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March 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 6
Getting Personalization Right
Penny Bishop, John Downes and James Nagle
Districts must pursue three pillars of personal learning simultaneously.
On a sunny, autumn morning in Essex, Vermont, students from The Edge, a multi-aged team of 7th and 8th graders at Essex Middle School, harvest vegetables from their community garden, which they designed and planted last spring. This is one of many projects this 45-student team has embarked on in the past five years, and The Edge is one of many such teams at Essex. Each team uses a slightly different pedagogical philosophy, and all Essex students—together with their families—choose which team they want to be on.
Every fall since 2011, students on The Edge have developed thematic units of study for the year ahead with one another and with their teachers. The team's commitment to education for sustainability grounds the content knowledge and skills these learners study in a purposeful context. The units they design, distilled from questions students ask about themselves and the world, further integrate students' passions into shared experiences.
Each unit and project engages community partners and makes a real-world impact. A study of alternative energy, for example, led to students winning a grant to install solar panels on their school's roof. Other students partnered with the local solid waste facility to conduct a waste-stream analysis, and then designed and rolled out a composting system across the school district. Their rollout included presentations and theater performances to introduce students in feeder elementary schools to the importance of composting.
To choose units and projects, each student team at Essex first discusses themes for the semester. Students propose projects and vote for which projects they want to consider. Once the projects for a semester are determined, teachers review the Vermont Education Quality Standards to determine which standards apply to various projects.1
Students also choose—from their personal learning plans—an academic goal for which they want to demonstrate proficiency during each project.
But The Edge team takes personalization one step further. Throughout the year, students also embark on personal projects that reflect the interests and passions of individuals or small groups of students. In the past few years, for instance, one student group developed a plan for a new dog park and presented it to their town council. Another group studied the impact of automobile idling and launched a campaign to raise awareness on idling in the pickup line outside their school.
Each of these projects requires community partnerships. Students must find a mentor who's an expert in their area of interest and integrate interviews with community members into their research. Their final projects must either involve public presentations or take some action in the school or community.
As teacher educators, we've observed the implementation of personalized learning across dozens of schools in Vermont. Since it launched, The Edge has been a source of inspiration for us. Students who greet visitors who come to see The Edge show those visitors how deeply they understand the team's philosophy, pedagogy, and sense of community. Team members speak with passion and conviction about their projects, as if they were the ones who, for instance, installed solar panels on the roof—because they were. They exhibit the hallmarks of deep engagement in learning they find personally meaningful.
Our observations of The Edge have taken on new meaning over the last several years as Essex's implementation of team-based personalized learning has integrated three components central to most approaches to personalization: personal learning plans (PLPs), flexible pathways, and proficiency-based assessment. Team members' learning is now guided by their personal learning plans. Whole-team and personal projects reflect a flexible curriculum driven by topics and activities of personal and social significance. And students' efforts yield authentic evidence of proficiency in areas of personal, academic, and civic life that their community has deemed essential for a fulfilling future.
Personalization is a reform agenda sweeping across much of the United States. Only six states have no systematic efforts underway to provide personalized and flexible pathways through students' secondary education, and 10 states, including Vermont, have comprehensive state policies and implementation plans (Patrick, Worthen, Frost & Gentz, 2016).
As researchers in the field, we think it's important to distinguish between the terms personalized learning (or personalization) and personal learning. The latter term connotes a deeper degree of autonomy for learners. As Will Richardson (2012) emphasized (quoting Stephen Downes, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada), "Autonomy is what distinguishes between personal learning, which we do for ourselves, and personalized learning, which is done for us" (p. 25).
Vermont's 2013 legislation requiring that school districts implement PLPs, flexible pathways, and proficiency-based assessment is typically referred to as Act 77. The mandate enables districts to create their own systems to meet this expectation. As a result, Vermont has become a veritable laboratory of different modes of personalization.
