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6 risks to avoid when implementing personalized learning: Part 1

By: Janice Vargo on January 27th, 2016

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6 risks to avoid when implementing personalized learning: Part 1

Personalized Learning  |  Competency-Based Education  |  School Districts

The Education Elements team has the great privilege of working with districts across the country to plan, design, and implement personalized learning. Without fail, one of the first questions district leadership teams ask us is, “What have other districts done that we should avoid?”

Through our work over the past five years, we’ve identified six key risks for districts:

  • Risk #1: Lack of Clear Vision, Narrative, and Rationale
  • Risk #2: Curricular and Instructional Misalignment
  • Risk #3: Failure to Build Capacity at District and School Level
  • Risk #4: Starting with the Wrong Schools
  • Risk #5: Under-communication with Stakeholders
  • Risk #6: Selecting the Wrong Devices

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We’ll talk about the first three risks here, then move on to the second three risks in our next blog post.




The First Three Risks When Implementing Personalized Learning:


Risk #1: Lack of Clear Vision, Narrative, and Rationale

Many districts struggle to paint a clear picture of how personalized learning looks different from what happens in classrooms today. Instead they turn to educational jargon and say things like, “we want to see 21st century skills and higher-order thinking skills.”

Sounds great right? But if I’m a teacher, I don’t know what I should be doing differently. If I’m a parent, I don’t know how my child’s experience will be different -- much less improved -- than before.

And while school leaders and teachers may understand that they are being asked to focus on different instructional strategies, like more small group instruction or flipped teaching, they may not be able to articulate why they are taking these new approaches.

Without a clear vision and narrative, district leaders have trouble identifying early wins or proof points of success that would help them increase buy-in and offer exemplars of good practice.

To avoid this risk, districts should:

  • Create a district vision statement and explain why personalized learning supports that vision
  • Connect personalized learning to the instructional language and priorities of the district
  • Identify measures of success early in the process – what’s the expected path to this success and key indicators of success along the way
  • Agree on a process to check if schools are on/off track from expected path, and identify immediate supports to course correct


Risk #2: Curricular and Instructional Misalignment

Many districts do not spend the appropriate time sufficiently early in the process making sure that new instructional models and content align with the district’s current curriculum or instructional frameworks. Often, district curriculum coaches and school-based instructional coaches are missing from initial conversations around planning, design, and professional development.

As a result, school leaders and teachers are unclear on expectations and how the new instructional model “fits in” with what they were already doing – for example, what does differentiation look like in a personalized system? The lack of clarity can often lead to a compliance mindset among school leaders and teachers. Schools that adopt a compliance mindset often put a new label on current practices -- “we’re already doing this, we just need to call it something different” -- rather than embracing the opportunity to go beyond current practices. Schools that adopt a compliance mindset often miss the opportunity to increase student choice, to offer additional pathways for student learning based on need, or to rethink how to personalize their professional development for teachers.

To avoid this risk, districts should:

  • Ensure any changes proposed are aligned with current pedagogy, or if they are departure from current pedagogy, to explain the shifts and how to do them
  • Involve curricular leads at the district and school level early in the process in order to identify gaps, either real or perceived
  • Acknowledge realistic timeline for changes, e.g. revamping curriculum
  • Articulate what teachers should be doing less as well as more
  • Create process to continuously check on instructional alignment in the classroom (e.g. walkthroughs)


Risk #3: Failure to Build Capacity at District and School Level

Many districts create a rollout plan that only involves the principal in the periphery. For example, they allow teachers to opt-into personalized learning, but have no expectations for principal involvement. It’s hard for change to stick at a school if the leader is not involved!

Some districts also fail to build internal capacity at the district level to communicate, coordinate, or support the work. For example, they defer to vendors or consultants to fully own the messaging and delivery of training and do not build district capacity to support work.

As a result, the district may have a few shining stars at the classroom level, but limited examples of excellent, whole-school shifts to personalization. Furthermore, once the vendors or consultants leave, there is no one with the capacity or experience to continue to the work.

To avoid this risk, districts should:

  • Involve the principal in all key meetings and decisions
  • Set expectations for the principal role; do not allow principal to delegate key responsibilities to coaches or APs
  • Ensure district owns the message and does not defer to outside organizations to deliver message to school
  • Build capacity in the district to support school leaders and teachers
  • Be clear about expectations for the district vs. the school vs. outside vendors


Stay tuned for our next blog post that talks about the last three risks:

  • Risk #4: Starting with the Wrong Schools
  • Risk #5: Under-communication with Stakeholders
  • Risk #6: Selecting the Wrong Devices 


Check out the 6 Risk To Avoid When Implementing Personalized Learning: Part 2



About Janice Vargo

Janice is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team at Education Elements. She has supported a diverse group of districts in their personalized learning journey. Prior to Education Elements, Janice was a Senior Consultant for UPD Consulting where she supported state education agencies, K-12 school districts, and nonprofits on a variety of policy and technology projects. She holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame.

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