Constant Learning and Creative Response: Charting the Course in Personalized Learning
At Education Elements we try to walk the walk of personalized learning. We strive to make our workshops interactive, upbeat, and fun. We create space for spirited large and small group discussion, and we honor time for quiet individual processing and reflection. We believe teachers should be designers of their classrooms. We want school teams to build connections at our workshops. We help districts visualize their personalized learning journey. We encourage singing, dancing, and selfie-brations. You may even find us in costume!
We believe deeply in bringing design thinking and fun to our work every day.
That’s why we’re so disheartened when the joy and passion leaves the room when we say, “Now we’re going to talk about how you might think of measuring your success in personalized learning.” The anxiety is palpable.
Even in the post-NCLB world, from the office to the classroom, people are understandably apprehensive about measurement. After years of thinking of students as either “proficient” or “not proficient,” many district and school leaders still reflexively reach for end-of-year data. How did our students perform on academic indicators, such as state or nationally-normed tests? What do end-of-year teacher and student surveys tell us about teacher efficacy and student engagement?
On the ground, many leaders and teachers have had negative experiences with evaluation programs. Feelings can range from overwhelmed (“There’s so much to do!”) to despair (“We are so far behind...”) to downright enraged (“This does NOT reflect what we’re doing for our students!”).
While end-of-year measures are important, they can falsely imply a binary outcome: you are either successful or you are not. Meanwhile, growth in academic skills, relationships with students, and innovative teaching techniques all develop week to week in classrooms and risk going undiscovered. To students, parents, and teachers, these may be the “measures that matter most,” as NGLC points out in its recent report of the same name, and in their recently released website that showcases the various approaches and tools districts are using to measure success.
Bearing this all in mind, we’ve recently made a similar pivot in how we think about measuring success. We’re now focusing on helping our districts and schools take a more proactive approach. We’ve started to frame the conversation as “charting your course.” That phrase implies a journey and aligns with our belief in design thinking—it is imperative to set a vision for your district or school, to not be afraid of failing fast, and to constantly iterate your approach in service of that vision. District and school teams that chart their course must rely on indicators throughout the year or risk losing their way. It’s all part of a personalized learning mindset in which constant learning and creative response are expectations for all stakeholders, from students to superintendents.
What might this look like in practice? Here’s how a few of our schools and districts have used short-term measures to chart their course:
- The Enlarged City School District of Middletown (NY) has aligned its work around the “Core Four” of personalized learning. At workshops, teachers learn about each component and during the year, classroom walkthroughs help gauge effectiveness against each strategy. Teachers and students take surveys aligned to the “Core Four.” Digital content data is periodically reviewed along with academic data. Having a common “Core Four” language for implementation and a variety of checkpoints for effectiveness helps ensure ongoing reflection by both practitioners and leaders in the district.
- Piedmont Middle School (Alabama) wanted to promote greater student ownership. To achieve this goal, they created a block of “flex” time each day when students could work individually or with groups. They conducted a mid-year student survey and found that while 6th grade students liked this block of time, 8th grade students hated it. They followed up the survey with a student focus group, and used their findings to make significant changes to the block structure.
- Horry County Schools (SC) spent the last year deeply focused on small group instruction in the district. Rather than wait until the end of the year to discuss progress, support from the district was organized around the following:
- Walkthrough days in which school leaders analyzed a progression of skills of small group instruction, discussed strengths and opportunities, and then tested assumptions against classrooms observations.
- Districtwide administrative team meetings (“A-team”) that followed walkthrough days in which concrete plans were made to help teachers move along a progression of small group instruction. School leaders focused on “triggers” that would help move the needle from one level of expertise to the next, formulated plans to segment professional learning, and worked with the district and other schools to share their implementation plans.
- In the early stages of their personalized learning rollout, Fulton County Schools (Georgia) was laser-focused on building school capacity to create a shared understanding of personalized learning. Fulton County gave schools the resources and time to develop personalized learning simulations, professional development sites, and other communications tools. Then, by tracking the professional learning taking place at each school, Fulton was able to shine a light on schools doing an excellent job building momentum and to provide examples for other schools.
Let’s be clear—we would never argue that a district or school shouldn’t be focused on end-of-year outcomes. We’re simply suggesting that districts and schools that only focus on these measures miss an opportunity. They are less able to course correct, if necessary. They also are less able to identify early proof points of success—such as teachers or schools that are doing amazing things—that can be used to create enthusiasm for the work.
We are often asked, “Does personalized learning work?” That’s an urgent question. While we like to have fun in our work, we are serious about getting this right. We owe it to students, teachers, and the community to make sure that the investment in personalized learning leads to the intended results. The initial findings are positive (see reports from Education Elements and the Gates Foundation), and we’ll continue to track these results.
However, as facilitators on this journey, we also owe it to district and school leaders to help them refocus energy on these short-term indicators. If we don’t pay attention to progress along the way, we won’t see these great results. As always, we’re excited and privileged to do this work.
Janice Vargo :Previously on the Design and Implementation team, Janice Vargo is the Director of Knowledge Management and Impact for Education Elements where she focuses on supporting school districts as they think about how to understand the impact of personalized learning.
Mike Wolking: A former teacher and consultant, Mike Wolking is the Director of Design Strategy and Organizational Change at Education Elements where he focuses on designing new instructional and organizational models for school districts seeking transformational change.