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4 Steps to Successfully Personalize Learning in Your School

Note: Elliot Sanchez, the founder and CEO of mSchool, is guest posting this week.

So far this week I've had the opportunity to discuss some elements of starting a personalized learning program that I think are crucial and too often overlooked. Some of these topics get overlooked because they're big picture ideas that may not be obvious in the day-to-day routine, and others seem so mundane that it can be easy to overlook their importance.

I'm very grateful to Rick for inviting me to sit in this week, so I wanted to make the most of my last post and touch briefly on 4 steps that I think are critical when launching a personalized learning initiative, even if there isn't time or space to do them justice here. This list isn't comprehensive, but I've yet to see a program succeed that didn't take these 4 steps along the way. 

1. Define the scope of your plan (a.k.a. know when to say no)

Personalized learning, as we discussed previously, isn't new. Recent innovations have come from schools and districts finding ways to scale up personalize learning, but just because something can't yet be implemented universally doesn't mean it isn't worth trying. A pilot can be as simple as integrating an online, competency-based intervention into your classroom for a few minutes every day. It can also be as complex as building your reading unit plans from the ground up around student interest inventories. Both could be exciting additions to your school, and if you decide to start simple, fight the temptation to add complexity mid-stream.

For those who are interested in seeing an example of a school built entirely around the personalized journey of each student, I recommend taking a look at Acton Academy. Laura and Jeff Sandefer have designed a project-based learning model that combines a Socratic, student-led environment with the efficiency of the latest academic games. I had a chance to visit Acton this spring, and the students' ownership of their learning was like nothing I'd ever seen. (You can also see what it'd take to start your own Acton Academy.)

2. Make sure you've got the right tools for the job

Earlier this year, the Gates Foundation released a report called "Teachers Know Best" that counted over 950 digital instruction tools available to teachers. Depressingly, only 55 percent of teachers said those tools were effective in helping students reach their goals. With that many options, it's no surprise that almost half of teachers weren't able to sort through them to find the right tools to help their students succeed.

When our organization helps schools sort through these questions, I often hear stories of schools' unsuccessful attempts to integrate technology into the classroom. Most often, the root cause is bringing in curricula or resources that aren't appropriate for the academic goals of the school. There can be a number of reasons for that, but be sure that whoever makes the ultimate decision is both qualified and well-versed in the technological landscape.

3. Don't discount the day-to-day experience

After a potentially lengthy and complex design process, it can be tempting to feel satisfied and assume the pieces will fall into place once students begin working. It's one type of challenge to determine the most effective combination of programs and interventions for a particular student to reach his or her academic potential. It's an entirely different type of challenge to figure out how to guide and adjust the progress of 250 students on 250 personalized paths, some of which may never converge.

I think the best solutions require a more comprehensive commitment to personalization, like what you'll find in Adams County School District 50 in Westminster, CO. Since 2010, the district has used a "systemic & systematic" competency-based system in which time is variable but learning each standard to proficiency is constant. While the transition was not an easy one, the district sought out and received support from parents and educators at each step along the way. The hard work is paying off--early results from this year show a continued pattern of improvement and more consistent growth than any other district in the Denver metropolitan area.

4. Make relationships and mindsets an explicit part of the plan

As educators, we've all seen the difference that students' mindsets make when they enter the classroom, and it's no coincidence that the most effective educators have the ability to shape students' perspectives so that they're engaged and excited about the material. The personalized approach ensures that the material is deeply relevant to each student's needs, which can have a transformational impact on student attitudes and engagement. Without the support and attention of teachers, however, that transformation won't happen on its own.

The shift from a traditional lecture format to a more dynamic, individually-driven model means that responsibility for learning falls squarely on the students. That new responsibility immediately motivates some students, but for others it can be disorienting and potentially discouraging. At mSchool, we try to tackle this issue by providing lessons throughout the year based on the work of researchers like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth around the mindsets that students need for success. Khan Academy recently released a campaign called #youcanlearnanything to address a similar need. In both the research and our experience, there's a marked contrast between students who spend time working on these skills and those who don't. Even if students are spending more time using technology, there's no getting around the human need to see our work as part of a larger story of growth.

These are intended to be jumping-off points for further discussion and planning, hopefully guiding the conversation in a direction that surfaces the most important issues quickly. We are still in the early days of a much larger shift toward personalization, and, although there will certainly be challenges, I believe the progress continues because the benefits for students are more compelling each day. Students come to us as individuals--it's only appropriate that the most learning occurs when we treat them that way.

--Elliot Sanchez

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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