As plans for personalized learning have unfolded in Vermont, the enormity of the task has become clear. Vermont students consistently rank high in the National Assessment of Educational Progress and in high school graduation rates (92.5 percent). However, a deeper dive into demographics reveals that many of Vermont's rural and low-income students are poorly served. The 37 percent of our students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch enroll in postsecondary education at a much lower rate (60 percent) than their wealthier peers do (Vermont Agency of Education, 2015).
Act 77"s provision mandating flexible pathways for all students in grades 7–12 aims to improve postsecondary enrollment. Although we recognize that schools cannot address all the challenges students face, PLPs, proficiency-based assessment, and flexible pathways all speak to a core function over which educators do have control: giving all students access to engaging, personally meaningful learning opportunities.
Yet our experience with the implementation of Act 77 thus far sounds a familiar alarm. With this systemwide change, we see historical patterns repeating themselves. The pursuit of personalized learning is often being subsumed into existing educational structures and into policies that perpetuate our educational inequalities (Ladson Billings, 2006).
The personal learning plan is a way for students, in collaboration with teachers and families, to craft an educational program that helps them achieve their academic, social, and career goals. Students on the Edge team document their PLP using a social software called Protean, designed with personalized learning in mind. They follow a personal-learning framework that allows them to develop a growth mindset by setting goals, planning their projects, posting new evidence of learning, and reflecting on that evidence to inform their next steps (Nagle & Taylor, in press). Along with using Google Classroom (a learning management system that organizes student work) and Jump Rope (a grading tool that allows for proficiency-based assessment), working within Protean helps students follow their PLP and helps teachers come to know students and guide them along an engaging and personal path (Gauthier, Halman, Hunt, & Taylor, 2016).
The PLP process complements the team's commitment to building key skills for lifelong, self-directed learning. Further, using an online social platform promotes peer, family, and mentor involvement in the design of students' learning.
The PLP process that the Edge team follows contrasts sharply with what we've observed elsewhere. Too often, personal learning plans become mere window dressing over the same teacher-directed curriculum that shunts student interests to the margins. Students are often expected to focus their plan on subject-specific standards (or proficiencies) aligned with traditional coursework. Their PLP may become little more than a list of classes. When students try to set personal or academic goals aligned with personal passions, they soon realize there's scant time in the day to pursue those passions. It's no wonder many students and teachers, even in schools energetically pursuing the promise of personal learning, have shared with us their disappointment with PLPs.
The concept of flexible pathways offers students a way to blend a variety of educational experiences without requiring traditional coursework as the sole way to acquire skills and knowledge. The Edge team demonstrates how even middle school students can be engaged by mentorships, apprenticeships, and volunteerism. This team embraces anywhere, anytime learning, encouraging members to incorporate online or blended learning into their plans, including such activities as Skyping with distant mentors. Individualized project designs and student choice are the norm rather than the exception. Learning in and with the surrounding community creates authentic contexts for project-based learning, service learning, and design learning. And it introduces students to new possibilities for education or work after high school.
Like PLPs, however, flexible pathways alone are not enough. Unless educators view flexible pathways as a route to engagement for every student, the route will become nothing more than a student's chosen path through the adult system, with students simply selecting items from a menu designed without their involvement. And unless school systems value and "count" evidence of learning from these varied experiences, students will inevitably resort to traditional venues for which they can earn credit—making flexible pathways unnecessary.
Moving away from Carnegie units and the practice of earning credit for seat time, proficiency-based assessment opens the way for more personal, flexible, and student-directed learning. For the Edge team, proficiencies are part of setting clear and individualized goals in personalized-learning and project plans. Students receive frequent, clearly constructed formative assessments that are linked to work they are passionate about. The team translates evidence from students' self-directed project work into a shared understanding of each learner's progress toward proficiency.
