Imagining Personalized Learning as A Mosaic: How District Level Leaders Engaged with Stakeholders to Honor the Power and Complexity of Personalized Learning

By H. Alan Seibert and Curtis Hicks


Alan Seibert has held leadership positions at the high, middle, and elementary levels in Salem City Schools over a 29 year career and is currently in his 14th school year as Division Superintendent.

Find him on Twitter: @haseibert

Curtis Hicks is currently in his 25th year in education. He has experience as a middle school teacher, a high school administrator, a high school principal, and a Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Curtis is currently serving in his 5th year as the Assistant Superintendent in the Salem City School Division.

Curtis on Twitter: @chicksuva


Mosaics are typically larger works of art constructed by carefully arranging many smaller pieces of stone, glass, tile or even smaller works of art into one work or piece. Its appeal lies in its ever-increasing detail, complexity, and nuance revealed under closer inspection. This metaphor describes how Salem City Schools engage with personalized learning: carefully arranging a number of different pedagogical approaches, technologies, assessment tools, grading practices and professional development in a manner that is unique and tailored to the values of the learning community to provide a program with broad appeal for all students and stakeholders.

Start with Why

Our lives currently demand personalization in shopping, entertainment, healthcare, etc. As a result, the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the workforce are evolving, yet much of the educational experience for students remains highly standardized. Meaningful innovation is often limited by federal and state laws and regulations, local capacity, or other “parameters.” While we must be mindful of these, we must also be prepared to influence them. In 2013, the Salem City School Board adopted Board Resolution #217 urging the Commonwealth of Virginia to modernize its assessment system because, at the time, our Board was directing its employees to focus more on developing thinkers and doers than on training standardized test takers. Collaboration with professional organizations, legislators, and policymakers in the years since have expanded the boundaries to enlarge and improve our mosaic.

In Salem City Schools, our Personalized Learning effort has a longer, more formal name, Personalized Competency Based Learning, because we found a need to simultaneously convey personalization for students with continued high expectations for stakeholders. People in business/industry, like swimming instructors and karate sanseis, understand competencies and the customized, descriptive feedback that helps people achieve them. Competency-based learning is not a new idea, but historically it was too difficult to implement and manage at scale for large numbers of students. Thankfully, like shopping, entertainment, and healthcare, technology and systems now exist that support the opportunity for schools to provide a personalized competency-based approach to education.

Identify the Pieces

Schools and districts who seek to adopt one new program or implement a formulaic approach for personalization are effectively buying someone else’s picture. In a mosaic approach, the number, shape, size, and color of the pieces influence the picture created. Pieces must be picked up, examined, moved around, and oftentimes trimmed a bit to fit properly. One pitfall to avoid is becoming overly enamored by any singular, shiny piece. Thinking that any one technology, pedagogy, or approach will make a complete picture is contrary to personalization. Any single approach, no matter how innovative, is not personalized for individuals if it imposed for all students (or teachers). Further, teaching and learning are complex processes. We must honor and celebrate the different needs of students, teachers, specific content-areas and developmental stages.

Some “pieces” to consider for your mosaic include:

  • Unpacking Standards: Content standards are essential and teaching to carefully selected standards is expected, but “standardization” of learning into easy to plan, deliver, and grade units for all students is a way to manage an industrial-era system. Time must be devoted to analyzing, organizing and prioritizing standards. In Salem City Schools, teachers have developed Intended Learner Outcomes (ILOs). These are the essential competencies that represent the core knowledge and skills that every student must master in order to be deemed proficient in each content area or course.
  • Pedagogical Approaches: While schools, districts, and states will continue to work with stakeholders to develop accepted content standards, they must also shift to an instructional design that offers students voice and choice. This shift means that students have input into what they learn, how they learn it, and how they demonstrate mastery…especially when the skills of communication, critical thinking and creativity are the goal.
  • Equity of Access to Tools and Technology: Depending on readiness and funding, this is an area that can feature participatory decision making with students, teachers, parents, and the greater community. After a few years of BYOD and consideration for tablet style devices, we determined that a consistent tool was necessary to ensure equity of opportunity and to streamline device management and content delivery. Further, teachers and students determined that a keyboard was a “must have” for students to be creators of content and not just consumers. In SY 15-16 a 1:1 Chromebook initiative was implemented in grades 9-12 and has since expanded to the middle and elementary schools providing 1:1 access to Chromebooks in grades K-12.
  • Applications: Systems, products, and services are abundant and ever-growing. This is another area where a high level of engagement and participation can lead to good decisions and enthusiasm for selected solutions. While many products and services are comprehensive in scope, remain mindful that the breadth, complexity and nuance of a Pre-K-12 curriculum will require engaging teachers and students in the selection of different resources. An approach that has worked well in Salem City Schools is to support teachers in collaboratively building their own resources in Google Classroom. Although time consuming, iterative, and even messy at times, the staff involved grow their own skills and have a high level of investment in the materials and resources compiled. This approach also creates the opportunity for teachers to collaborate asynchronously…using the platforms they will use with students as they work at their own place, pace, and space. Periodically, applications must be audited to stop using and paying for those that are less effective in order to promote access and use of proven tools.
  • Professional Learning Communities: Obviously, robust PLC environments in schools are essential as teachers plan, implement, reflect, and improve personalized approaches. Also, as classroom and grade-level boundaries become blurred, PLCs are a terrific way for teachers to share students in addition to strategies. As a result, teachers will be engaged in multiple communities within their school rather than the more traditional content/grade-level specific groupings that have been mainstays of the industrial model.
  • Customization: Personalizing the educational experience for students, and focusing more on skills than content, takes problem-based learning, phenomenon-based inquiry and other innovative pedagogical efforts to a new level. Allowing students to design projects that are more connected to their personal interests and passions, as opposed to simply completing projects designed by educators, significantly increases engagement and learning. Similarly, allowing teachers to customize learning spaces and instructional approaches, such as experimenting with furniture and designing lessons activities focused on real world problems, helps tap into the unique creativity of each teacher.
  • Standards Based Learning Feedback (the practice formerly known as Grading): Although listed last, leaders must anticipate from the outset that traditional approaches to grading are going to collapse under the weight of these changes. Students working to earn points for a grade is in direct opposition with students seeking to demonstrate mastery on essential standards. Throughout the process, students, staff, and stakeholders will need to be on an Assessment Journey, moving from assessment for grading to Assessment FOR Learning. This journey will involve its own hypothesis testing, trial and error, and local policy evolution as traditional grading practices continue to erode and be replaced by standards-based progress reporting.

Work at the Edges of Your Organization’s Competence

When creating a mosaic, you have to push the boundaries to ever fully recognize the picture you want to create. Most schools have many of the pieces, but they are in relative isolation and not yet assembled into something coherent. It is unlikely that you will ever have all the pieces you desire for your mosaic at the outset, but leaders start by working with what is available. You will likely discover that you have more pieces than you thought and your initial efforts will generate ideas that will secure or reshape others. Your team will always be innovating by reshaping, reorganizing, or switching out entire pieces to continually improve the picture of learning for the uniquely wonderful students you serve.

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