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Building Capacity for Personalized, Student-Centered Education

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This post is by Ryan MacDonald, ILN Program Associate, Council of Chief State School Officers.

What does it take to build and sustain a personalized, student-centered learning environment? What conditions and capacity are needed to build support for learning; how willing are educators and leaders to change their practice? This question is front and center for many state education agencies in the Innovation Lab Network (ILN), which work to implement and support personalized, student-centered learning systems in schools and districts in their states. Many states have pockets of promising practices in the field, but state leaders are interested in understanding how to help spread these practices to more schools so that each and every student has access to a high-quality, personalized learning experience. Building capacity in our educators and leaders is more important, and more complicated, than ever.

One of the most important parts of this work is learning from teachers in the classroom who are experienced with personalized, student-centered learning systems and understand how to transition to this approach. It's clear that teachers have an important role in this conversation and in making sure this work is scalable, as with anything in education. For example, over the last few months, we all have seen the power of teacher voice as teachers in several states across the country chose to walk out and rally at state capitals to call attention to their concerns over the need for more classroom funding. In many of these states, these teachers showed how their voice could help shift the mindset among state policymakers, parents, and others to create change for their students.

In the same way, we recognize educators play a critical role in changing practice, mindsets, and structures of schools to be student-centered. Our state leaders in the ILN are taking the initial step of working with school leaders and educators on the ground to better understand the capacity of schools to engage in innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

To help spread ideas and share successes and challenges, a collection of ILN states have been looking to answer those questions around building and sustaining a system for personalized, student-centered learning. In order to understand how states can be supportive to schools and districts to build their capacity, they first need to understanding what capacity means in the context of shifting to personalized, student-centered learning. Through our discussions, we've honed in on four categories for understanding a school or district's capacity. A school or district needs to have:

  1. The will to change practice,
  2. The agency and authority to change practices,
  3. Access to expertise in personalized, student-centered learning, and
  4. Access to resources and professional development on personalized, student-centered learning

The theory of action for using the tool is that in order for a school or district to be set up for success at implementing and sustaining a personalized, student-centered learning model, the schools or districts would need to illustrate a high level of capacity in each of those categories. Identifying these categories is the first step; now we need to understand what these could look like in a school or district.           

Let's take the first category: will to change practice. Often a desire to shift to these practices can start with a collection of teachers or a leader's vision for a school, but that alone wouldn't yield enough capacity for a school to implement personalized, student-centered learning. A fully personalized, student-centered environment needs educators and leaders to use these practices to support students' learning, so therefore a school needs to bring together the whole staff to ensure each member is shifting their practices.

When we're thinking of the will to change practice, it's easy to focus on the adults in the building. However, the students and their families will need to be on board as well. During a recent set of school visits in Vermont, the principal spoke of the need to talk with parents and students to determine if personalized, student-centered learning was their vision for the school. The principal understood that he needed the parents and students on board before making the swift shift towards the new model. Changing any system is a difficult endeavor, but asking teachers, students, and parents to shift the only system they have ever known takes work to build that will and without a school slow to shift and sustain.

A school could have all the will and desire to shift towards personalized, student-centered learning, but if it does not have the authority or agency to make those changes all that will can be halted. Most of the time, an individual school lives in a bigger educational system and can be restrained by the structures and process of the system. Personalized, student-centered educational requires a dramatic shift and the current system is not designed to support these approaches. As articulated in CCSSO's Innovation in Action, "This change entails complicated and challenging work that requires action at all levels of the education system including local, state, and national; involves a large and diverse group of stakeholders; and impacts several moving pieces in education policy." If states want to see personalized, student-centered learning expand in their states, looking at the state system and how it supports and hinders the use of these practices is needed to understand the capacity of the field to implement the work.

So once a school has the will and the authority to make the shift towards personalized, student-centered learning, now what? Schools need to know how to operationalize and develop staff around best practices and support learning. Personalized, student-centered learning is still an emerging practice for most leaders and educators. It's important to have access to individuals and resources that can help expand a school community's knowledge of the practices, tools, instructional shifts, and resources needed to implement personalized learning.

During previously mentioned school visits in Vermont, we were able to speak to staff members who serve as Personalized Learning Coaches. The coaches focus on supporting educators as they shift their practices and allow for faculty to focus on understanding quality and authentic personalized learning practices. Additionally, many of the teachers from the school were able to attend a training on personalized learning to help build their understanding of the practices. If states are hoping to support personalized, student-centered learning, states need to ensure there are resources, training, and supports available for educators and leaders to deepen their understanding of these new practices to ensure the implementation is quality and rigorous.

As the hunger for personalized, student-center learning grows throughout states, districts, and schools, the system needs to ensure the schools are set up to be successful in transforming their practices and system. Those in the educator workforce are already feeling they are stretched thin and asking for a major shift in practice could leave teachers and leaders overburdened. However, if states, districts, and schools ensure the system has the capacity to make the shift, it will allow for all stakeholders to benefit from the shift and ensure they are providing a quality educational experience for each student.  

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