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Four Suggestions to Introduce Personalized Learning into Your Organization

Four Suggestions to Introduce Personalized Learning into Your Organization

Personalized Learning

As the saying goes, change is hard. This is especially true for leaders introducing personalized learning into their organizations. I often have a front-row seat to the resulting backlash and chaos that stems from leaders as they help their districts make shifts toward personalizing learning for students. Frequently, there are patterns that I see across districts: teachers facing initiative fatigue, questions about why, how, and what, and concerned parents. Although the specific challenges that each district faces may differ, one lesson is clear: how personalized learning is introduced into a community matters.

Two years ago, I had an eye-opening experience when I was on the other side of this paradigm as our senior leadership introduced innovation into our own organization. I listened intently as our leadership discussed our shift to Holacracy, a self-organization philosophy that has been adopted by various companies (learn about Holacracy here). Immediately, I found myself asking these questions:

  • Why are we making this shift?
  • Where did this come from?
  • How will we know if we are successful?
  • And what will this mean for me in my specific context?

Perhaps not surprisingly, my questions and concerns mirrored those I often hear in school districts making shifts to personalized learning. In reflecting on this experience as well as experiences leading change in dozens of school districts, I have four suggestions for leaders as they introduce innovation into their organizations.

Start with a compelling and authentic “why”

From the Rider, Elephant, and Path framework popularized by the Heath brothers to various lectures from Simon Sinek, organizational psychologists consistently agree that the development of a compelling “why” is absolutely essential to create lasting change within an organization. This “why” can take various forms based on the purpose for your organization: a vision statement, a rallying cry, or simply “our why”. While nearly all districts have a vision statement at least on paper, I’ve found that the majority of districts do not have a vision that actually drives actions or decisions within the organization. Making a shift to personalized learning is a chance to have an honest conversation as to the relevancy of that vision and revisit the purpose for a vision (consider this process from my colleague, Mike Wolking).

District visions often include education buzzwords (e.g. “empower students”, “21st century learning”, and “college and career ready”). While it’s certainly alright to include these terms if they are authentic representations of the shifts a district hopes to realize, sometimes they are used without significant reflection on their true meanings. What does it actually mean to “empower students”? What does “college and career ready” look like?

To test if a “why” statement is authentic and compelling, I suggest organizations share a draft with stakeholder groups, asking specific questions:

  • Does this statement compel you to take action?
  • Does this statement accurately reflect our district and where we see our district in the future?

Finally, while it’s important to obtain input on the “why” statement, reaching consensus is a daunting task for any district. I encourage districts to adopt the “safe enough to try” principle. When implementing novel concepts or ideas into our organization, we’ve adopted a “safe enough to try” mentality to guide our efforts, shifting the threshold to a standard that will not unreasonably delay moving forward.

Develop an operational definition specific to your district

A recent Google search returned over 16 million hits for the term “personalized learning”. In some ways, this is the challenge with introducing personalized learning to a community: what does the term actually mean? Does it simply involve providing students with choice or opportunities to pursue their interests? Is it about 1-1 technology?

As leaders introduce personalized learning into a system, it’s important to unbundle what the term actually entails. Michael Horn has advocated for reframing the way we talk about personalized learning by shifting our phrasing from a noun or a “thing” that can be inserted into classrooms to a verb: personalizing learning. This distinction is important as it naturally shifts toward action and breaks apart the notion that the adoption of a program will occur.

Many have debated the definition of personalized learning, and I generally agree with the suggestion that we simply stop trying to develop a ubiquitous definition. However, it is absolutely vital for organizations to align on an operational definition of the term – a set of guiding principles or pillars that can be acted upon as teachers seek to implement the practice. This operational definition creates alignment across the organization to ensure teachers, principals, parents, and district leaders are speaking the same language when referring to the term. Various examples exist for guiding principles, including our very own Core Four or Fulton County’s Seven Principles.

