In my opinion, many school districts attempt to implement too many initiatives, too often and without enough clarity on how each fits into the greater scheme of the overall instructional program. Something I refer to as “initiativitis.” It’s nobody’s fault. With the constant changes in state curriculums and assessments, and the frequent onslaught of the newest “research-based, best practice,” districts struggle to keep up. The challenge is that newer initiative priorities are often layered upon older ones, whether they had been successful or not. Teachers become unsure on what the expectations are. Is this new initiative replacing something, or am I supposed to just add this to what I’m already doing? The new and old initiatives often become isolated into pockets of implementation, not complementing but competing with one another for instructional time and resources.
Just as we look to the picture on the puzzle box to see how and if a particular puzzle piece contributes to the larger picture, we need to have some process to determine how and if any new initiative fits into our system. By “system,” I refer to both a philosophical framework providing the mission, vision and core beliefs of the district, as well as a “how-to” framework identifying how we will take action to achieve our philosophical framework.
Consistent with our philosophical framework, Personalized Learning (PL) will be the conceptual underpinning of Marion’s “how-to” framework. There is no one definition, no one model, no standard set of practices and no conforming expectation of resource adoption for PL.
So what is personalized learning? For us, it will involve a hybrid use of direct teacher instruction with technology and digital content to appropriately challenge each student at their own appropriate level of rigor. The digital software and content do much of the “grunt work” for the teacher. Teachers use individual learner profiles to develop and facilitate personalized learning experiences for each student. By leveraging these technological efficiencies, teacher capacity is increased to allow both targeted teacher instruction in small groups and complementary computer based learning. By meeting each individual student at their own level and taking advantage of their natural affinity for technology, PL makes learning more relevant and engaging for students.
I know what you’re thinking, “Isn’t this just another initiative?” Yes, but this one’s different. Through this PL initiative we will implement one action framework that matches all the pieces of our philosophical framework and provides the bones to support curriculum, assessment, intervention, acceleration and enrichment in one interdependent and complementary system. This initiative isn’t about adding new instructional “activities.” It’s about creating the system, within which all past and future instructional activities must fit. That is why we are making the creation of our “how-to” framework through personalized learning our “one initiative” initiative for the foreseeable future. All other initiatives will be vetted through this PL lens.
So why is Personalized Learning personal to me? It doesn’t necessarily require technology to personalize a student’s learning experience. My prior district was a more affluent suburban district with a significantly higher student population. Students in this district were given a highly personalized learning experience with only minimal technological support. Teachers were available to meet nearly every need for intervention support, enrichment and acceleration, advanced placement and college credit bearing courses, as well as a host of various specialty offerings. They were able to do it because they had more resources, were able to hire more staff, and had a large enough enrollment to populate these specialty programs. They were able to personalize because of their significant advantage in size and available resources. Marion doesn’t have the financial means to add several teachers, nor do we have a student population to adequately fill or justify many specialty offerings. That said, I believe Marion students deserve the same supports, opportunities and personalization offered to students in larger and more affluent communities. After all, they will be competing with these students for seats in college, college merit aid and jobs. Where we can’t personalize student learning to the same level through additional staffing, we can leverage technology through PL to the same end. I believe Personalized Learning can be the equalizer for students in small, rural districts like Marion.
Given the importance of this initiative, we have contracted with an organization called Education Elements. They are nationally recognized as the leaders in helping school districts implement Personalized Learning. Through this multi-year agreement, we will receive step-by-step guidance and support through every phase of the implementation of Personalized Learning, including the “personalization” of Personalized Learning to meet the unique needs of our Marion students.
When it comes to student learning in rural Marion, we’re taking it personal. Our students deserve the best. I encourage other educators to join the movement.
Don Bavis is superintendent of Marion Central School District. He previously served as principal of the Cobbles Elementary School in Penfield. He has roots in Wayne County with a background as a school psychologist, coordinator of special education, and a teacher at the high school level.