Personalized Learning Journey Begins with a Vision
Have you ever stopped and looked around your school, your classroom, and asked yourself: “How did this all happen? Where did it all begin? How did we get to this point? When did the transformation occur?”
In year one of being a personalized learning school, I have had many reflective moments like this at Trailside Middle School. I look back on what our classrooms looked like, sounded like, and felt like a few years ago - and the transformation is amazing. Students engage in selecting their pathway for learning, collaborating, questioning, and self-assessing all day long. Teachers have assumed the role of facilitator and students are owners of their learning.
How? When? Where? Why? The answer lies in a vision for a learning community through a growth mindset. When Trailside Middle School opened three years ago, my vision for creating a learning community for all stakeholders was fueled by the research of Carol Dweck on Mindset. Each staff member read Mindset by Carol Dweck and participated in yearlong book discussions and professional development on her research. In my fifteen years of experience as an administrator, I have learned that culture and climate for learning and development must be established prior to any instructional initiative. For the past three years, our instructional and support staff have cultivated a growth mindset. This has included direct lessons for all students on mindset, fostering a belief that you can grow your intelligence, and utilizing growth mindset language throughout the school and in our communication with the school community.
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When we applied to become a personalized learning school in Loudoun County, it was the consensus of the staff that we should take this risk. The commitment of the staff to growing and learning is evident in their journey these past two years. Almost 90% of the instructional staff participated in professional development on project-based learning in the past two years, and then embraced personalized learning. The growth mindset that permeates the walls of the school has been key to their success. The open collaboration amongst the staff, no matter subject area, team, or grade level has fostered risk-taking and enabled adults to be vulnerable in front of one another. Teachers share their failures along with their successes in order to grow and learn from one another. Teachers participate in collaborative learning visits to other classrooms, often out of their content area and then come back together to reflect on what they can do differently.
"I'm not there yet, but..." is a sentence starter we hear in many discussions.
There are distinctive characteristics I have identified that have supported the implementation of personalized learning at Trailside. Patience, encouragement, communication, and perseverance are key in the first months. As the principal, I had to reassure my staff that it was okay to experience failure; that there was no expectation our classrooms would change overnight, and that we had to first focus on our mindset and the students’ mindset. Communicating and establishing supports for teachers, teams, departments to express their concerns and frustrations was also vital. Once again, culture and climate of the school came into play.
When you are going through a level two change and a paradigm shift in educational pedagogy, the culture and relationships within the school must be strong and nurturing. As a leader, you must be willing to be vulnerable to your staff and to celebrate and highlight risk taking, the act of being willing to try. It is in the trying, the multiple attempts, and the revisions that we began to see PL take shape in our classrooms. Student feedback was all across the spectrum. Some students loved having voice and choice while others wanted direct instruction as a whole group, allowing them to be passive in their learning. The students themselves had to work and continue to work through the transformation of the classroom setting and learning styles. The power of having a growth mindset, understanding that all learning is a journey and not necessarily a final destination, is visible throughout our hallways and classrooms.
“I’m not there yet, but...” is a sentence starter we hear in many discussions. Students and teachers talk about what went well and what they would do differently next. Reflection and revision is becoming commonplace, whereas before a summative assessment would indicate the end of the journey. I reflect on where we began in September 2014 as a new school, embracing new ideas, learning how to foster a growth mindset from a fixed mindset, and learning how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I think about our commitment to transforming our classrooms in order to meet the needs of our global learners, leveraging technology and community resources, and it makes me wonder, “What will it look like three years from now?”
Learning is a journey without a final destination. The possibilities are boundless with a growth mindset.
- Bridget Beichler is Principal of Trailside Middle School in Loudoun County, VA