A Principal's Reflections

Reflections on teaching, learning, and leadership.
  1. As I work with more and more schools in a coaching role, I am beginning to see specific trends emerge. Now, before I go any further, it goes without saying that I see fantastic examples of sound pedagogical practice and innovative strategies that are leading to improved learning outcomes.  However, my role, as the schools I partner with and I see it, isn't to just spit out platitudes and tell them what they want to hear.  The most important aspect is to empower them to take a critical lens to their work through evidence and begin to think deeply about needed changes to practice.

    In a previous post, I outlined what a typical coaching day with me looks like, as well as the most common areas where growth can be achieved based on many classroom visits.  Wells Elementary has been taking the feedback that I provide for over three years and recently asked me to create a session that focused on strategies for opening and closing lessons. I was excited about this opportunity as I was going to have the honor of meeting with all teachers by grade level and present newly created content. As I pondered over what I was going to call this presentation, the idea of bookend pedagogy popped in my mind.  I ran the title by my wife as she never hesitates to tell me how it is. She liked it, and off I went to create a new slide deck.



    The more I think about it; I really see bookend pedagogy as a critical element of any successful lesson. How a lesson begins typically makes or breaks it in the eyes of a learner. A well-structured anticipatory set gets the ball rolling while a review or prior learning right after helps to ensure that the kids understand what was covered previously. The end provides valuable feedback to both the teacher and student to determine if the objective/target was met and that learning occurred. Without closure, it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate whether a specific lesson was a success. For my session with the Wells staff, I developed and then implemented a mini-lesson on personalized learning while ensuring that I included an anticipatory set, review of prior learning, direct instruction, and closure. 

    In the past, I have written posts on all three of these elements, but a quick review never hurt anyone.  In addition, I will provide additional strategies and resources. The anticipatory set is used to prepare students for the lesson by setting the students' minds for instruction. This is achieved by asking a question or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, focus student attention, and initiate the learning process. Types of sets can include the following:
    • Short video clips
    • Relevant writing prompts
    • Riddles
    • Personal stories or real-world scenarios
    • Current events
    • Picture prompts
    • Props
    • Open-ended questions
    For more context, check out this video.



    Just because something was presented in class, the assumption cannot be made that students actually learned it, which makes reviewing prior learning critical.  Research in cognitive science has shown that eliciting prior understandings is a necessary component of the learning process. Research also has demonstrated that expert learners are much more adept at the transfer of learning than novices and that practice in the transfer of learning is required in good instruction (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). Check out this article from TeachThought, which outlines 27 strategies to review prior learning.

    How do you know if the class got it at the end of a lesson? Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson. Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback and review. Time must be set aside for closure, and efforts should be made to include it in lesson plans. A straightforward way to do this is to provide three scaffolded questions (easy, moderate, challenging) as a means of formative assessment. Below are some general closure examples:
    • Explain one thing you learned today.
    • What was the most challenging concept, and why?
    • Identify the most significant learning from the lesson and explain why.
    • What do you need to do to develop a deeper understanding?
    • How did the lesson impact your understanding?
    • How would you summarize what you learned for someone who wasn't here?
    • What was one thing you were unsure of?
    • Discuss an "aha" you had and how it connects to the learning target/objective.
    The above only represent some ideas on how to close a lesson.  As is the case with anticipatory sets, reviews of prior learning, and closure, there is no one right way.  Many tools can help facilitate all of the above. Here they are in no particular order:
    • Whiteboards (no tech)
    • Paper exit tickets
    • Plickers (best tech option)
    • Mentimeter
    • Pear Deck
    • Nearpod
    • Google Forms
    • Kahoot
    • Quizizz
    • Quiz Whizzer
    • Gimkit
    • GoSoapBox
    • Padlet
    • Linoit
    • AnswerGarden
    • Flipgrid
    It should be noted that bookend pedagogy might not be necessary during lessons that involve high-agency strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, or those involving extended inquiry and project-based learning. However, with any of these pedagogical techniques, there should be an opening and an end at some point, so always keep bookend pedagogy in mind. 

