Learnings from Implementing Personalized Learning in Denver Public Schools
In the three-plus years since introducing Personalized Learning (PL) in individual schools within a large public school system, the Imaginarium, Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) innovation lab, has been studying the conditions that help and hinder the implementation of PL at scale.
Here’s what we’ve learned about conditions for success within the school system:
- Accountability systems must be flexible and reflect the expected outcomes of PL. The promise of PL is that students will learn at their own pace, have opportunities to pursue their own interests, apply their learning to “real world” problems, and develop learner and personal agency. Research suggests that as a result, students will be more engaged, develop desirable 21st-century skills, and grow the capacity to steer their own learning. But standardized tests focus instead on whether students have mastered an agreed-upon curriculum. Using them as the only—or even the primary—benchmark for learning represents a mismatch that conflicts with PL’s pace and scheduling and inhibits teachers’ ability to fully embrace PL.
- District personnel and supports must be aligned with the philosophy and goals of PL. Not all supports offered by a school system are compatible with PL. For example, some central office staff may be philosophically opposed to allowing students voice and choice in their learning, focusing instead on a “no excuses” approach. Conflicts arise when a school leader or teacher tries to implement PL but is accountable to a supervisor or coach who does not support a student-centered model of instruction.
- The community must be involved in the move to PL. At a recent community meeting with Latino families, DPS collaborated with Education Reimagined to explore student-centered learning. Although it was new to attendees, parents expressed an overwhelming interest in and support for PL, asking, “How can I get this kind of learning for my child?” When parents understand the philosophy behind PL and grasp its potential to prepare their children for success in their chosen path—while also addressing their social-emotional needs and demonstrating the principles of cultural responsiveness—they become strong advocates in the community for PL, and they support and promote its expanded implementation.
- School systems must learn institutional patience in measuring results. Apple, FedEx, and Airbnb almost foundered. WD-40, bubble wrap, and implantable pacemakers began as failures. The electric light bulb, alternating current, and online shopping were initially met with derision. Despite the urgency to improve our public education system, system leaders must recognize that, like any innovation, PL is unlikely to be a fast fix. They must allow PL time to demonstrate its effectiveness. The Imaginarium has built a research-based theoretical model that shows clear pathways via PL to student academic growth, social-emotional wellbeing, and 21st-century skill development. By continuously gathering data and testing this model, we are able to monitor progress and provide evidence-based guidance to decision-makers about scaling, increasing everyone’s confidence that in the long term, PL will make a difference for the better for all DPS students.
Have you used ideas like these in your own district? Sound off in the comments below, and check out this post about the landmarks you'll see along the way on your personalized learning implementation journey!
About Susan Trickett, Ph.D. - Guest Author
Susan Trickett is the Director of Research and Strategy at Imaginarium, the Denver Public Schools’ Innovation Lab.