How the Shift to Personalized Learning in Changing RI Educator Supports: Insights into the Mentor-Mentee Relationship
Across Rhode Island, K–12 schools have identified a need to shift how they are supporting students—moving from a sit-and-get model of learning to one that is more dynamic, relevant, and personalized for individual student needs. The goal of this work, dubbed personalized learning (PL), is to better prepare K–12 students to be creative and critical thinkers, problem solvers, and true owners of their learning. And it’s a shift in the teacher’s role in these classrooms, requiring educators to rethink their current strategies, pedagogies, school structures, and mindsets in PL classrooms.
To do this work well also requires a rethinking of how we support educators in their own professional learning and growth—from the first-year teacher engaged in induction to the veteran teacher reworking or refining her or his craft. This research project, conducted during the spring of 2018, sought to better understand how the two-person mentor-mentee relationship impacts a mentee teacher’s confidence and ability to engage in personalized learning practices. This research was conducted in collaboration with one urban district in Rhode Island, focusing on three schools at the elementary and middle school levels. Eighteen mentee teachers ranging in experience from four years to over twenty years and one mentor teacher participated in the project. The research consisted of classroom observations, focus group research, and survey data collection. The study ran from February to June 2018.
The district that researchers worked with for this study has created a set of professional development opportunities targeted to supporting personalized learning for teachers district-wide. In collaboration with the Highlander Institute, this work has included the re-designation of a classroom teacher into a full-time blended and personalized learning (BPL) mentor role for the district. This expert teacher in blended and personalized learning provides coaching in the district to teachers interested in adapting and/or extending their PL teaching approaches. This research specifically focused on the mentor-mentee relationship that was established through this professional learning and educator support model.
For this research, we asked the mentor and mentee to give us their definitions of blended and personalized learning. As we use the phrase here, we speak through those definitions: The mentor/mentee spoke of incorporating technology and using structures such as station rotation (e.g., Collaborative, Independent, Technology, and Direct Instruction stations) to differentiate and meet students where they are. Having students become experts and help one another was another aspect of BPL noted by the mentor and mentees.
Specifically, the research sought to answer the following questions:
1) How does the teacher’s role change, if at all, in personalized learning environments?
2) If and as the teacher’s role changes, how can we capture the ways that teacher leaders and teachers interact to adapt their practice in these environments?
3) How can we better understand the emerging mentor-mentee relationship to build personalized learning capacity?
4) How can understanding personalized learning with respect to teachers’ interactions help inform teacher preparation programs to prepare candidates for the field?
Given that there are different definitions and interpretations of personalized learning, the project also aimed to learn more about teachers’ understanding of these terms in the context of the work they are doing in the district where the research was conducted. The district engaged with the work was also interested in answering questions about the efficacy of the coaching model and adaptive practices.
To assess the mentor/mentee relationships, or dyads, participants were formally surveyed about the quality of their respective one-way view of the relationship (mentor to mentee and mentee to mentor). The primary foci were: 1) the quality of listening by each member, both self-perceived quality of one’s own listening as well as the listening of the other, 2) feelings of being closely aligned within the dyad, and 3) attitudes toward the development of personalized learning skills.
We also visited twelve grade 1-5 classrooms over a four-hour period. After the visit, each of the researchers wrote independent summary observations and then compared findings. We also led one focus group, which occurred with ten mentee teachers and focused on their experiences with the blended and personalized learning coaching model. Finally, we engaged in one telephone interview with the mentor teacher to discuss her summative experiences.
Given the small sample size and short cycle of the research, the data are statistically limited. Thus, we consider this a pilot study to gather initial thinking and information about the quality of the dyadic relationships and to learn whether that quality impacted the mentees’ adoption of blended and personalized learning practices in their classrooms.
Overview of findings
Overall, the mentor-mentees believe that during professional interactions, both members of the dyad consistently spoke positively about the relationship. They generally agree that the other judged their listening as high quality and their relationships were characterized by trust and enjoyment. Minor divergence of judgment in the relationship quality was focused primarily on communication about the desire to improve personalized learning practice (PLP) and integration of those skills into the classroom. Some mentees did not feel they communicated clearly their desire to learn and integrate PLP into the classroom. Some believed they had not improved, achieved goals, actively reflected, and made appropriate adjustments to PLP goals and practices. However, because of the small sample size, there was limited variance in the responses of the mentor and mentees.
"She always had good advice and a bag of tricks to help support the work."
Still, there were some interesting findings to call out.
Novice vs. veteran educators
First, some classrooms demonstrated easier transitions between classroom changes than others. Both the mentor and mentees stated that the professional learning supports were designed to meet teachers where they were and that each teacher may have needed different things from the coaching interactions. Specifically, there was a difference in the responses and scope of efforts between the more novice and veteran educators. Newer teachers to BPL commented that they spent much time on classroom structures (station rotations, classroom routines) as well as shifting the class to being more student-centered rather than teacher-oriented. They indicated that determining the amount of time for stations and how they would blend (or add technology supports) to their teaching was an evolving—and demanding—process. In contrast, the more experienced teachers in BPL cited the need to create more opportunity for student autonomy and independence. Their comments were less about what the structure needed to look like and more about how to maximize them—e.g. changing groups based on data and making those changes more frequent. Planning for BPL was the most challenging for new teachers, including balancing the station groupings and transitions. Developing different timelines for group changes (e.g., every four-to-six weeks, weekly, or daily) also appeared to be a struggle to learn.