  2. I often tell audiences during keynotes and workshops that my role isn’t to tell anyone what to do, but instead to get educators to think critically about what they do. It would be foolish of any speaker or presenter to do so, considering that we don’t really know the people who we are blessed to speak with, let alone the specific culture in which they work.  The fact for many in education is that we teach the way we were taught and lead the way we were led.  In some cases, this might still be effective. However, the opposite is more often true, and helping others come to this realization can be a tricky process.

    Where I see the most change from my work is when I am fortunate to work with districts and schools on an on-going, long-term basis. This allows me to really get a pulse on the culture, understand the challenges that are faced, make observations, collect evidence as to where practices are, and ultimately build relationships in the process.  Trust and honesty are key, which compels me not to hold back when engaging both teachers and administrators in dialogue on feedback.  Often, we are blinded by our own bias or comfortable where we are. No matter the case, both can be detrimental to growth.



    So how do we begin to move the needle? It starts with analyzing how feedback is given.  What I have learned from past experiences, and currently, when working in schools, is that a tendency remains to tell people what they want to hear as opposed to pushing them with critical conversations on practice. The latter might sting at first, but it is needed to create a sense of urgency.  Making people feel good is always crucial, and a critical component of a positive culture. However, it shouldn’t come at the expense of shying away from the problematic and thought-provoking conversations that are needed to drive change at the individual and systemic levels.  

    One of the best ways to help others know where they are and lay the groundwork for meaningful changes to practice is through coaching.  Currently, I have several projects around the country where I have assumed this role. Last year alone, I visited over 1000 classrooms and pretty much followed the same process.  At the conclusion of each day, I submit a detailed report that contains general commendations and recommendations for growth to each school. If I am there for an extended period of time, the district receives a comprehensive report within 24 hours of completing my last school visit.



    In addition to general feedback, I script what I see by classroom while aligning evidence to support the ratings for how I chart data across five indicators. This allows me to provide some simple data for districts and schools to get an idea of where their practices are. Here is how I code each lesson after scripting and providing recommendations for growth:
    Now, these are meant to be black and white in terms of whether it can be seen or validated with evidence (i.e., questions, assessments, tech used by kids for learning, student work, etc.). However, I always stress that there is gray inherent in what I provide and encourage dialogue and support between coaching visits. It goes without saying that these visits are just a snapshot and, by no means, are indicative as to what happens during the entire lesson or regularly throughout the year. It is up to the school and individual educators to make that determination. There is one non-negotiable that I establish, and that is an administrator or teacher who has to accompany me. The reason being to coach the individual(s) later on providing feedback and to ensure interrater reliability (do we see the same thing).

    I am fortunate to be involved in several long-term projects where I have been able to document growth over time. Over the years, I have shared all of the wonderful things happening at Wells Elementary, as I am now in my third year as their coach. Other schools and districts are beginning to follow suit. One, in particular, is the Corinth School District in Mississippi. The stage was set over the summer for me to work six days in each of their three schools to assist with teaching, learning, and leadership associated with their 1:1 implementation.  Following the protocol described above, I facilitated coaching days.

    Even though I have a few stories of significant growth to share, I want to focus on just one. During my first visit to the high school in August, I spent the entire day visiting classrooms and then providing feedback to the admin team. They, in turn, then shared recommendations for growth with their teachers.  One teacher took the feedback and ran with it. 

    The next time I met with the teachers, I facilitated a workshop on digital pedagogy.  Something from this day and the feedback from the classroom observation clicked him. During my third visit, we saw him implementing a choice board with his economics class. Going from direct instruction primarily to this high agency approach represented a dramatic shift in practice.  I again provided feedback both in the form of commendations and recommendations for improvement, specifically when it came to assessment.  I can’t begin to tell you how pleased and excited I was during my fourth visit. When we visited his history class, he again had the students working on a choice board. The main difference from last time was that there were six different rubrics to go along with the activity.  


