Sunday, January 26, 2020

Personalized Learning: The Why, How, and What

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.


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 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.


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.


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 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. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Overcoming Fear of Change

"I have accepted fear as a part of life - specifically the fear of change... I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back." - Erica Jong

We are in the midst of disruptive times. Some might say that this has always been the case, and that is true. What's different now is how fast things are changing, and this is especially the case when it comes to technology. The onset of a new decade brings great anticipation of new ideas and innovations that can improve our quality of life and what we do professionally. Exponential change is now a constant whether we like it or not. It compels us to think about how we do what we do and the impact of our work. 

Change is hard. Actually, it is really hard, especially at the system level. For a variety of reasons, people fear change. More often than not, this has to do with anxiety related to failure, being comfortable where we are at, or succumbing to TTWWADI (That's the way we've always done it). Gustavo Razzetti identifies in more general terms what we are all afraid of:

  • Fear of the uncertain
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of being ridiculed
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of inadequacy
  • Fear of extra work
  • Fear of being happy 

It is natural to be afraid of going down a different path or implementing something new. If anyone tells you differently, then he or she doesn't know anything about real change. What matters is the choice you make when fear begins to influence your actions (or lack thereof). I always refer back to a powerful quote by Zig Ziglar. When facing fear, will you forget everything and run or face everything and rise? 

Ziglar is right when he says the choice is yours. If we let our fears influence what we do leading to inaction, then it is near impossible to get better. It can also lead to resistance. In many cases, this spells doom for culture as whatever we are resisting remains in existence to a certain extent. Instead of resisting change because we are afraid, it's time to embrace a different mindset. Lucia Giovannini outlines seven practical ways to do this:
If we really want to live a life that reflects the best of our possibilities, then we have to be open to change and to welcome it as a natural part of our evolution. Here are 7 steps you can use to overcome fear of change:
  1. Life is change and change means life. ...
  2. Accept the situation, but don't resign yourself to it! ...
  3. See failure as something positive. ...
  4. Celebrate every little success. ...
  5. Be responsible. ...
  6. Be patient. ...
  7. Step outside your comfort zone.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain." Change in the context of continual improvement is a good thing. Don't let your fear inhibit both personal and collective progress. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Removing the Stigma of Observations

As a teacher, I always dreaded observations early in my career. It wasn’t because I didn’t find them valuable or was torn apart. On the contrary, I found them to be an excellent opportunity to see how I was doing. The science supervisor at the time was extremely diligent in his narrative and always provided both commendations and at least one area where I could improve. My issue was that nerves always took over as I wanted to perform my best. Each observation was fair, and I still had the opportunity to offer my perspective on any areas where I didn’t agree with what my supervisor saw or thought.

When I became a principal, I worked extremely hard to make sure the observation process for my teachers was not only fair but also valuable. Many of my staff routinely commented on how diligent I was in the write-up of each report to capture all aspects of the lesson while offering tangible strategies for improvement. Herein lies the goal of any observation of a teacher or administrator, and that is feedback for growth. Unfortunately, this is not how it is either viewed by some teachers or implemented by administrators.

Many educators downright disregard the entire process as being valuable. I have either read or been challenged by some teachers on social media that they don’t want administrators in their classrooms. If this is the case, then there are probably two issues at play. Either a teacher is not being open to feedback and getting better, or an administrator is not creating a meaningful experience that leads to growth. No matter the reason for animosity, a need for shared ownership to improve the process might be needed.  

Instructional leadership should always be a top priority for any administrator regardless of his or her position. The key is to focus on continually growing in this area while building relationships with teachers in the process. Below are some strategies that can be used by administrators to remove the stigma of observations.
  • Stay the entire lesson.
  • Never make it an “I gotcha” moment.
  • Allow the teacher to align artifacts that show the entire picture. These can be detailed lesson plans, assessments, performance tasks, student work, use of data to improve instruction, modifications for ELL/SPED learners, portfolios, or professional learning opportunities.
  • Align research and pedagogical evidence to recommendations for growth and improvement (see point above).
  • Schedule the post-conference in a timely manner (1-2 days is preferable).
  • During the post-conference, make sure it is a dialogue, not a monologue. Since observations are subjective, it is crucial to be open to changes after engaging in a conversation and looking at the evidence.
  • Ask the right questions to spur reflection.
  • Ensure that some of the feedback can be implemented right away. For areas that need more time, make sure the proper supports in the form of time and professional learning opportunities are made available.
  • Provide opportunities for self-reflection after the post-conference.
  • Integrate observations as one component of a comprehensive evaluation that consists of portfolios and student feedback.
  • Reduce teacher anxiety by routinely visiting classrooms through a non-evaluative walk-through process. This will also make students more comfortable and when a formal observation does take place both groups will be used to seeing the administrator in the classroom and the lesson can more easily go as planned.
Now the strategies above place the burden of responsibility on the back of the administrator to do his or her part to remove the stigma of observations. However, it is equally essential for the teacher to play his or her role. That means being open to feedback, extending an open invite to admin and peers to visit their classroom, eliciting student feedback as a means to grow, and working to implement recommendations that are noted in the final observation report. Only together can teachers and administrators get the process right.

Means of evaluation are a reality in almost every type of job. Education is no different. Observations are the primary component of an annual performance review in schools. Instead of outright discounting or conducting them in ineffective and meaningless ways, let’s work to improve the process. In the end, all, including our learners, will benefit.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

What Could Be

With the beginning of each new year, it seems like everyone on the planet is either talking about or embarking on some type of resolution. I will be the first one to say that this used to be me each and every year. In almost every case, I tried to commit to something health-related like getting to the gym more or eating better. However, as time has passed, I have reflected on this annual tradition and deemed it to be quite silly in the greater scheme of things. Why should it take the passing of each new year to commit to change on both a professional and personal level? As such, I have not made nor pursued any resolution in many years.

An article by Mary Ellen Tribby in the Huffington Post sums up quite nicely why New Year’s resolutions don’t work:
As a matter of fact according to a study by The University of Scranton’s Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 39% of people in their twenties achieve their resolution goals each year.
And the number keeps decreasing with age. By the time you are in your fifties only 14% of people achieve their resolution goals each year. So why is this? Well there are a few reasons:

  • We bite off big chunks that aren’t realistic. Essentially we go from doing nothing to saying we will do everything.
  • We make commitments based on other people’s expectations. We worry too much of what other people are thinking instead of asking ourselves, what will make “me” happy?
  • We don’t have the right mindset. We have not made that internal shift.
Waiting for the new year to embark on an improvement, goal, or innovative idea could very well translate into missed opportunities.
If you don’t ever try something new, then you will never know what could have been.

Growth is an ongoing and never-ending journey. It shouldn’t be aforethought at the beginning of the year, but something that all of us focuses on continuously. Consider what holds you back from setting new goals and reaching them throughout the year. The next logical step is to shift your thinking. By embracing a growth mindset, pursuing something new becomes business as usual as opposed to unusual.

Pursue your passions.

Take calculated risks.

Move outside your comfort zone.

Face your fears head-on.

Focus on the “what ifs” instead of the “yeah buts.”

By focusing on the above, a new mantra of what could be will result. Forget waiting until the year changes to develop a resolution that might not stick and run the risk of pondering what could have been. Instead, invest in yourself consistently by believing in yourself to live in the now. By doing so, you will be more prone to reap the rewards of what could be.