Personalized Learning Isn’t Just Good for Students: Teachers Benefit, Too
Weber Innovation High School math teacher Ryan Sonognini describes his typical day teaching in a personalized learning environment
By Dennis Pierce
When we talk about the benefits of personalized learning, we often focus on how it can help students: They can learn at their own pace and are given more ownership of their learning, which often results in greater student satisfaction and a higher level of engagement. But students aren’t the only ones who benefit from personalized learning: Teachers do, too.
Ryan Sonognini is a math teacher at Weber Innovation High School, a new public school that is part of Utah’s Weber School District. The school opened its doors in August with a focus on delivering a fully personalized learning experience for students, and Sonognini—who taught for three years elsewhere before joining its staff—has never been happier as an instructor.
“I’m excited to come to work, and I look forward to it every day,” he said. “The challenge of creating an atmosphere where students can succeed is really fulfilling—and in this type of setting, I feel like I can actually accomplish that. It feels possible.”
Weber Innovation High educates just over 100 students in grades 9-11 this year, but it will serve grades 9-12 next year, when the current crop of juniors become seniors. All students receive a Chromebook and complete their coursework online at their own pace, with the help of the school’s teachers. Students are given the freedom to sit wherever they want and to work on whatever subjects they choose each day, as long as they’re making sufficient progress in their courses.
Powering this instruction is a personalized learning management system from School Improvement Network, called Edivate Learn. This next-generation learning platform includes digital content from providers such as Accelerate Learning, Pearson, and Khan Academy, as well as tools that enable users to create individualized learning paths for each student.
For instance, students and teachers together can construct learning sequences based on students’ individual preferences and guided by their learning goals. The system also uses the results of adaptive assessments to prescribe student pathways through the curriculum automatically—and teachers can assign interventions either manually or automatically to support students’ progress.
Because the school is so small, Sonognini is its only math teacher. Like the other teachers on staff, he serves as a personal mentor to about ten students to make sure they are succeeding in this unique, blended-learning format—but he’s also responsible for the success of every student in math.
“A typical day for me involves answering any questions that students have, working one-on-one with them to do that,” he said. Sometimes, students will seek him out and ask for help—but he also uses the Edivate Learn platform to check on students’ progress and look for students who need additional support.
“The main thing I look for is their progress,” he said. “I’ll go into the software, and I can see how much of the course each student has completed. When I find students who look like they haven’t been making much progress, I’ll drill down to see what they’ve been doing and how much time they’ve spent on the course: Have they been avoiding this for a while? If so, I’ll send them an email and ask them to come see me. From there, I help them develop a plan to succeed.”
He added: “Typically, if they haven’t been working, it’s because they’re stuck—and I can help them get back on track.”
Once per week, Sonognini meets with each of the students he mentors for about 30 minutes at a time. He also oversees a network of peer math tutors that he has set up to make sure it’s going well, and he develops some additional content for students.
“I love this setting,” he says of teaching at Weber Innovation High. “I think most teachers are anxious to help kids succeed, and they become a teacher in the first place because they care about kids. In a traditional school setting, it can be very frustrating, because you see kids who struggle, and you really want to help them—but you’re constrained by time and many other things you have to do as a teacher. The setting just doesn’t allow for that kind of personalized help.”
In his current environment, “I have a lot more time to work one on one with students,” he said. “But the thing that excites me most is that I have so much freedom to be creative and to implement policies and procedures to ensure that my students succeed. That’s very exciting to me, because I feel like whatever I’m going to implement in my classroom is actually going to make a difference, and that I’ll be able to succeed as well.”
Sonognini has taught in schools that were pretty rough, “and at this school, we really haven’t had too many behavior issues,” he said. “I think that’s another appealing aspect of this approach. Students are more focused on their learning—so there are fewer behavior problems. I don’t have nearly as many confrontations with students as I’ve had in the past.”
His advice for other district leaders who want to implement personalized learning is to start small, and scale up from there.
“One of the problems we’re struggling with is that students come in with the beliefs and patterns they developed in their earlier school environments, and we’re trying to create a completely different experience here,” he said. “We’re trying to reprogram those beliefs and patterns, and show students what school could be like. To be able to do that on a large scale right away, I think, would be impossible.”