    The growth story of this teacher is one of many in the Corinth School District. His colleagues across all content areas at the high school have begun to implement an array of innovative strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, self-pacing, digital check-ins with students, and the purposeful use of technology aligned to effective pedagogy.  The middle school has begun to make impressive progress with blended learning, especially at the 6th-grade level. Last but not least is the elementary school where evidence has been collected, demonstrating tremendous growth with high agency strategies.  To be honest, I could fill this post with picture after picture as validation.

    We can’t allow ourselves to stick our heads in the sand or cuddle up to the status quo.  Sometimes a push is needed. In all the schools I work in, the catalyst for change is always the first coaching visit.  Using an unbiased and non-judgmental lens, the stage is set for assisting educators in coming to a determination as to where they are.  Initially, this can be a tough pill to swallow. However, the fact remains that nothing about public education is perfect. Sometimes it takes an outside view to help come to that realization.

    If you would like to know more about our coaching process and on-going work for schools or districts, shoot me an email ().
  3. Over the past year, I have been blessed to support the Davis School District in Utah with their personalized learning initiative across the district. It has been exciting and challenging work as I have been mentoring principals, facilitating workshops, and providing teachers feedback where schools are all at different places as they work to create more personal experiences for learners. In a sense, I have had to model what these strategies look like in practice while empowering teachers and administrators to take more ownership of their own learning. It's a tough ask of our kids to do this if we as adults aren't willing to do the same.

    During my time in the district this week, I saw first-hand how job-embedded, on-going, and targeted support leads to amazing changes in practice. First, I have to provide a backstory. In the fall, I was slated to visit numerous schools across the district. Snow Horse Elementary was not one of them. However, the principal at the time advocated fiercely that she wanted me to visit, and arrangements were made. A few district administrators and I visited classrooms in March 2019. We did see some solid examples of station rotation, but overall there was a great deal of room for growth with a school-wide shift to personalized learning. You can read more in detail about what this looks like HERE.




    The district office later arranged for me to facilitate a two-hour workshop that focused on the key elements and structures depicted in the image above. After the session was completed, a team of second-grade teachers stayed after to begin planning on how to implement what they learned immediately. I was pleasantly surprised to hear only a day later that these same teachers requested me to come back to Snow Horse Elementary while I was still in town to see what they had accomplished. Below you will see some of the changes that we made to personalize learning a mere 48 hours after the workshop.

    In the fall, I revisited the school and had someone on one time with the second-grade team at their request. I was able to answer some of their questions and provide feedback on what they had been working on. Fast forward to January 2019. I once again had the opportunity to visit classrooms across the school. I was so pleased to see significant growth across all classrooms and was so proud of all the teachers. However, the second-grade team blew my mind with what each of them was doing. We saw personalization in every classroom.

    In some cases, you could see the teachers co-planned while others went down their own path. We saw learners were grouped by ability, accessing choice boards digitally on their iPads once specified tasks were completed. 




    Teachers were even able to monitor progress in Keynote and push kids to other tasks if they stayed on a choice too long. When finished with a task, the students dragged an "X" over it. 



    In other cases, learners submitted video and audio evidence through Keynote in both ELA and math. 



    Another teacher had essential questions mapped out for the entire week and daily reflections where kids supplied evidence of what they learned. Voice was honored through the effective use of Nearpod during a whole-group lesson.

    As I continued to process what I saw, I figured it would be best to capture from each teacher why they decided to change, how they specifically changed, and what has been the result in terms of these changes. Below are their reflections.

