This essay, part of an ongoing series, previously appeared at The Lens, the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s blog at the University of Washington Bothell. Here are other essays from the series that have been previously published at The 74:Are We Personalizing Learning for the Students Who Need It Most?
But the uneven implementation that inevitably results has real-world consequences. It’s hard on students, who experience radically different approaches and expectations from classroom to classroom. And it’s hard on teachers, calling into question the point of sinking so much time and effort to make the new approach effective and sustainable, and dampening enthusiasm of those working hard to do so.
WATCH: 5 ways research shows that personalized learning can change classrooms
Schools with all sorts of redesign experience are clear on this point: Effectively managing change depends entirely on a clear vision and rationale. Those leading the change process must be able to make a compelling case for upending the traditional mode of teaching and learning. The “why” is far more important than the “what.”
In our field visits, we heard stories of teachers who were once harsh critics of personalized learning becoming its most vocal advocates. One district leader described a tough football coach (a real skeptic of personalized learning) breaking down in tears when he realized the positive impact that personalizing the school was having on students.
But the more common story we hear is from principals and teachers frustrated that only a small slice of teachers in their schools are on board with personalized learning. Schools can struggle to pull off a shift to personalized learning, especially among more veteran teachers wedded to old ways. This issue is all the more daunting in unionized schools.
At a recent gathering of school leaders who have successfully implemented schoolwide personalized learning designs, we heard that when considering a school redesign it’s important to:
Start with, and stay focused on, a vision of the graduate you want — their skills and attributes — not the school or classroom you want.
Use data to analyze which groups of students aren’t doing well and how all students could do better.
Survey alumni to identify their skill gaps in college.
Survey current students on what they want from their education. Teachers want to do the right thing for kids; student ideas and priorities may have more sway than those of administrators.
Survey both teachers and students on what most dissatisfies them and redesign the school around addressing those concerns.
Run a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) to demonstrate the need for urgent action (e.g., students won’t succeed in college without the ability to self-direct).
Appoint your most resistant teachers and parents to design groups and take them on model school visits.