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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Does Teacher Customization Improve Student Learning?

A key principle of CCE’s Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network is Personalized Learning Pathways - the idea that students’ experiences in school should be customized to meet their personal learning needs. To accomplish this successfully, teachers need the freedom to modify their instruction to support students’ personalized learning and academic growth.

There is a long-running debate in education circles about the benefits of teacher customization—having teachers modify the content and structure of existing lesson plans. Proponents argue that providing teachers the freedom to customize lessons allows teachers to build off of their existing knowledge of students’ content understanding and modify the content to meet the needs of different types of learners (Apkinar & Ball, 2006; Boschman, McKenny, & Voogt, 2014). Critics, however, contend that teachers who are not well-versed in the content and pedagogical goals of the curriculum may make changes that undermine student learning (Davis et al., 2011; Remillard, 1999).

I recently completed a study with my co-authors Elham Beheshti (Northwestern University) and Carolyn Staudt (Concord Consortium) that examined whether teacher customization benefited student learning. We focused on science teachers who were participating in a program created by Concord Consortium that was designed to introduce probes, sensors, and computer-based models into low-resource classrooms. In addition to the classroom resources, teachers were able to access an online lesson portal containing over 150 science lessons that use probes, sensors, and models to teach scientific concepts.

Teachers in the program were given a choice about how to teach the lessons to students. They could have presented the lessons “as is” to students without making any changes, or they could customize the lesson using tools that were already integrated into the lesson portal.

My co-authors and I compared the learning outcomes for students who completed customized lessons to those who completed the standard lessons. Both sets of students significantly improved in their science knowledge, but the students who completed the customized lessons had an increase that was more than double the size of those who did the standard lessons.

To better understand this finding, we took a closer look at a few teachers who had customized lessons and whose students had above average gains in science knowledge. These teachers made changes that improved the quality of the lesson: providing opportunities for students to revisit predictions, offering different learning modalities, and bridging different scientific concepts.

We also looked at a teacher who customized a lesson but whose students had below-average gains in scientific knowledge. This teacher made changes to the lesson that made it less effective, for example, asking students to predict an outcome from an experiment without providing enough contextual information to make an informed prediction.

These findings add some nuance to the debate over the effectiveness of teacher customization. While some teachers made changes that likely improved the quality of the lesson, others made changes that may have undermined student learning. This suggests that teacher customization can improve student learning, but it requires certain skills and experience to do it effectively. In particular, inexperienced teachers or those teachers who are not yet comfortable with their content area may need additional support to effectively customize lessons. These teachers might look to other educators, either in their school or through their educator networks, to help them think about effective ways to customize their lessons.

Our MA Personalized Learning Network team is currently busy developing and presenting professional development for educators, through in-person coaching and online training, to support teachers in personalizing instruction for students. The results from this study will provide important guidance to our staff as we seek to make a significant, positive impact in our approach to personalizing teaching and learning throughout the state.