    Ranell Whitaker

    Our 2nd-grade team was so excited about the first visit you had at Snow Horse Elementary. You had some pictures of choice boards that you showed us during your presentation that really inspired me. I had been doing Daily 5 in my classroom for several years with a very rigid schedule and exact assignments that every student was to complete within their 15-minute time frame. I felt that it was going ok, but I never felt like there was enough time for me to work with a small group or one on one with students. The students were also frustrated because some weren't able to finish assignments within the given time, and some students had too much time, and either didn't know what to work on or started to distract and disrupt others. 

    I looked at the choice boards you showed us and knew we could implement something similar. The night of your presentation, I went home and created my own choice boards for the next day for math and language arts, and we started implementing them the very next day. My students LOVED choosing what activity they would work on, and when they would work on it. I noticed the students were more engaged and excited about what they were doing because they had a CHOICE! And best of all, I stopped hearing "teacher, what should I do now?"!


    I did start with a more structured approach to the choice boards, and each student had a printed-out version to cross off the items they completed. After several weeks of trial and error on choice board activities, I now feel that the students have exciting activities and games that help them excel and achieve their goals, all while they are choosing the activities that challenge them. The activities include reteach, extra practice, and enrichment. I have also allowed the students to use the amount of time they need for their activities with no problems. When they finish one activity, they are excited to start on a new choice. 


    Just about a month ago, we decided to go digital with the choice boards using Keynote. It was a game-changer. Students are now able to have their choice boards right on their iPads and show their work by uploading photos of their work or inserting a screenshot right on the choice board. I send them a new choice board for the week each Monday, and then on Friday they airdrop it back to me or send it in Apple Classroom. I am no longer making a million copies of worksheets and choice boards for the kids to turn in. They turn in one choice board at the end of the week, and I can see exactly what they accomplished in the time that they were given. If I notice a student has not completed much on their choice board, I am able to pull them aside and talk about how they are using their time and how they can improve. If a student is picking the same choice each day, I can speak to them and challenge them to try something new. I am also easily able to assign students specific choices as a "must do" if I feel it necessary.


    Overall, this change has really opened me up to work with each child in my classroom EVERYDAY. I can pull a group as needed, and the students that I pull can get right back to what they were doing when they finish working with me. I am not trying to cram as much as I can into their brains in 15 minutes, and students can spend as much time as they need on a task (which they want to finish so that they can move on to the next activity they choose). I also don't feel the pressure of a time constraint as I did with timed rotations. I am thrilled with the choices my students make to challenge themselves and am so happy with the growth and progress that they have shown in the last few months. My students have learned the joy in accomplishing a task and have gained a lot of responsibility and accountability in their own education. 


    Jonna Sutterfield

    When you came to visit back in the fall, what you had to say was exciting, and frankly, I just believed in it. It was eye-opening to think, yes students can make their own choices in how they want to learn, and more importantly, it opened up avenues to let students explain their learning at their level. It has given confidence to my students to be able to show me their way of understanding. That day struck a chord with my team and me, and we were so excited to implement personalized learning.

    Today you saw how our Math usually goes. The students started out where I wanted them on their own levels. For example, a small group, challenge problem and had a must-do to perform. Once they completed that, they were then off to their own Digital Choice Boards to complete activities on their own. Within the Math Choice Boards are a variety of activities they can choose from. They know where to find more challenging stuff, extra practice and games, etc. to further their learning. For the most part, students will always be choosing wisely, and at times I feel I need to encourage some to try something new or others just to make choices!


    Their choice boards are all digital, and they have them on their iPad. They do a daily check-off, and on Fridays, send them back to me. I do a quick check (I usually know what they are doing daily). So, it is more of a double-check. I don't grade them, except for participation. These choices are for them to implement what we are learning in class on their own and practice that.


    My number one thing that I take away from personalized learning, that I share with others, is how much it has opened me up to meet the needs of my students. I have been able to pull small groups daily to reteach or even check for understanding. I love that I can immediately see their learning right then and there. They are roaming and trying new things and learning how to work on their own and sometimes with partners. With me being more accessible, I love that more of my students' learning is being reached, and I have a greater understanding of their learning, and it helps me to find more ways to challenge them and encourage them to try something new.


