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“Personalized learning” is in vogue right now, but unfortunately, educational publishing companies have commandeered this term and made it about individualizing the delivery of instruction for a student using algorithms and the flexibility of technology. And that misses the mark.


“Personal learning” has emerged as the term to distinguish learning that is truly owned by the learner from differentiated, individualized, or personalized learning. A key distinction is that in personal learning, the focus is on the learning. Historically, we have referred to differentiated instruction and individualized instruction, where the focus is on the instructional practice employed. Personalized learning, given how this term has been hijacked, is more accurately termed personalized instruction. In all three instances, the student is still the recipient of some program imposed by a teacher or computer program.


Personal learning recognizes and respects learner agency. When fully empowered, the learner decides what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it. Indeed, it is how we learn what we choose to learn. Suppose, for instance, that you want to learn about meteorology. You may choose to explore this topic on the internet, read books, take a class, attend lectures, engage with an expert or mentor, or even do your own scientific studies. You choose what specific topics you want to explore and to what depth. You may be intensely engaged in your learning at times and there may be periods of time when you invest very little effort into your learning. This is personal learning.


All well and good you say, but we still have learning expectations for students. Yes, we do. And, those are important references for learners as they design their learning paths and plans. Content standards, though, are only one important reference for learners. Career credentials may also define external expectations. Performance standards may define expectations for others. The point is that what a learner chooses to learn and prioritize in the process is more a result of their aspirations, passions, and personal goals than a one-size-fits-all list of requirements. Do all graduates really need to know how to “express a logarithm as the solution to the exponential equations ab^ct=d where, a, c, and d are numbers and the base b is 2, 10, or e; evaluate the logarithm using technology.” (SC Pre-calculus math standard PC.FLQE.4) or even SC Geometry standard G.GSRT.1: “Understand a dilation takes a line not passing through the center of the dilation to a parallel line, and leaves a line passing through the center unchanged. Verify experimentally the properties of dilations given by a center and a scale factor. Understand the dilation of a line segment is longer or shorter in the ration given by the scale factor”?



Learning can happen anywhere, at anytime. It doesn't require sitting in a classroom.

As schools and districts seek to better support personal learning, there are some elements to consider:

*Class schedules and seat time need to be replaced with time management and demonstration of mastery. In a world where we need to ensure that the children entrusted to our care are safe, we do need to know where they are. Additionally, we want to be sure to monitor their learning progress so that we can support, encourage and coach them. There are many software solutions available today that enable this. As for mastery, I’ll tackle that in another blog.

*Learners need to develop learning plans that take into account their goals, passions, and current achievement levels, as well as learning styles, resources, and opportunities. As noted above, these plans also need to consider external requirements associated with their learning goals.

*It is the learning that must be validated. A competency-based, mastery-driven system to verify the accomplishments of each learner needs to be in place. Learning that happens within the system and outside of the system needs to be validated. A number of micro-credential and badge systems are available today to support this approach.

*Teachers will still teach, but not to a captive audience. Instead, they need to offer lectures and experiences informed by learners’ plans. Further, they need to function more as coaches, resources, and consultants, in response to each learner.

*Policies, resource allocation, structures are among the many other elements that need to change in a true personal learning environment.


Admittedly, this vision represents a significant change from the current model of school. The change management process can occur, though, through very intentional and well managed stages. Systems, like individuals, go through predictable developmental phases. We’ve attempted to capture this process in the maturity model. We believe strongly that the whole system needs to maintain alignment throughout the evolution of becoming a personal learning system. We welcome your feedback and constructive thoughts on this model.

If we are truly serious about each student achieving college or career readiness and graduate prepared for life, then school boards need to step up their game.


John Carver introduced the notion of a better way of governing called Policy Governance©. Randy Quinn and Linda Dawson, well versed in Carver’s model, improved on Carver’s work after working with boards for more than 30 years. An introduction to their approach, Coherent Governance©, can be found in their book, “Good Governance is a Choice: A Way to Re-create Your Board the Right Way”. It’s worth the read.

