A school leader’s guide to personalized learning

November 30, 2017 | by Julia Freeland

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I recently caught up with Mary Ann Wolf, PhD, Elizabeth Bobst and Nancy Mangum to discuss some of the key takeaways of their new book, Leading Personalized and Digital Learning: A Framework for Implementing School Change. The authors offer guidance for principals and other school leaders who are aiming to leverage the power of technology to help make student-centered learning a reality.

Julia: Your book delves into the power of technology to help create a student-centered learning environment. Could you paint a picture of a classroom where technology is a lever for personalization?

Mary Ann: We know that each student has unique strengths, learning differences, and passions. As we work to create student-centered learning environments, technology and digital learning accelerate the transition to personalized learning and provide many different instructional opportunities through content and curriculum, digital tools, and resources. Teachers who are striving to ensure that each student can be on a personalized pathway are able to have access to data on a regular basis that allows them to help guide the child. Learning opportunities do not always involve technology; however, when it makes sense for learning, students can connect with experts, develop products, approach project based learning, and publish for a broader audience.

When we walk into a classroom of students engaged in digital learning, we often find it hard to identify the teacher immediately because she is working with students rather than at the front of the class. We often hear a hum of energy. Some students are working together using technology to collaborate or solve a problem, others may be working independently to write a reflection or practice a skill, a small group may be working with the teacher using manipulatives or tablets to practice with support. Some students may be sitting on the floor, while others are on a couch or at a desk. However, the most telling thing about what is happening in a classroom where learners are engaged in digital learning happens when we ask students about their learning. Students can tell you what they are learning, where they are on their learning path, and where they are going next with their learning. Students can describe goals and standards, and students can show you their data. In our experience, students are engaged in the content and are very comfortable asking others or their teachers for support. Digital learning makes personalized learning for every student every day possible through rich content, simulations, collaboration tools, and production opportunities. Students use the technology much like we do at work, as one tool that can help them achieve their learning goals.

Teachers have long understood the power of personalized learning, but in the past, they’ve only succeeded in personalizing learning for some students on some days. In our experience, technology or digital learning makes personalized learning possible for every student everyday.

Julia: For school leaders looking to transition their school to nontraditional instructional models like blended learning, what do you view as the key leadership skills they need to successfully steer their school in a new direction?

Nancy:We continue to agree that core leadership skills identified by Michael Fullan and other researchers are as critical for leading today as they were ten or twenty years ago. However, we also know that today, the context has changed. In today’s districts and schools that are striving to move toward more personalized and digital learning, we find three key areas of leadership that are emphasized or more critical than they were in the past.

  • Model. While principals have always had the opportunity to model in some way, the transition from teacher-centered to student-centered learning, especially with the potential of technology and digital learning, dramatically shifts what modeling looks like for principals. Principals should model their own use of digital learning tools to personalize their work with individual teachers, whether through providing feedback immediately after a walk through (a quick email focused on a particular area) or by utilizing data to help a teacher better identify professional learning experiences that may support their growth and goals.
  • Adapt to the pace of change. The pace of change in education has been slow. It is almost cliche to discuss how education and schools have looked the same for the past 100 years or more. Yet in recent years, the near constant arrival of new technologies and digital learning has dramatically altered this situation and the pace of change is now greatly accelerated. Teachers need the time, space, and support to try new strategies, reflect upon them, and choose whether or not to use them again. Principals modeling this by taking risks themselves – with thoughtful approaches, research-based practices, and careful reflection –  becomes an important aspect of addressing the pace of change. Principals moving toward personalized and digital learning must develop new strategies and be prepared for the sometimes fast and furious pace of change in a system designed to maintain the status quo.
  • Articulate a shared vision. Principals must guide their stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, and community members—in thinking about what they want teaching and learning to be for their students. A shared vision must involve input from all stakeholders. Principals can bring stakeholders to visit examples of some of the important aspects of that vision. Principals should ask students, teachers, parents, and community members what they want teaching and learning to be for students in their schools. In asking stakeholders this question for many years, I have never heard that a teacher or a student wants every person in the class sitting in rows doing exactly the same thing at the same time without regard to what a student specifically needs. Principals should ask pointed questions about what makes a difference for learning and what leads to engagement. Students and teachers are in this every day and have solid ideas to contribute. Principals should share research and other examples of approaches that might work for students. This helps people imagine what is possible. Helping others see what is possible, especially in a time where clear examples are hard to find, is a critical role of principals in this transition.

Our book shares many tangible examples of how principals are growing and integrating these leadership competencies in their work everyday.

Julia: Bringing on fundamental change in school culture and mindset can be a daunting endeavor. What are some ways a principal or other school leader might facilitate culture or mindset changes?

Elizabeth:The importance of shared leadership and empowering teachers and students is a common theme from the principals highlighted in our book. Change cannot happen with one person tackling it on their own, so leaders who are looking to make changes within their buildings must ensure that they have a team to support each other and get buy in from stakeholders. The importance of distributed leadership builds on the need for ownership in the school by capitalizing on strengths and allowing teachers opportunities to grow and lead themselves.

Mary Ann: Creating a culture that supports innovation requires that teachers themselves embrace a growth mindset, one in which they believe they have the ability to learn, grow, and change. One strategy that Drew Ware, a principal in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, shared is to offer a forum for teachers to share something that they had tried during the week that hadn’t gone as planned. Drew did this through a “Faffle”—a Failure Raffle—that teachers get to enter when they try something that doesn’t work and are willing to share about it. This allows the principal to honor and appreciate on a regular basis teachers who take risks, it acknowledges that failure is part of learning and improving, and it provides teachers the opportunity to support each other.
Shifting a culture requires school leaders to model the very changes in mindset and skillset they want to see. Taking risks at faculty meetings to try something new or sharing their reflections on things that they have tried that haven’t been as successful as they had hoped are important.  Leaders must also use digital tools and strategies that they would like to see utilized in classrooms within their own practice. This could include trying a new tool for a weekly staff newsletter or changing the instructional strategies used during a staff meeting so that the meeting takes on a more personalized approach.

Leading Personalized and Digital Learning: A Framework for Implementing School Change is now available. (A discount of 20% is offered through Harvard Publishing when using the code, LPDL17, at checkout.)

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