    Also, the students are more engaged in what they are doing, and Math Choice and Daily 5 Choice are some of their favorite times. They get excited to move around and do a variety of learning.


    Thank you again for your time at our school. It has been fun getting to try new things and see results!


    Erin Fuller

    I absolutely love my math choice boards. After we jumped in and made our first-choice board, it was amazing to me how much the students loved choosing how they learn. I also love how it frees me up to help each child, either by challenging or reteaching them. 

    During my math block on Monday, we started a new chapter on 3-digit addition. To begin my block, I always do an explicit lesson by starting with the essential question. I use Keynote to make my math choice board. The first slide states the essential questions for the entire week. The second slide is the actual choice board that they work off of each day. The third slide is the most important one for me. This is where they show me what they know each day. I either have them video themselves explaining the concept or do an audio recording answering a question from the lesson.


    On the choice board, the middle row includes the things that the students must do each day. I want them to practice fluency, do independent practice, and 10 minutes in our differentiated math program each day.  On the top and the bottom rows, I have built-in choices that they can use to take their learning to a higher personal level. I have put x's, checkmarks, and picture place holders on this slide, so they can show me what they're doing to learn during the week. If there is something that I want a specific student to do, I will circle it on their board to let them know I'm looking forward to seeing that completed. I changed it to a weekly board rather than daily, so they can only do one activity a week instead of spending every day doing the same thing. I have worked hard to challenge my high kids with activities to enrich them as well as activities to help fill in gaps with my low kids. Another thing I love is where they can check off if they worked with me because I needed them to or if they chose to get extra help on their own.



    The last slide is so informative to me. I can quickly see if they get it by answering specific questions for me. This is the most valuable part to me because I can see which child gets it and which child doesn't immediately. If I am worried about them before the end of the week, I just grab their iPad and listen to the video they made that day, and I can give immediate feedback. This is also helpful if I need to talk to a parent about a concern. It is also beneficial to have when a parent tells me that their child is bored and isn't being challenged. I can show them their choice board and talk about how they are choosing not to challenge themselves.




    My choice boards, not just math but also my Daily 5 Choice boards, have changed my teaching. I know where my students are, and I know what they're doing to learn. This frees me up so that I can work one on one or in small groups on what they need, not just what I think they need after a full group lesson. I have never been able to immediately tell where each of my students was academically.






    Jana Vanhorn

    Today in my classroom, I created a Nearpod for my students. This week we are reading about different regions in the world, and I wanted to build some background knowledge before we started reading stories. The Nearpod included virtual field trips, open-ended questions, drawing pictures, and more. I have found that during a typical classroom discussion, I get the same students who participate and the same students who "check out." My students LOVE learning through Nearpod. They are more likely to be engaged in the learning and I get a response from every student. As a teacher, I have found that it is so valuable to get a response from every student because there is usually at least one or two who don't understand what to do or how to answer a question. I can now quickly have a conversation with them to get them back on track.

    Whether personalizing the pedagogical strategies or instructional approaches, these teachers illustrate how implementing innovative approaches can have a positive impact on not only their practice but also the learning for their kids. When it is all said and done, they actually took some information provided to them and charted their own course forward. You might even say they experienced personalized learning themselves based on what they are now doing across their grade level.



  4. Over the past two years, I have been blessed to partner with District 205 in Elmhurst, IL. I still vividly remember having lunch with Dave Moyer, the superintendent, where he explained in detail the vision that had been set for the district, centered around the six C's (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, character, citizenship). It was at this time that the decision was made for me to assist. The overall goal and focus of the partnership have been to help them get the most out of the devices that were rolled out a few years ago across the entire K-12 district as part of a 1:1 implementation. My role, like in many other similar districts across the country, has been to assist the teachers and administrators with digital pedagogy leading to purposeful use and efficacy using the framework below.



