As an increasing number of schools and classrooms shift to personalized learning across the country, educators face many questions: What does personalized learning actually look like? How can districts support teachers, students, and families in learning about personalized learning? What role should technology play? And how can success truly be measured?
Underlying many of these questions is the need to define the purpose of curriculum and digital content and tools in a personalized learning setting. While educators are certainly familiar with the use of curriculum in a traditional classroom, a shift to personalized learning naturally leads educators to ask questions:
At Education Elements we believe that the first step in aligning offline and online curriculum is the creation of a clear vision for personalized learning. This vision should be at the forefront of all decisions related to personalized learning, including curricular decisions. As shared by Cari Jo Drewitz, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment at School District 197 in Mendota Heights, Minnesota: “A strong vision for personalized learning is central to all decisions we make related to our implementation. We literally want to eat, sleep, and breathe that vision as it pervasively impacts our district’s decisions, including our curricular decisions.”
In our white paper titled “Phase One: Align Curriculum Goals with Personalized Learning Vision,” we discussed the importance of creating a centralized vision for personalized learning and shared a process to accomplish this task. This vision should focus on the core “why” for pursuing personalized learning; with a compelling “why” established, districts are prepared to develop curricular goals that help them achieve that vision and engage in decisions regarding curriculum.
In our work with more than 115 districts and 500 schools, we have identified common pitfalls that often prevent a successful selection and implementation of curriculum to support personalized learning. These include:
The intent of this white paper is to provide guidance for districts as they consider how to approach curricular decisions in a personalized learning environment. By leveraging the two frameworks and processes identified in this paper, schools and districts can successfully mitigate these pitfalls as they navigate the selection of curricular resources to support personalized learning classrooms.
“The Curriculum Mix Framework created a sense of awareness for our district and enabled us to become articulate about the various types of curriculum to support personalized learning. We now have a systematic approach to make all of our curricular decisions.” — Matt Kwiatkowski, Coordinator of PL and Instructional Technology, Marion Central School District, Marion, New York
Although the term “curriculum” is commonly used in education systems, districts often lack alignment on what the term actually means. This lack of alignment can lead to a wide variance in the way “curriculum” is utilized. This confusion only compounds as words like “online resources”, “digital tools”, and “personalized” are added to the mix.
Although we do not advocate a specific definition of these terms, we believe districts need to establish an operational definition specific to their district in order to create fluency across the organization. The Curriculum Mix Framework, if utilized well, can support districts in developing this sense of fluency as districts seek alignment for online and offline resources.
“As we approached the process of aligning our online and offline curriculum, we realized that we lacked alignment on what the terms meant. Using the mix framework to become
Additionally, decisions related to
We generally observe that education systems think of curriculum in two distinct buckets: online and offline. Under this traditional lens, online curriculum is considered any resource that can be accessed through a device, such as a laptop or
In contrast, the Curriculum Mix Framework removes the terms online and offline and instead breaks the term “curriculum” into three areas of content, each of which can have online or offline components: Foundational, Adaptive, and Highly Customizable.
We believe that in order to align online and offline learning to support personalized learning classrooms, schools and districts need to determine an appropriate curriculum mix across these three categories.
“With the shift to personalized learning, our district was questioning the role that traditional curriculum and digital tools should play. The Curriculum Mix reaffirmed the role of Foundational Content and also helped us to consider the role that digital content and tools would play.” — Cari Jo Drewitz, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment
Create A Team: Create a core, cross-functional team to consider your district’s curriculum and how it can support personalized learning. This team should include a mix of
Introduce The Curriculum Mix Framework: Contrast the typical view of
Consider The Role Of Each Content Category: In small groups or individually, invite the team to reflect on both Teacher Lift and Personalization for Student for each type of curriculum.
We suggest providing a printout of the quadrant below and placing sticky notes representing where each example of the curriculum within your district would align based on Teacher Lift and Personalization for Student.