Students' project work is assessed through a proficiency-based assessment system that evaluates achievement on selected Vermont Transferrable Skills and Education Quality Standards for personal and academic development. Students share their progress in student-led conferences with their teachers and selected responsible adults (usually their parents). They discuss their academic and personal development by reviewing their work on their PLP from the most recent trimester. Those gathered then discuss next steps in the student's progress—revision of goals, changes to the project, or design of a new goal or project.
Other examples of proficiency-based assessment we've encountered are less connected to the deep learning experienced by The Edge. Too often, the proficiency-based approaches we see emerging are no less alienating to students than the standards-based movement that preceded them. Adults have taken traditional, subject-specific coursework and listed dozens of essential proficiencies, then translated these into still more detailed learning targets and scales. Some have designed common assessment tasks with age-specific rubric systems and report cards. The course catalog and age-based expectations undermine opportunities for individualization, flexibility, and—most important—learning that has personal meaning to students.
We have intentionally drawn stark contrasts between how the Edge team experiences personalized learning and how PLPs, flexible pathways, and proficiency-based assessment are being implemented in other schools—in ways that disappoint us. We also know of many examples of personalization that fall in the gray area between personalized learning and truly personal learning, as Downes distinguished these terms. Our observations raise crucial questions that have implications for personal learning. Will access to high-quality personal learning and flexible pathways be equitably available to all students? How will emerging systems of personalized learning navigate the historical tensions between preparing students for participation in academics and preparing them for the workforce and civic life?
Our experiences with The Edge illustrate an emerging reality: The three pillars of personal learning need to be pursued purposefully and simultaneously. If educators act without a commitment to all three, they risk undermining personally engaging and meaningful learning. As James Rickabaugh (2013) warned:
The three core components of such a system are comprehensive learner profiles, customized learning paths, and proficiency (or competency) based progress. Competency-based learning is a key piece of the puzzle; however, in order to tap its full potential, educators must do more than give students clear competencies and support to meet them …. Unless students are given voice and choice in their learning, opportunities for personalized, real time feedback as they progress, access to a personalized learning path, and opportunity to build toward real independence as a learner, they will not build key capacities to survive and thrive in the rapidly changing work and life world where they will spend most of their adult lives.
Without true personal learning, school is too often alienating, particularly to students who struggle. We have noticed that whenever students are deeply and equitably engaged in meaningful growth, the three pillars work together, each doing its part to support personal learning. When they are implemented separately, or when one is missing, personal learning remains elusive, and students—and their teachers—can become disillusioned about the movement toward personalized learning.
Gauthier, A., Halman, L., Hunt, K., & Taylor, D. (2016, September 22). PLP Pathways Webinar #1 [Webinar]. In PLP Pathways Series. Retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/plppathways/webinar
Ladson Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3–12.
Nagle, J., & Taylor, D. (in press). Using a personal learning framework to transform middle grades teaching practice. Middle Grades Research Journal.
Patrick, S., Worthen, M., Frost, D., & Gentz, S. (2016, May). Promising state policies for personalized learning. Vienna, VA: International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL). Retrieved from www.inacol.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/iNACOL-Promising-State-Policies-for-Personalized-Learning.pdf
Richardson, W. (2012). Preparing students to learn without us. Educational Leadership, 69(5), 22–26.
Rickabaugh, J. (2013, July 15). The importance of competency-based learning in a personalized learning environment. Retrieved from www.competencyworks.org/reflections/the-importance-of-competency-based-learning-in-a-personalized-learning-environment
Vermont Agency of Education. (2015). Vermont high school graduates postsecondary enrollment rate. Retrieved from http://education.vermont.gov/documents/EDU-Data_High_School_Graduates_Higher_Education_Enrollment_Rate.pdf
Multiple projects related to the same theme might be going on simultaneously with different groups of students.
Multiple projects related to the same theme might be going on simultaneously with different groups of students.
Penny Bishop is associate dean and professor of middle level education and John Downes is associate director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont in Burlington. James Nagle is associate professor of education at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont.
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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