and Understand Implementation Process

Make no mistake, Silicon Schools is a huge proponent of innovation. In fact, elsewhere in the report it discusses the use of rapid prototyping as a way to quickly try new ideas in education. But, educators need to ensure that decisions to adopt new programs or tools more broadly are supported by research and evidence.

Takeaway: “We need to de-risk failure in education so that people are not paralyzed from acting, but we shouldn’t try to spread practices at a macro-level until we have some evidence that they improve student outcomes.” And when you do find something new worthwhile to implement, appreciate the investment of time and energy into making it work. “Teachers and principals have understandably built up scar tissue towards new innovations because of all the past innovations that failed to deliver on promises.” Unlike other industries (like consumer tech or manufacturing), education is a strongly human endeavor. That means change can be difficult and we need to be equipped with tangible plans to make it work.

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