For example, when considering examples of Highly Customizable Content, teams generally conclude that this requires a high amount of Teacher Lift. To signify this, members of the team would place a sticky note representing a specific type of Highly Customizable Content further to the right on the x-axis of the quadrant. In future decisions, the realization that Highly Customizable Content results in high Teacher Lift should be considered since this may cause additional work to be placed on the shoulders of teachers. The team can then consider the level of Personalization for Student by moving the sticky note up or down on the quadrant until placed in the correct location.
However, while this example may be insightful, we encourage districts to conduct this activity with their teams using examples from within the district as this will provide value in determining both alignment and future needs.
Compare And Share Results: As this quadrant is completed, teams should discuss the differences, similarities, and items of interest. We believe that great value stems from the conversations that come as a result of this approach. Questions can include:
Create The Current Mix: After leading a discussion around the results of the quadrant activity, participants should consider the current mix of Foundational, Adaptive, and Highly Customizable Content by creating a pie chart. To do so, participants should identify a specific grade level and subject area (e.g.
Compare Mixes Across Grade Levels And Subjects: With your current mixes in hand, compare and contrast with others in the room to see differences. This discussion is most helpful when considered in grade bands such as elementary, middle, and high and for specific subject areas like math, ELA, science, or social studies. You may even decide to create a trend poster. We find it is less important to agree on the “right” mix of curriculum and more important to engage in this conversation, thereby developing a shared vocabulary. As you go through this process, identify trends in your team’s thinking about curriculum and its connection to the district’s personalized learning vision. Some guiding questions include:
After creating their current mixes, Marion Central School District identified a strong need to select additional Foundational Content and Adaptive Content for high school teachers. Additionally, the district recognized that many teachers at the high school level were creating playlists, but needed a support platform to decrease the teacher lift for Highly Customizable Content. Finally, the district was able to identify redundancy in similar types of tools, which allowed them to save on costs by narrowing the district’s list of digital content. Create Ideal Future Mix: With a baseline understanding of the current curriculum mix, repeat the mix activity by considering what future mix you would like to see in the same specific grade level and subject or grade band area. This ideal mix should be based on what you hope to achieve as your district moves toward your personalized learning goals. Again, discuss these results as a group, even creating a trend poster across grade bands if helpful. Ask questions like:
To add a sense of fun to the process, some districts have decided to use dinner plates instead of pie charts to consider the proper mix of meat, potatoes, and dessert. They asked their teams to come up with the “current dinner plate” and the “ideal dinner plate” for their mix. Below is an
During the curriculum mix discussion, it may be helpful to create an inventory of your district’s current curriculum resources. See the example inventory table below. Creating an inventory can often help districts identify gaps or redundancies in their current curriculum mix.
Through the Curriculum Mix Framework, Freehold identified a need for strong adaptive digital content and tools to support teachers with personalized learning. The district had already established small group instruction, the use of stations, and use of data, but teachers were spending a great deal of time creating websites of playlists to provide an individual student paths.
“The Digital Content Needs Framework has taught us to ask the important questions about the ‘why’ instead of focusing on the digital tools themselves,” — Erin Meehan-Fairben, Director of K-12 Instruction, Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, New York
With an understanding of the role of curriculum established through the Curriculum Mix Framework, teams are prepared to make decisions about the specific role of digital content and tools. If used appropriately, digital content and tools can provide great value in a personalized learning classroom and can ensure districts meet their personalized learning goals without relying solely on more “lift” from teachers. At Education Elements, we emphatically believe that digital content and tools can not and will not replace the role of a teacher in a classroom. As stated by Thomas Arnett, Senior Research Fellow at The Clayton Christensen Institute, “Those who proclaim that computers will replace teachers often naively reduce teaching to mere instruction and assessment. In doing so, they forget the true breadth and complexity of the job teachers perform.”1 We believe that by leveraging digital content and tools, the role of the teacher can be enhanced significantly and teaching can become a more sustainable career.