    One of the best parts about job-embedded, on-going work with school districts is facilitating a variety of professional learning opportunities. They have utilized me as a keynoter, coach (leadership and teaching), and workshop presenter. Recently the district asked me to be a part of their professional development day, which consisted of seven different learning strands specific to the needs and interests of their teachers. During a planning call prior, I was asked to work with special education, math, and reading teachers in particular. To be honest, these groups are not in my traditional wheelhouse, but I saw it as a learning opportunity to branch out and expand my level of knowledge. 

    Prior to the day, I spent a great deal of time planning my slide deck and associated digital handouts. The overreaching goal for each session was to support instructional strategies aligned to rigor & relevance and the 6 C's with a focus on the purposeful use of technology. What resulted was a great resource that I plan to share below on specific edtech tools that can assist special education (SPED), math, and reading teachers. 

    With the SPED sessions, everything was tied into support and planning for the six approaches to co-teaching embraced by the district. I realized early on that I consistently see all of these in action regularly through my coaching work in schools across the country. I went deeper into the models from a pedagogical standpoint to help them better plan for instruction. This was then followed with strategies and tools for embedding tech that would assist with both differentiation of instruction and co-planning (virtually). Both the math and reading sessions focused on how edtech could be used during independent work, formative assessment, and pedagogically-sound blended learning.

    Below you will see the specific tools I provided during each session. Some aren't new, but others might be.

    Co-Teaching

    • Pear Deck (formative and targeted assessment)*
    • Nearpod (formative and targeted assessment)*
    • Padlet (cooperative learning, closure, checks for understanding)
    • Linoit (cooperative learning, closure, checks for understanding, annotation)
    • Flipgrid (video creation for closure, checks for understanding, blended learning)
    • Newsela (assign current event articles by Lexile and quizzes)
    • Freckle (differentiation, stations)*
    • Edpuzzle (upload videos and insert questions)*
    • GoSoapBox (confusion indicator, quizzes, discussion forum, polls)
    • Formative (formative assessment, differentiation)*
    • Gimkit (formative assessment, closure)
    • QuizWhizzer (formative assessment, closure)
    • Seesaw (demonstrate and share learning)

    * Denotes importing and syncing with Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology

    Co-Planning

    • Voxer – (push to talk app that works like a Walkie-Talkie; share synchronous and asynchronous voice, test, and video messages in a threaded conversation)
    • Google Drive
    • Slack (workflow tool with instant messaging)
    • Padlet (collaborative board with text, video, audio, drawing, and screen sharing)
    • Linoit (collaborative Post-It note space)

    Math

    • Prodigy (K-5 games)
    • Xtra math (free program that helps elementary students master addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts.
    • IXL (paid personalized learning tool)
    • Educreations (create mini-lessons for students to watch/refer to and then practice concepts)
    • Khan Academy (videos for supplemental support and practice)
    • Knowledgehook (formative assessment tool for grades 3 – 9)
    • Patrick JMT (short instructional videos for middle and high school)
    • Hooda Math (K-12 math games)
    • CK-12 (adaptive practice problem sets; also check out their PLIX series)
    • Freckle (differentiation, stations)
    • Flipgrid (have students solve problems on whiteboards and then explain how they solved them using video)
    • Math Pickle (puzzles and games organized by grade level)

    Reading

    • IXL (paid personalized learning tool)
    • Epic (access to 35,000 of the best children's books for elementary)
    • CommonLit (free reading passages with formative assessments for grades 3-12)
    • ReadWorks (K-12 articles and assessments)
    • Read Theory (online reading activities by reading level with associated quizzes)
    • Smithsonian Tween Tribune (articles and quizzes for K-12)
    • Rewordify (simplify difficult to read English text, monitor students' reading and learning progress)
    • ReadWriteThink (a wide array of free student interactives)
    • PBS (games for elementary students)
    • Starfall (K-2 reading games and activities)
    • Flipgrid (have students record themselves reading passages and excerpts in order to assess)
    • Newsela (current event articles by Lexile with pre-made assessments)