Create meaningful experiential opportunities

I often hear teachers ask, “Can you just show me what personalized learning is supposed to look like? Can you just share a video of what I’m supposed to do?”

Although I empathize with this sentiment, experience has taught me to be wary of introducing personalized learning through videos for a few reasons. First, it’s difficult to find videos that exactly reflect the circumstances for teachers. Inevitably, videos will show classrooms with more devices (or less), fewer students (or more), or simply students who are in different circumstances. This can lead to a backfire in which teachers viewing the videos think, “Well of course this can work in this classroom – they have <fill in the blank here>!”.

On the other hand, I have also seen teachers view videos in a dogmatic fashion, seeking to exactly replicate what they see in the video, completely missing the purpose of personalizing learning for their students. Finally, videos are monolithic. Watching a teacher pull a small group of students to review a math concept isn’t rocket science – but actually talking with the teacher to understand how she identified the students for the group and modified the instruction to meet their needs can be transformational.

Instead, providing meaningful opportunities for teachers, parents, board members and the broader community to actually experience personalized learning in action will yield far better results. This can entail creating a simple station rotation simulation that provides participants the chance to step into the shoes of students and “try on” personalized learning or even opportunities to engage with teachers or principals from neighboring districts who are already on this path. Additionally, I have seen several districts identify early-adopting teachers of personalized learning within the district; film these teachers and include interviews in which they describe their model and iterations. Finally, create resources and opportunities specifically for parents. For ideas, see Communications Planning for Innovation in Education or this guide designed for parents.

Embrace the process of prototyping, testing, and iterating

Sometimes, districts carry the mantra of, “We must get everything exactly right, right away,” as they seek to implement personalized learning. This is an unrealistic standard as an organization embarks on new learning. Yes, I understand that community pressure does exist, but this mentality escalates anxiety to an unnecessary level. This can also place districts in “planning mode” for far too long in which a significant amount of time is spent preparing without actually obtaining any meaningful data from practitioners.

On the other hand, many districts embrace pilots as a simple way to test personalized learning, but pilots often fail to create the intended outcomes. By definition, pilots exist outside of true conditions; they are often provided no resources or support – or ample resources or support – neither of which reflect what will actually be provided. Though pilots are designed to create system-wide learning, proper reflection and scaling frequently fails to occur. In How to Scale Personalized Learning, the authors found that “Districts often wait too long after the launch of a pilot to evaluate and refine it.”

Instead, I see the best implementations when districts embrace the design mindset. In the design mindset, a prototype is created around the needs of users and is immediately tested to obtain data and feedback, which drives the next iteration of the prototype. For example, teachers design an initial prototype for their classrooms based on student needs (see potential elementary and secondary instructional models). They then implement the model and reflect on what worked well and what needs to change. In this way, actual data is obtained throughout the process which enables refinement along the way.

Districts can adopt this same mentality by being very honest and transparent in their personalized learning implementations. This may entail directly stating that the design process may require a bit of “messiness” as educators prototype and test various facets of the implementation.

In our own implementation of Holacracy, there were certainly bumps, long conversations, and a certain degree of “messiness”. But overall, by following the suggestions provided above, we have become a more nimble and transparent organization where employees feel more enabled to lead change.

I applaud any education leader willing to introduce change into their organizations. If you are interested in learning how you can further transform your organization, I encourage you to pick up The New School Rules by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzalez-Black, a guide to transition from rigid, slow-moving institutions to nimble and dynamic environments.


A graphic with the cover of the book, "The NEW School Rules" by Anthony Kim and Alexis Gonzales-Black, which reads "Actions to increase effectiveness of schools in a rapidly changing world."

About Scott Johns - Guest Author

Scott is a former Associate Partner at Education Elements, who led our Personalized Learning Consulting Services in Houston ISD, Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Weld County School District 6, Uinta County School District 1, and several other projects. Scott holds a B.S. and M.S. in accountancy from Brigham Young University and an M.S. in education from Johns Hopkins University, and left Education Elements to pursue a graduate degree at Northwestern University.

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