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Bringing Personalized Learning to Scale in a Large Urban School District
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Bringing Personalized Learning to Scale in a Large Urban School District

Personalized Learning  |  Leadership

Personalized learning has captured the attention of many education reformers. Much of the conversation is around utilizing a personalized learning approach to enhance student engagement, and thereby, increase student achievement. I believe that many school districts are confusing personalized learning with offering programs that constitute personalized pathways. Pathways can be viewed as magnet programs, innovative programs, career technical education programs, debate, dual enrollment, international and global studies, dual language programs, and advanced placement. Although these programs provide school choice to students, by offering them a wide array of schools to attend where they can pursue a passion or program of interest specifically to them, this does not address the necessary changes in instructional practices inherent in personalized learning.

To this point, Broward County Public Schools is committed to empowering all learners to achieve their highest potential through customized learning, creativity, collaboration, and the infusion of digital tools and resources. Through this emphasis on innovation and personalization, we see our vision coming to life: sparking creative ideas one learner at a time. We define personalized learning to be an education model that seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment—what, when, how, and where students learn—to address the individual needs, skills, and interests of each student. Students take ownership of their own learning while also developing deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers, and other adults.

The framework that we use in Broward County is derived from the work promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and EDUCAUSE. This framework is comprised of five main components:

  • Learner profiles that record students’ academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals.
  • Personalized learning paths that encourage students to set and manage their individual academic goals.
  • Competency-based progression in which students’ progression toward mastery of clearly defined goals is continually assessed.
  • Flexible learning environments that modify staffing plans, space utilization, time allocation, and technology use to keep students’ needs and interests front and center
  • Focus on College and Career readiness

So how does a school district facilitate the development of schools to have a focus on creating a learning environment where students are active participants in their learning experiences while also developing the social and emotional skills that they will need in order to be productive global citizens of the 21st century? We started by identifying an experienced partner in this work, and in our case, that was Education Elements. In collaboration, schools were invited to apply to go on this journey of assessing and reformulating instructional practices with us. We asked them to assess where they were currently in relation to creating this desired learning space, identify core teachers who would participate in ongoing professional learning experiences, and then rolled up our sleeves to get down to the hard work.

The goal was to develop what we called Lighthouse Schools to serve as demonstration sites and act as laboratories to learn and refine the instructional practices teachers need to transition from a teacher-centered learning environment to a more student-centered one. We choose to think of personalized learning as a practice rather than a product, and we started by taking a hard look at course designs and identifying those areas that fail to make meaningful individual contact with students.

Wave 1 consisted of eleven (11) schools from all grade levels (elementary, middle and high) and the following year we accepted an additional twelve (12) schools, again from all grade levels. We delivered ongoing professional learning workshops dedicated to developing the Core 4 Components of Personalized Learning:

  • Flexible Content and Tools – instructional materials that allow for differentiated path, pace, and performance tasks
  • Targeted Instruction – instruction that aligns to specific student needs and learning goals
  • Student Reflection and Ownership – ongoing student reflection that promotes ownership of learning
  • Data-Driven Decision – frequently collect data to inform instructional decisions and groupings

These components are all part of good teaching and learning that most teachers strive to deliver on an ongoing basis. The work on which we focus during our workshops was to be extremely intentional in the design of the instructional delivery so that we were building into daily lessons the opportunities for student voice and choice that was relevant to where each student stood in relationship with the content.

What do we want to see after Wave 2 is completed? We are looking for 23 demonstration sites that will continue to develop capacity in their own school site. Before we can scale this across 240 schools, we will need to go deeper within each of the Lighthouse Schools so that they can serve the district as a beacon for this work.

What did we experience as leaders in this journey? Our Instructional Facilitators who support our schools needed to take a good, hard look at how they deliver professional learning to our teachers. If we wanted our teachers to develop the skills and attitudes needed to make this transition, we needed to model these very instructional practices in our workshops. We spent a good amount of time revamping our delivery of instruction for our workshops to take into account the various ability levels of our teachers arriving at our training sessions, choice in what was going to be learned during the sessions, and a laser focus on the learner rather than the instructor. 

We also created multiple professional development labs with flexible seating so that teachers could participate in the type of learning space we wanted them to recreate for their students. In these labs, student needs drive the design of the learning environment. Here, all operational elements – staffing plans, space utilization and time allocation – respond and adapt to support students in achieving their goals. The space offers us the flexibility in the design to enable us to respond and adapt to changing student needs while supporting our instructional vision. The space allows for variations in grouping students enabling the varied learning experiences we hope to offer and modify to students’ changing needs. By creating multiple grouping schemes, we promote the development of personal connections among students, and between students and adults.

What are the expectations for our Lighthouse Schools? We want to continue building the instructional practices deeper in each school site. Depth pertains to the nature of change in classroom practice, including indicators such as changes in teachers’ beliefs, norms of interaction, and underlying pedagogical practices. Also involved are classroom norms of social interaction, including teacher and student roles in the classroom, patterns of teacher and student talk, and the manner in which teachers and students treat one another. 

Our work includes how we are going to spread personalized learning to greater numbers of classrooms and schools. But spread should not be thought solely in terms of expanding personalized learning outward to more schools and classrooms. It also pertains to the spread of reform related norms and pedagogical principles within a classroom and a school. Our demonstration sites will work on including additional teachers in the ongoing work so that they are spreading practices deeper within their own school site.

Sustainability might be the central challenge in bringing personalized learning to scale because this pertains to whether or not, as well as how, schools sustain the reform practices after the original partners and funding are gone. The adoption and distribution of personalized learning is only significant if it can be sustained in original and subsequent schools. Our goal is to ensure that this effort can continue without special or external resources and without the involvement of the developers who were involved in the original classroom implementation. We therefore need to make sure that we develop the policies and infrastructure systems to support continued, deep improvement in classroom practice over time. 

This leads us to the most important dimension in the development of our Lighthouse Schools. The concept of shift in reform ownership is the ultimate goal for any innovation. Here the ownership needs to be transferred to multiple constituencies within a school or school district. This occurs when there is a move from external control (my department and Education Elements) to internal control with the knowledge and authority held by the schools, teachers, and administrators who are capable of sustaining, spreading, and deepening personalized learning principles themselves. 

Here we need to understand that reform ownership is not so much about ensuring teacher and school “buy-in”, but rather a shift in knowledge of and authority for the reform. This includes a transfer of knowledge and authority to sustain personalized learning to the school site, allowing continuous improvement and further scaling up of practices and principles. This rests on the ability to develop the capacity to provide professional development or other structures for ongoing teacher and administration learning.

What is essential is the ability to transfer the reform-centered knowledge among leaders at various levels of the school system, as well as at the classroom and school levels. Without this shift in ownership, schools will remain reliant on the developers to sustain the core practices of the school. This relationship cannot be sustained over the long haul. The structures and mechanisms that we are building include ongoing teaching and learning about personalized learning, established strategies to provide continued funding for its activities, and a high degree in which our district will take responsibility for the continued spread of the reform.

Join us at the National Academy for Personalized Learning this March, a one-day professional development event, designed for district leaders at all stages of their personalized learning implementation. Register now for you and your team, and save your spot!

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