Principals and teachers trying to personalize their students’ learning are charged with radically reimagining the classroom. It’s a tall order that requires educators to take risks, move outside their comfort zones, and essentially overhaul much of their jobs. What we’re seeing in the schools we’ve visited for this project makes clear that this work shouldn’t—and often can’t—be done alone.
A study we recently conducted showed that schools implementing personalized learning (PL) spend a large portion of their grant funds on a bevy of products and services that have sprung up in the marketplace to cater to PL schools—from online tools and catalogs to consultants who help schools pick out technology tools. We wondered if those supports were equally effective. Our school visits and interviews to date tell us they are not. The most critical supports, we’re learning, come not from generic consultants with technical expertise, but rather from outsiders who can help leaders think through key decisions and a sound game plan. These “thought partners”—as school leaders often refer to them—may be district leaders, consultants with long-standing relationships with a school, or external regional partners supporting PL in local schools. This specialized role is emerging as one of the most important kinds of help a school can have as it tries to make the leap to personalized instruction for every student.
Schools we’ve visited in our study that didn’t have this kind of support frequently treated PL as a new program rather than a new schoolwide approach. They didn’t think through questions like what types of teachers would be best suited to the new model of teaching, and how the hiring process would have to change as a result. They thought about technical assistance to help teachers implement a new technology, but not always about which new technologies were best suited to the school’s approach to student learning. Thought partners provide a sounding board for these ideas but also help get them implemented.
Without support, leaders are easily overwhelmed and implementation can fail to get off the ground. One principal described how her thought partner helped her find calm in the storm of change in her school.
As a building principal, it’s very easy to get caught up in other stuff: kid stuff, teacher stuff. You’re going 100 miles an hour. We needed somebody to come in from the outside and say, “Stop. Let’s look deeper into this. Let’s move forward with this,” or “Nope, that’s not working, so we’re going to back that off.”
A good thought partner understands a school’s needs but remains enough of an outsider to call “shenanigans” when school leaders avoid the tough stuff or are too cautious. In one high school we visited, the staff shifted to block schedules, creating longer learning blocks for students; they started shifting students across teachers to accommodate different skill levels, and built more time for collaborative planning among staff. The principal and teachers felt they had stretched as much as they could at the time toward a PL model. But when their thought partners walked into classrooms, they saw a lot of traditional teacher-driven instruction. They returned to the principal asking, what is the instructional model and how is it personalized? The principal was disappointed by the reaction but it did make him think about taking the next steps.
Specifically, we’re seeing thought partners help schools do three key things:
1. Pick the right approach for the school. Schools are often overwhelmed by the dizzying array of available options and approaches to PL. Should they start by thinking about project-based learning? Blended learning? Competency-based progression? Station rotation? Will they emphasize student agency? What about non-cognitive skills? External thought partners can connect school leaders to pioneers and other peers and serve as an informed sounding board for ideas and key decisions.
2. Get outside the comfort zone. Once schools decide on an approach to PL, thought partners push school leaders to be bolder. We’ve visited some schools where leaders think their school has personalized learning because students do more work online, but teachers still teach the same way and most students will process at the same speed whether or not they have mastered the material. Others have made important progress toward more customized learning—like giving students more responsibility for tracking their progress—but are unsure about next steps. A good thought partner can urge the school to frankly assess progress, candidly explore the reasons for moving in certain directions, and prod school leaders to go further if it makes sense.
3. See the big picture. When schools do make big PL changes, school leaders sometimes get ahead of themselves. We’ve seen several schools implement PL “structures” (for example, station rotation, 1:1 devices) without attending to school culture or instructional rigor—two non-negotiable components of doing PL well. A thought partner can help school leaders see these blind spots, hone their priorities, and map a realistic implementation plan.
The role of outside prodder and questioner is proving to be an important element of successful PL implementation. More careful thought from school leaders, support organizations that are not currently playing this role, and funders whose dollars go to support implementation is needed to make sure support dollars, and staff time, are not wasted as thousands of schools around the country enthusiastically launch themselves into a totally new approach to teaching and learning. Personalized learning, in its most promising form, is simply too complex for schools to go it alone.
— Betheny Gross and Colleen McCann
Betheny Gross is senior analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. Colleen McCann is a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.