Personalized learning has been an education buzzword for several years. A recent survey of by the state education technology directors association, or SETDA, put personalized learning at the top of the list of state priorities. But what does personalized learning actually mean, and how can school leaders do it?
A new book offers something like a step-by-step manual. It’s called Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change, written by two long-time school innovators, Cathy Sanford and Shawn Rubin.
Rubin spent 10 years in the classroom, and he has been the Chief Education officer at the HIghlander Institute since 2011, and has led personalized learning efforts in Rhode Island schools. He designed the Highlander Institute’s “Fuse” program, which trains educators to lead personalized learning in schools and districts.
EdSurge sat down with Rubin during the EdSurge Fusion conference in October, to talk about his book and what he’s learned about personalized learning.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: Talk a little bit about how you came to write the book.
Rubin: The first school that I taught at was a big-picture attempt at a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school. That was in 2000 when we started the Highlander Charter School, and it was really fascinating because we were trying to do individual student-learning plans, mentors, and a lot of goal-setting.
That was way before much of today’s conversation around personalization in education. Why did you want to do it back then?
We were enamored with the work that was happening at the high-school level and felt like you couldn’t just flick a switch when a kid hits ninth grade. And so there was a lot of pre-work around building interest, having families understand deeply that their students were unique.
This was all before Race to the Top and the movement to really standardize everything, and so there was a window of time when we were able to [try out the model]. But we we were doing this in a high-poverty urban environment with students that were multiple grade levels behind in reading and math—and we quickly realized that we weren’t necessarily solving for a lot of [the challenges face by the students].
So did they learn? And what are they like now that these are kids in their 20s?
They all developed an incredible sense of curiosity about the world. But I do think in a lot of ways we weren’t meeting their needs in terms of being able to read by third grade. The importance of knowing fractions by fifth grade. There were definitely students in that classroom that left those classrooms without that ability.
So, we realized two things. First of all, there were aspects of core instruction that we needed to figure out how to fit into that model.
The second was that once certain teachers left, it was too much effort. We weren’t able to replace them. The workflow was incredibly overwhelming, and we couldn’t even recruit new teachers because when we described what the work entailed, it was just too much. In some ways that school has really come back to the center, I would say, in terms of what they’re doing with regard to education. My son actually still goes to the school. It’s a great place to learn but it’s no longer doing those pieces, and I think that that’s kind of true for a lot of schools.
Everyone wants to rethink schools right now, and they wanna redesign what the classroom experience looks like for students, but they just don’t know where to begin.
Let’s zoom up to the present, zoom up to the book and talk about how you walk us through this balance question. How do we balance?
One of the ways that we balance it is by deeply relying on the knowledge base of our local stakeholders. That’s a piece that we learnt really deeply in Rhode Island over the last five years. We have launched statewide fellowship. And so we brought those folks up in a way to give them an opportunity to partner with each other, learn some skill sets around coaching and consultancy and how you work with and run a district level meeting, building level meetings. They really felt more empowered to take all of that knowledge from their own personal classrooms and when they started to go into other classrooms in other districts.
When you actually break down personalized learning or blended learning or deeper learning or project-based learning, it’s a series of strategies that leverage resources. And the more often you can get people talking about what strategies they’re using, and how they align to the practices or behaviour changes that we wanna see, then the ideations starts to move and starts to flex across the state. And that’s really what’s happened in Rhode Island.
In your book you talk about five phases of development. Take us through what those five phases are, and how that brings us to a point of thinking about strategy.
We want to have a real vision for what these pilots or these redesigned classrooms are going to look like. You want to ask: Are we trying to get at a place where there’s a lot more dialog happening in the classroom? Is that our goal? Are we trying to get to a place where there’s actual students creating media in the classroom? What is it that we’re actually trying to do?
Once you get to that point, then you start to articulate more clearly. If we walk in and it’s successful what behaviour changes do we actually see on the parts of teachers and on the parts of students? But before you can do those pieces you have know where you’re starting from as well. And so we do a lot of student shadows. We do a lot of looking at subgroup data to see who’s benefiting from the current structure and who isn’t. We do a lot of focus groups and surveys with students.
And then, only then, then you start to decide, “Okay if this is the aspirational vision and these are the practices and behaviour changes we wanna see, and this is the reason why. Who are the right people in our building to carry this forward?”
So, we find those teachers and we get to the strategies. And you can’t do that in isolation. So if you have multiple early-adopter teachers that you’re able to work with, great. But ideally, you want a little bit of embedded coaching. Somebody to actually be in the room with them. So that’s where the fellowship has been valuable.
Listen to the complete interview on the EdSurge On Air Podcast.