How to Make Personalized Learning Come Alive at a Systems Level

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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I have the privilege to work as a consultant with Vista Unified over the next several years to support their personalized learning transformation. Bena Kallick and I had an opportunity to present to 100 teachers for three hours as a way to engage them in the four attributes of personalized learning and the related Habits of Mind.

We were blown away with their energy, passion, and thoughtfulness as they considered how to grow voice, co-creation, social construction, and self-discovery within their students.

The next morning, we worked with their building administrators to help their efforts to grow a culture of innovation — one where teachers are encouraged to take responsible risks so they can create, imagine, and innovate with students while still meeting demonstrated outcomes. Over the course of three hours, principals articulated areas of excitement, worries, and where district support would be most helpful.

Based on the talents of the leaders at the district, building, and classroom levels, here are a few insights to make personalized learning come alive at a systems-level:

1. Make the case to all stakeholders early and often.

Devin Vodicka, district superintendent of Vista, has laid the foundation for the need to transform but he is not the only voice. The power of engaging students, parents, teachers, building administrators, and board members to clarify the “Why” shifts the call from a lone battlecry to a chorus of voices.

2. Grow slowly.

The strategy of Vista Unified (similar to the strategy in Charlotte-Mecklenberg, NC) is to create cohorts of schools. This establishes a level of community within and across buildings in the cohort. It also allows staff members who want to be on the leading edge to be pioneers, while those who prefer to see what it looks like before diving in can do that as well.

This approach also helps when #3 is in play as personalized learning is not a “one-size-fits-all model.” Ironic that the “personal” in personalized doesn’t clarify that, but when personalized learning is confused with individualization that is often the case.

3. Building leaders must personalize what it looks like in their schools.

There has to be permission for building leaders to grow their understanding of personalized learning with their staff. They should also have some degree of flexibility around the personalized learning they imagine and strive for with their school communities.

In Vista Unified, Matt Doyle, Assistant Superintendent of Innovation, has each building staff articulate a “learning engine.” For example, one school has design thinking, another MYP/IB, another project-based learning. The point is to leverage that learning engine to make the school experience relevant, consistent across grade levels, and in line with the systems vision of personalized learning.

4. Personalized learning is not an initiative.

I can’t underscore the significance of this statement enough, especially for teachers and building administrators who suffer from initiative-fatigue. Personalized learning is how we reimagine how we do schools — mindful of existing practices, structures, and policies.

There may be initiatives that come with that reimagining. For example, a shift to design thinking as the learning engine in a middle school, a move to a learner management system to create better communication to students and parents on how students are progressing.

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