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First Steps to Personalize Learning

By: Chris Summers on January 25th, 2017

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First Steps to Personalize Learning

Personalized Learning  |  School Districts  |  Classrooms  |  Innovative Leadership

If you wait until you’re ready for personalized learning, you’ll never get started!

Our antiquated, factory-style education system is failing our students. It’s also failing our teachers. We have more and more students each year struggling to find relevance and connections between what they do in school each day and their future hopes and dreams. Every day, hundreds of thousands of students walk into their school buildings hoping that this day will be the day that school connects with them, is relevant to them, will interest them, will challenge them, will engage them, and will allow their voice to be valued and heard. Sadly, the current structures of most educational systems will not allow for these students to see that day come about.

Personalized learning (PL) is the opportunity our students are waiting for, are craving, and deserve to experience. PL offers students, teachers, leaders, and communities the opportunity to move away from the “batch” model of instruction that typically moves students through their educational journey at the same pace, through the same path, at the same time, with very little choice along the way. From my perspective, it’s not simple to shift our educational system from the batch model to a more personalized model, but I’d also argue it’s not optional.

The work of implementing personalized learning isn’t easy and in fact there may well be resistance from many within the educational system when a district or campus leadership team begins the work of shifting to PL. My advice is to jump in and begin doing what is right for kids because if you wait until you’re ready for personalized learning, you’ll never get started!

I’d like to offer a few ideas for how your district can get started along the PL journey. Personalized learning for students is a very unique experience for each district and its community. PL looks and acts differently based upon a community’s needs and values, but there are some general resources out there to help. I’ll share some of the steps we took in West Oso ISD to begin our work in PL.

First, seek out local and national organizations that are doing work around personalized learning and find out what resources they have that can help your district implement your vision.
  • For West Oso ISD, our first step was to reach out to a Texas-based education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT). In the summer of 2015 RYHT sponsored a first of its kind "Call for Districts" to compete for grants to create a prototype and implement blended learning. We applied and were one of 75 districts chosen to compete for the grants. RYHT funded a two-day workshop for us to become familiar with blended learning -- we even got to work directly with Heather Staker. We weren’t selected to be one of the five districts to receive the large grants but the Raising Blended Learners initiative allowed us to take our first steps in developing our vision and plan for personalizing learning in our district. To this day they still offer resources to all 75 districts through their blended learning portal.
  • In the spring of 2016 we learned about another Personalized learning support opportunity and applied for it. In April 2016 I was informed that I was selected to be part of the Lexington Institute’s LELA Fellowship program Cohort 3. The fellowship is a six-month program designed to assist district leaders in implementing PL through exposure to best practices from around the country and mentoring from current PL practitioners. The fellowship also provided intensive support from the national leader in personalized learning, Education Elements. Coupled with RYHT, the LELA Fellowship allowed our district leadership team to craft a coherent vision for PL and begin the steps necessary to implement our plan.
Second, expand your network of leaders in the district and value the collaborative process necessary for implementing a personalized learning vision.

The work of PL cannot be carried out by a select few in the organization. PL has to be a belief and way of life if your intention is to truly change the way students and teachers learn, interact, and grow in the educational ecosystem of your district. We’ve expanded our PL network of leaders and teachers so that we now have a PL Council. Every campus has representation and a seat at the table of PL conversations. Our PL Council members are charged with pioneering PL ideas, seeking out pilot receptive teachers, and spreading the PL gospel across the district.

Third, embrace “not knowing”.

So many leaders feel the need to be experts on everything or to have all the answers for when a philosophical shift like personalized learning is implemented. Leaders can’t be afraid of the unknown. Leaders need to encourage and support “the eager” stakeholders who see the vision and are willing to pour themselves into the critical work of PL. Have a plan, have a target, have the courage to try, fail, get up, and try again!



Download the Personalized Learning Playbook


About Chris Summers

Chris Summers is an Associate Partner with Education Elements. Prior to coming to EE, he was the Director of Curriculum and chief academic officer for a South Texas school district. He has been in education for 23 years, including 5 years in central office, 12 years as a campus principal, and has taught at the elementary and secondary levels. His successful leadership led to him being selected for the Lexington Institute’s LELA Fellowship in 2015 and he was twice chosen to attend the Harvard Leadership Program: National Institute for Urban School Leaders and Improving Schools–The Art of Leadership. He was also selected as a 2013 HEB Excellence in Education State Semi-Finalist Elementary Principal. Chris has worked in urban as well as suburban/rural schools. His work to build a multi-year teacher induction program in West Oso ISD led to the district being one of twelve recognized in the 2016 Texas School Business “Bragging Rights 2016-2017” issue highlighting innovative practices in education. Most of his career has been spent working with low income or Title I campuses and communities. He has a real passion for students and families in this setting and is a champion for equity and excellence in education. He also has great interest in developing educators and empowering educational leaders to be effective instructional leaders for their campus.

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