Every first and second year teacher should receive training/mentoring in blended and personalized learning practices. To do this, participants cited that beginning teachers needed to be organized, have definite classroom management strategies (groupings), keep clear expectations for learning, and know how to implement this work in the classroom. Needing to know curriculum and content and where to direct students was viewed as critical. New teachers also needed softer skills such as flexibility; strong interest in getting to know the students; and enthusiasm for creating interesting, collaborative groups. Risk taking was also cited as a critical disposition that teachers should have to do this work.
Student voice, independence, and autonomy
Research participants noted that this approach to learning seemed to build student confidence—especially for shier or more quiet students who had more opportunity to speak in smaller-group settings. The mentor and mentees also stated that student roles in BPL classrooms were important in terms of student autonomy, as they are now able to move to new levels based on their own hard work. Through a BPL model, students learn to keep track and check their personal progress. They actively use their own personalized data so they can understand and move forward. Students hold each other accountable and redirect those who are off-task in these types of classrooms as well. Mentees cited surprise at what some students struggled with and the need to let the students fail before they could be successful—and positivity in this approach, feeling it is a good long-term shift as students will be more responsible learners.
Mentees also noted the time it takes to make this shift: This year is the first when BPL is being widely implemented in this district. For students who continue with blended and personalized learning, it will be easier for them as they resume learning in this way.
Role of the teacher
There were consistent positive responses to certain elements of classroom structures: personalized playlists, choice boards, rotation teaching. All of these efforts did appear to shift the traditional role of the teacher. Small groupings really allowed teachers to get to know their students. Also, strong sentiments for relinquishing control and providing students with ways to demonstrate independence and autonomy was noted. One teacher remarked and others agreed that their students now say “I don’t like it this way; can I do it this way [instead]?” Still, teachers cited letting go of control was difficult to learn/do. For instance, prioritizing content that could address small group needs, was an ongoing issue when trying to initially blend. This also varied based on the type of classroom observed: Inclusive classroom educators have to be more aligned in their knowledge and understanding of these practices. Similarly, content-specific classrooms at the middle school level are harder to maneuver than the freer form classroom of elementary school.
The mentor coming from in-district matters: Mentees consistently noted that the mentor teacher “gets us” and is “one of us.” This citing of the mentor having an established relationship with the mentees and being a respected colleague in the district encouraged teachers to volunteer. Mentees cited that they met with the mentor weekly, biweekly, or monthly and was dependent on the teacher need or request. They all cited desire for more frequent observations and feedback as well as wonder about the district’s capacity to continue this targeted support moving forward.
Additional district efforts
Many mentees, as well as the mentor, offered many insights into needed additional supports and efforts. Providing more collaborative opportunities within grade-level bands (K–2, 3–5) and seeing colleagues in action were two such support ideas offered. Additionally, setting up and planning the roll out for BPL was the most challenging for new teachers. And finally, creating a shared, district-wide definition of BPL will be important in the coming months and years.
Typically, we would look to have multiple mentors working with many more teachers to enhance methodological rigor. A larger, follow-up study would create more concrete findings. Additionally, the research methodology should be expanded to elicit more frank and/or nuanced evaluations of the relationship efficacy. It may be helpful to discuss the importance of more nuanced evaluations prior to beginning survey and focus group work, for example. At present, the response set comprised consistently positive judgments on most variables, which limits what can be learned about the interpersonal processes.
We have begun to answer some questions about how to best prepare new teachers for these important practices but more opportunity to learn from teachers at greater scale is needed.
· Culatta, R and Fairchild, D. (2017) “Creating a Shared Understanding of Personalized Learning for Rhode Island,” EduvateRI
· Powell, A., Rabbitt, B., and Kennedy, K. (October 2014) “Blended Learning Teacher Competency Framework,” iNACOL and The Learning Accelerator
· Rubin, R., Sanford, C., and Jackson, L. (2015) “School District 2.0: Redesigning Districts to Support Blended Learning,” Highlander Institute
· Mundy, M.A., Kupczynski, L., and Kee R. (2012) “Teacher’s Perceptions of Technology Use in School,” p1-8. SAGE Open
· Fox, C., Jones. R., and Neugent L. (2015) “Navigating the Digital Shift: Mapping the Acquisition of Digital Instructional Materials” SEDTA
· Fox, C., Jones, R., and Weeks, T. (June 2017) “Navigating the Digital Shift II: Implementing Digital Instructional Materials for Learning” SEDTA
· Newcomb, T. (March 29, 2017) “Will Personalized Learning Become the New Normal?” The Atlantic “2015-2020: Rhode Island Strategic Plan for PK-12 and Adult Education” Rhode Island Council of Elementary & Secondary Education VISION
Type of Research