Amy Jenkins is the Chief Operating Officer at Education Elements. Education Elements is a corporate partner of Digital Promise.
If there is one thing I know about school districts, it is that each is unique with its own strengths, challenges, goals, political context and quirky qualities. But if there is another thing I have learned, it is that despite the differences, there are things that hold true.
Nearly 100 districts, 300 schools, 5,000 teachers and 300,000 students later, the team at Education Elements has used what we’ve learned to identify six things to avoid when designing and implementing personalized learning, as well as four elements every personalized learning environment should include. This list may change as districts evolve, but for the foreseeable future, using these tips can help make personalized learning a success.
Six Risks To Avoid
I am glad to report I’ve never seen a district make all these mistakes, but most districts make at least a few. Each risk is a trap easy to fall into, but also easy to avoid if you know how. We created this list when League of Innovative Schools district Fulton County Schools asked us what they needed to do to succeed, and we hope it can help others.
- Risk #1: Lack of Clear Vision, Narrative, and Rationale: Without a clear vision, there’s no shared understanding of what team members are doing nor why they are doing it, and it’s harder to identify and celebrate early successes. Buy-in and a “north star” is crucial.
- Risk #2: Curricular and Instructional Misalignment: Personalized learning is about shifting pedagogy and thinking about curriculum and instruction differently. But, that needs to be made clear; otherwise, it becomes more about compliance than real change.
- Risk #3: Failure to Build Capacity at District and School Level: A few shining stars are not enough for a successful district roll-out. Build capacity across all roles at the district so that when people (consultants, vendors, teachers, leaders, etc.) leave, the knowledge is still embedded.
- Risk #4: Starting with the Wrong Schools: Start with schools that are ready for personalized learning, and give them enough support so that everyone can succeed from the start and excite others to follow in their footsteps.
- Risk #5: Under-communication with Stakeholders: You can’t communicate enough. Everyone in your community (students, teachers, parents, board members, etc.) was a student once and has an idea of what school looks like. You are about to change that, and you must explain why and how in a way that everyone understands and embraces.
- Risk #6: Selecting the Wrong Devices: Often one of the first mistakes a district can make, the wrong device can lead to problems with deployment, restrict the digital content providers you choose, and/or generate negative media coverage. It is one of the most tangible decisions you will make, so it’s also one that can receive some of the most scrutiny.
All these risks got you scared? Please, don’t be! The good news is they are all avoidable. For more on how to avoid each one, download the full infographic here.
Four Elements to Include
We have also developed a strong sense of what every personalized learning environment designer should do. The “Core 4” elements of a personalized learning environment are necessary for an implementation that is about shifting pedagogy and changing outcomes, rather than simply introducing technology. We work with many League of Innovative Schools members and see within them terrific examples of the “Core 4” in action.
- Element #1: Integrated Digital Content: Digital content helps students progress at their own pace, and provides a way for teachers and students to get constant feedback on that progress. This is about complementing in-classroom learning, not computer time. Remember that risk about curricular misalignment? This is why it’s so important: what students do online needs to be integrated with the lessons with their teachers, projects with their peers, and in other work they complete on their own. Have a question for a League district that has this nailed? Check out Uinta County School District #1.
- Element #2: Targeted Instruction: In Benjamin Bloom’s famous study, he found that effective small group instruction supported student learning nearly as much as one-on-one tutoring. Teachers can use data from digital content, assessments and their observations to create evolving groups based on student need, interest or skill-level. Both students and teachers benefit from differentiated instruction and more attention. DC Public Schools has shining examples of how to do this right.
- Element #3: Student Reflection & Ownership: A core tenant of personalized learning is empowering students to own their learning. Through reflection, students set goals and monitor their progress against them. They learn how they learn and can take more ownership of their own education – something which nearly always leads to increased engagement. Want to see this done well? Learn more about Howard-Suamico and listen to their students.
- Element #4: Data-Driven Instruction: Until recently, data-driven instruction involved messy spreadsheets, Post-its, and huge data walls that made it difficult to frequently review data or adjust lessons and approaches. With the amount of data now easily available, teachers can use data on a daily basis to shift instruction, place students into groups, and work with students one-on-one. Middletown City School District is a district that uses data daily.
For more information on the “Core 4,” check out a recent blog post comparing it to the three things you need to do to win in basketball.
Want to learn even more? Use the strength of the League of Innovative Schools to share ideas and best practices with each other. We are all learners on this journey together.