    So, what would you add to what I have curated? Please feel free to share your suggestions in the comments section below. As I facilitate future workshops, I will add more tools to this list that align with other content areas. 
  5. Education is at a crossroads. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is chugging ahead with the 5th on the horizon. New technologies have radically changed the world that all of us live and work in across the globe. In many cases, this has been a good thing, but not always. The fact of the matter is that change isn’t coming; it is banging on the door every day. The mantra of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is beginning to fade more and more. As times change, many schools and districts are grappling with what to focus on in an effort to keep up with societal demands, a changing workforce, new areas of study, disruptive technologies, and learners who crave more relevant experiences. As a result, many educational entities have embraced a shift to a more personalized approach to learning.

    While this is admirable, what I have experienced firsthand is a lack of a uniform vision and plan or collective understanding as to what it means to personalize learning. It is definitely not about putting all kids on a device at the same time with no discourse under the guise that a tool can create a truly personal experience. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve technology, but virtually every educator sees it as necessary. The goal of this post is to help schools, districts, and educators develop a clear understanding of what personalized learning really is in order to implement it effectively at scale.

    Personalization represents a shift in focus from the “what” (content, curriculum, tests, programs, technology) to the “who” to create a more personal learning experience for all kids. At the forefront is developing and sustaining a culture that imparts purpose, meaning, relevance, ownership, and various paths that cater to both the strengths and weaknesses of all students. It is critical to come to a consensus as to what this then means in the context of teaching, learning, and leadership. Common vision, language, and expectations matter if the goal is to move beyond just a buzzword or isolated pockets of excellence. Below is an image I created to help schools and districts with all of the above.




    Learning Environment

    The learning environment makes or breaks personalized learning. It is impacted by school culture and leadership decisions at both the administrator and teacher levels, such as policies, procedures, schedules, and facilities that treat all learners as unique individuals. This could include both where kids learn and when. Technology can, in many cases, be a central component, but as I stated above, it doesn’t have to be. Some specific examples of learning environments that cater to a more personalized approach include:
    • Flexible classrooms and spaces
    • Innovative schedules
    • No bells
    • Virtual courses
    • Work-study and internship programs
    • Academies and small learning communities
    • Outdoor classrooms and spaces
    • Field trips
    • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and 1:1
    • Augmented and virtual reality
    The key takeaway here is that personalized learning is much more than what just happens in a classroom or the use of a tool. The right culture has to be in place to create a learning environment conducive to unleashing the genius and talents of all kids, which means focusing on equity and social-emotional learning (SEL) when needed.

    Curriculum

    Content knowledge is still essential across the board. What kids are (and will be) learning matters regardless of assertions by some pundits that claim otherwise. In some cases, the curriculum can be customized for learners to create a more personal experience. A more practical approach is to be more diligent as to the specific strategies that help learners master it in ways beyond just traditional means. No matter the path taken, a rigorous and challenging curriculum is pivotal to successfully implementing and scaling personalized learning. It also must be created in a way for students to master standards and concepts in a more personal fashion.

    Instruction

    Instruction involves the “what” in terms of what students need to know and is what the teacher does. Strategies can include delivery of content, modeling, explanation, and review. It centers around teacher actions as opposed to teacher learning. The key takeaway here is to take a critical lens to the instructional strategies that are being implemented to ensure they impart a sense of relevance and allow all learners the opportunity to be authentically engaged in the lesson.