As Quinn and Dawson point out, “many board members simply don’t know what their jobs are” and find “themselves entrenched in a governing system so inherently inadequate that failure was unavoidable”. Having worked with boards, Quinn and Dawson are not insensitive to the dynamics many board members experience and understand why many boards “chose to succumb to the inertia that bound them to a role of mediocrity”. But, they also paint a clear and simple picture for a better way.


Quinn and Dawson make it clear that “the board, not the CEO or staff, should own the vision for where the organization is headed and assure that systems are in place to realize the long-term vision.”


To accomplish this, an overhaul of the board’s governance system is recommended which involves reducing the 5” policy manual to around 30 very clear and focused policies. These policies address Governance Culture, Board-CEO Relationships, Operational Expectations, and Results. And then the hard work begins…monitoring the implementation of those policies and holding responsible parties (including themselves) accountable for success.

Quinn and Dawson promise that if a board will do the hard work of implementing this approach with fidelity, they will realize significant results.


Having worked in a district that adopted Policy Governance, I know first-hand the value of this approach toward achieving the organization’s mission. The Coherent Governance approach proffered by Quinn and Dawson evolves Carver’s model in important ways informed by the application of the approach.


If we are to ensure the success of each of the precious children entrusted to us, the work needs to start with the board doing their part. It’s time for board meetings to stop majoring in the minors and get serious and focused on the mission of schools.


You can learn more about Quinn and Dawson's work at www.aspengroup.org.

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein


“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.” - E. F. Schumacher


Much has been written about the design of the current U.S. educational system. It is well recognized that the model largely in play is a factory model born out of the industrial era. For years, teachers have voiced their issues with efforts to hold them accountable for students performing on grade level, when they have no control over the readiness of the students that walk through their door.


Still, many well-intended legislators, state departments, school boards, and administrative leadership teams continue to try to make the current system work. They become more adamant that teachers teach all their same-age students grade level standards and become more and more prescriptive about what to teach all students on what day and in what way. In other words, they insist more loudly that the industrial model must work, failing to understand that it is designed to fail.


Here’s why.


We have all been exposed to the normal curve in our education preparation courses. If we employ research from the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) to the normal curve, we can quickly see the dilemma. Since I am in South Carolina, I will illustrate the issue with NWEA’s South Carolina Linking Study found at https://www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2018/02/SC-MAP-Growth-Linking-Study-2018-02-07.pdf, but you can do the same analysis for your state and it’s likely you will find the same phenomenon.


This is a snapshot from the South Carolina linking study showing the required RIT score and associated percentile for students in grades K through 8 to perform at various levels on the SC Ready state accountability assessment. Notice that for a student to be at the “Meets” level in math, the percentile ranges from the 43rd to 68th percentile.


If we apply that information to the normal curve (courtesy of www.AssessmentPsychology.com), then we see the problem as plainly as seeing the nose on our face. Keep in mind that state accountability tests still in use today were designed with the requirements from No Child Left Behind and those included that students be tested only with items that are from the grade level standards.


The “Meets” descriptor, then, suggests that these are the students that are meeting grade level achievement expectations. And, for grades 3 through 8, then, that means that more than half of the “average” students will not be achieving on grade level by design. By the time students get to 7th grade, the system is designed to fail 64% of the students.


The system is similar for ELA. This figure represents the phenomenon for third graders in South Carolina. In this illustration, the tan highlights indicate where students are typically performing to qualify for special education for academic reasons.


As more and more emphasis is placed on teaching grade level standards to all students, teachers find little support for differentiating or individualizing instruction, especially if it means reaching students off-grade-level, whether below or above grade level.


The impact of this is predictable:

*More and more students, parents, and teachers are frustrated.

*The achievement gap grows.

*More students require interventions which require more staff and more funding.

*More referrals are made to special education.

*The needs of highest performing students are often unmet.


Yet, the drum beat continues. “If teachers would only do a better job teaching grade level standards, our students would achieve.”


There are better ways. Vygotsky pointed us in the right direction with his Zone of Proximal Development. Advances in personal learning theory are headed in a better direction, as well. It’s time we start meeting students where they are, regardless of age, and move them forward as quickly as we can, but as slowly as we need to, to achieve mastery of learning outcomes. Let’s stop the insanity.