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6 Steps to Help Your District Systematically Personalize Education

By Bill Shields, Ed.D. September 11th, 2018

Personalizing education requires a transformational shift in the design of schooling that includes every stakeholder

For the past decade, personalization has been a hot topic in education. You may have wondered if it’s a real and attainable goal for your school system or if it’s some holy grail that many seek but few achieve.

Community Consolidated School District 93 (CCSD93) in Illinois has been working to shift our instructional delivery system to a more personalized approach since the 2012-13 school year. While many believe that personalized learning is an instructional strategy directly tied to a laptop or tablet, for CCSD93, it goes well beyond that. Classroom instruction, curriculum, student grading, conferences, design thinking, and even learning spaces are components of our plan to personalize teaching and learning. Here are six steps that have been essential in our efforts to transform education in our nine schools.

  1. Define personalized education for all stakeholders Personalizing education has different meanings for different people. For us, it was initially difficult to try and accomplish this endeavor because teachers, administrators, and staff members had different ideas of what personalization was. We couldn’t get to the “why,” let alone the “how,” if we didn’t understand the “what.”

Personalizing education is not new; it can be traced back as far as ancient Greek and Roman academies. It was the essence of education in many parts of the United States prior to the introduction of the factory model. Our definition harkens back to these roots. For CCSD93, personalized education meets each student where they are and helps them to meet their unique learning goals and interests, inside and outside of school. It helps them to achieve their potential through a wide range of resources and strategies appropriate for their learning styles, abilities, and interests as well as social and emotional needs. Personalized education is not just allowing students to be engaged but enabling them to become empowered and to take responsibility for their learning.

  1. Align your mission, vision, and strategic plan to personalization Personalizing education should never be considered an initiative; it requires a transformational shift in the design of schooling. Senior leadership needs to ensure that it truly becomes the main crux to how the school system operates. This shift needs the support of the Board of Education, teachers, staff, students, parents, and the entire community. We had months of discussions with our Board of Education prior to initiating our shift. We then undertook our strategic planning process with administrators, parents, and staff members from each district building and together sought to embed key concepts behind our shared definition of personalized learning into our new vision and strategic goals. This helped to not only operationalize what personalization meant, but also showed our district’s commitment to it and gave us a roadmap for how to achieve it. We hosted town hall meetings and live streamed them to ensure that parents and the entire community were aware of our commitment to this shift.
  2. Provide comprehensive professional development With personalization came the redefinition of the teacher role from one who gives information to one who guides student exploration. However you define it, shifting to a more personalized approach will required a comprehensive professional development (PD) plan for teachers. In CCSD93, our educators are invited to participate in a weeklong Technology Academy during the summer months that provides personalized PD around relevant tools, resources, and strategies. They’re also invited to submit proposals to take on an independent study project throughout the school year, committing to implementing a new personalized teaching method in their daily practice.

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In partnership with our teachers’ union, we created greater opportunity for ongoing PD, shortening our school days on Mondays by 90 minutes (and extending them the rest of the week) to enable our educators to meet weekly in communities of practice. With guidance from our Teaching, Learning & Innovation Department, our educators devote 90 minutes to a personalized learning strategy or concern and interact collaboratively on how to continuously improve their practice. Along with PD days, institute days, and team meetings, every PD opportunity focuses on our strategic plan and how we personalize education for our students.

  1. Build relationships Teaching and learning happens most effectively if there is a strong relationship and the students know that the teacher is there for them. For this reason, we’ve emphasized that the start of the school year needs to be geared toward building relationships. We don’t want our staff focused on rules and grading systems but how to get to know each child personally. We need to understand their likes, dislikes, strengths, needs, hobbies, and dreams. We also ask staff to open up to their students about their personal lives and share personal stories their students can relate to. Though this needs to be the focus throughout the school year, the foundation must be laid at the start so that the first impression a student has of their teacher is of an adult who cares about their best interests.
  2. It’s not all about technology, but embracing it can empower students The proliferation of devices, social media, online learning resources, and classroom-based tools such as interactive whiteboards, robots, and digital literacy has become a reality for CCSD93 students. Though we do not need technology to personalize education, by incorporating it, children are more able to learn at their own pace and be challenged consistently to develop critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity skills. They experience greater flexibility and can learn anytime, anywhere. Teachers can develop student- paced learning paths driven by day-to-day assessments of strengths and opportunities for improvement, informed by real-time data that helps to meet individual student needs.
  3. Find great partners Organizations, curricular resources, publishers, and even technology companies can develop into strong partners for school districts. It’s critical that the companies and organizations you align your school system with fully understand teaching, learning, and the design and direction of your district. Early on, we made the mistake of working with a publishing company that did not fully understand our direction and could not deliver on promises. If you find yourself in a similar situation, it’s important to dissolve those relationships quickly or your progress will be hindered.

We’ve had the great fortune to work with a local college, key associations such as AASA, ISTE, and CoSN, and exceptional companies like Discovery Education to help meet our personalized learning needs. We’ve found Discovery Education in particular to understand our vision, as the company is staffed by current and former educators who work with us to achieve our strategic goals. Whoever you partner with, continue to foster those relationships to improve your partnerships year after year for the betterment of your school system.

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