    Pedagogy

    Whereas instruction is what the teacher does, pedagogy is the “how” and empowers learning on behalf of the students. It is essentially the science and art of teaching. It requires that teachers understand how kids learn and have the autonomy to design, implement, and assess activities that meet the needs of all students. Effective pedagogies involve a range of techniques such as cooperative learning, guided and independent practice, differentiation, scaffolded questions and performance tasks, innovative assessment, and feedback. No matter the strategy selected, the goal is to develop higher-order thinking and metacognition through dialogue and relevant application. Blended learning is one of the most popular pedagogical techniques to personalize learning.

    Assessment Data

    Assessment determines whether learning occurred, what learning occurred, and if the learning relates to stated targets, standards, and objectives. Well-designed assessment sets clear expectations, establishes a reasonable workload (one that does not push students into rote reproductive approaches to study), provides opportunities for students to self-monitor, and provides educators with valuable data. Most schools and districts are good at collecting data through benchmark assessments and adaptive learning tools. Where the challenges and inconsistencies arise is how it is analyzed and then used effectively to personalize learning. The following are some great starting points to better use data:
    • Grouping and re-grouping
    • Targeted instruction
    • Differentiation
    • Tiered tasks
    • Re-assess
    The critical aspect here is to collect good data and then use it in ways to help students learn and grow no matter where they are.

    Voice

    Honoring the voices of kids and allowing them to have a say during the learning process is a central tenet of student agency. There are many definitions, some of which are broad in the sense that they address how students can be empowered to use their voices to improve the learning environment, as described earlier in this post. An article by the American Progress Institute defines it as authentic student input or leadership in instruction, school structures, or education policies that can promote meaningful change in education systems, practice, and/or policy by empowering students as change agents, often working in partnership with adult educators.

    In the classroom, it can be facilitated by posing questions or problems to solve and then allowing students to use digital tools to respond through text, video, audio, drawings, images, and gifs. In many cases, voice can be amplified through the cover of anonymity, which is critical for introverts and shy students. They can also be provided with opportunities to share opinions on classroom design, assessments, and feedback. All in all, it is any act that empowers all kids to make their voices heard to help shape their learning experience. HERE is a great example that aligns with all of the above. 

    Choice

    Choice might be one of the most uncomplicated components to integrate daily. This could come in the form of kids selecting the right tool for the right task to demonstrate conceptual mastery, choosing where to sit in a classroom with flexible seating, or deciding how much time to spend watching a flipped lesson. It could also manifest itself in blended learning models such as choice boards and playlists. As principal, I allowed my students to choose to swap out a face-to-face class we offered in the building for a virtual course as well as to be a part of one of our three learning academies.

    Path, Pace, Place

    If all kids are doing the same thing the same way at the same time, individual needs are not being met. Just throwing technology into the mix isn’t a pedagogical solution. I will say this again. Putting all kids on a device to use an adaptive learning tool and calling it personalized learning is a bunch of bologna. The three “P”s provide added flexibility to emphasize a more personal approach to learning by allowing kids to follow their own path at their own pace while being afforded the optimal place to learn.

    Path could come in the form of customized curriculum, asynchronous virtual courses, selecting the order in a playlist, or independent study. It allows students to progress towards standards based on their mastery levels, interests, and goals. In my former school, students were able to determine their individual paths to learn something new through our Independent Open Courseware Study (IOCS) program. Pace is as simple as allowing kids to work through activities where they have to self-manage their time in order to achieve mastery. In many cases, a timeframe is established in the classroom as students work through activities in a variety of blended learning models. Some kids need more time while others less. Place refers to where kids learn and can include flexible seating, hallways, outdoors, home, or virtual spaces.

    Like many things in education, organizations and people tend to make concepts more complicated than they really are. Or they craft a vision and definition that solely meets their needs or goals. Personalized learning is about meeting the individual needs of all learners in utilizing digital and non-digital strategies. I hope that the image provided above will add some clarity to the conversation. It should be noted that a great deal more context and examples can be added to all of the elements described above.

    If you would like a high-resolution version of the image in this post email me () or provide your email in the comments section below.