Engaging a Learning Community

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

The question we are often asked is “how can we get our community to buy in to personalized learning?” In fact, you can substitute personalized learning for any number of issues and the same “buy in” reference will be made.

In a learning community, we need to think about this not as a consumer question (“buy in”) but rather as an engagement question. As with anything that we commit to, we want to have a considered opportunity to be informed before we make a choice.

Since the most typical questions we face as educators are ones that will affect all of our stakeholders— students, teachers, admin, Boards, community members— we need to think about ways to offer opportunities for informed engagement so that we can make the best decisions.

The following is one of many protocols that we might use to provide opportunities for engagement. The key elements are:


What texts or other media present multiple perspectives on the issue?

Process: have people divide into small groups and have them read the text or see the media together. Questions: What stood out for you? What specifically was important or significant to you? Make certain that you are using some group ground rules such as listening with understanding and empathy.


Begin to develop an understanding of the issue by considering its meaning: what it is and what it is not.

Process: here is an example of a chart that was developed by a group of K-12 educators in Salem, VA. Look for some of the key words in the issue you are facing and begin to define them by describing what it is and what it is not.

What Personalized Learning Is and Is not – Google Docs copy


Given what you have discovered by examining the meaning of the key words and the information that you have examined, define for yourselves, as a group, what you would consider the definition for this issue would be for your schools. For example, with personalized learning, after this sort of discussion, people at Vista High School in CA came up with this definition:

“Personalized learning increasingly puts students at the center of the design of learning experiences where they leverage growing strengths, interests, passions, and ideas to engage in authentic problems and challenges that are aligned to standards and students’ personal goals.”

Process: elicit phrases that come from study of texts, hopes for our students/children, and beliefs about the value of contemporary schooling. Ideally this first part can include as many people as possible to capture the range of thinking. There should be a smaller group that takes the ideas and crafts them into language that is accessible to and aspirational for all members of the school community.


This definition can lead us to action research. What would this look like in our practices? For example, what would if look like to have some people try personalized learning in a small way in practice?

Process: see whether there might be some volunteers who would be willing to take a responsible risk if they knew that there was no fear of evaluation. Rather, that they understood that they were developing a small prototype for moving the idea closer to a reality.

Collect examples

Collect examples about what took place and how it worked or did not work. Bring those examples to the next meeting.

Process: the key is to make certain that the people who are testing the ideas do not feel responsible to bring examples that were successful. Encourage people to be ready to learn and recognize that any new practice is a struggle for change. Make certain that all stakeholders are heard by asking questions like— how did you feel about this practice? What did you notice about its impact on your learning?

Examine the data

What did you observe from looking at the data? Does the data suggest that you go forward with this idea? If so, how would you design to take into account some of the necessary modifications based on your feedback?

Process: Make certain that you maintain a non-judgmental environment. Encourage people to ask questions and pose problems without judgment. Rather, maintain an atmosphere of genuine curiosity. Remember that those who took the risk need to feel valued and, at the same time, taken seriously and authentically on behalf of community learning.

Set goals for the next iteration of learning

This sort of learning by design is cyclical. Decide whether you want to continue experimenting with this issue or whether there is a clear indication that there is no appetite for this practice at this time. If so, what is another way to get at what you are aiming for in accordance with your mission and vision?

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