Districts should begin the process of selecting digital content and tools by first identifying the need(s) they are seeking to address with those tools. Consider the curriculum mix created through the activities in this white paper; is there a need for digital content and tools to support Foundational, Adaptive, or Highly Customizable curriculum gaps? After your district has assessed the overall inventory needs, consider the specific needs of your student population. We have often found that when districts do not identify the student needs that digital content and tools will address, they often waste considerable time, resources, and finances. According to Jaraun Dennis, Chief Technology Officer of Uinta County Schools 1 in Evanston, Wyoming,
Although we all wish there was a “silver bullet tool”, a single digital tool simply cannot meet the needs of all students. The Digital Content Needs Framework emphasizes this point by forcing educators to identify student needs along three spectrums: Instructional Use, Student Support, and Teacher Input.
While one district may diagnose a need to better support English Language Learners who are below grade level, another may see an opportunity to support advanced students who need to work on content above grade level. In each situation, the digital content and tools selected should align with the identified need.
By using this framework, schools and districts are able to ask themselves key questions, such as, “Are we looking for a tool for remediation or to introduce new concepts?” and “Do we want a tool that teachers can assign, or are we looking for a tool that is adaptive?” Across a district, you may need to account for several needs, such as math practice for elementary students or leveled-reading for struggling middle school students. We recommend focusing on one need at a time as you complete the Digital Content Needs Framework.
“I have seen the buildings in our district who have followed this approach be successful with their blended learning implementations. When a building has not followed this approach and just looked for "the best" they have been disappointed in the digital content because the tool didn't match the job they were asking it to do,” states Tammy Hermance, Blended Learning Coach, Greeley-Evans District 6, Greeley, Colorado.
Determine Area Of Need: Using the same team or a similar team as the one mentioned for the Curriculum Mix Framework activity, determine the grade level, subject area, or student population for which you will identify the need. We recognize that many schools and districts have several needs for which they are seeking digital content and tools. Encourage individuals to focus on one need at a time, such as
Consider The Role Of Each Spectrum: The Digital Content Needs Framework includes three spectrums. Have each participant place a dot on each spectrum based on the specific need you are seeking to solve.
Note that there is no need to reach consensus yet; instead, all participants should express their opinions by placing dots on the spectrums and then explain their answers. Use the guiding questions below to help you place your dots.
Compare Results: Based on the dots you placed on the spectrums, engage in a healthy discussion centered on student needs for digital content and tools as well as on teacher needs and capacity. We encourage participants to aggregate results into one place like a poster, google doc, or spreadsheet. Take an opportunity to discuss questions like the following either as a whole group or in small groups:
At right is an example of the collective results from the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township for elementary math using the spectrums from the Digital Content Needs Framework.
Unfortunately, no accreditation standards or common mandates are currently in place for digital content and tools. As a result, there is no simple way to compare digital content and tools. To remedy this situation and to better support districts in navigating the hundreds of digital content and tools available, Education Elements has created Digital Content One Pagers as a starting point to compare digital content and tools.
To do so, we sift through hundreds of digital tools to create a consideration set based on a rigorous, 30-point rubric that considers reporting capabilities, standards alignment, student experience, technology factors, and more. We create a Digital Content One Pager for each digital tool that passes this vetting process. Currently, we have an inventory of over 75 Digital Content
Each One Pagers has a variety of features that allow for easy comparison, including the following:
The shift to personalized learning encompasses many factors, including a shift in the understanding of curriculum and digital content and tools. For many districts, this can be a daunting task. The Curriculum Mix Framework and the Digital Content Needs Framework
Wherever your district is in your personalized learning journey, we encourage you to leverage these frameworks to better consider your curricular needs, and we are happy to support you in this effort. As always, reach out to us with any questions or ideas on curriculum and personalized learning! We’d love to hear your feedback on this white paper. Reach out to us at email@example.com or tweet about this series at #PLcurriculum.