Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

Personalized Learning, Maine Style

Putting students in charge of their own learning is the best way to prepare them for the future.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Personalized Learning, Maine Style- thumbnail
It's an exciting and challenging time for educators all over the world as we prepare our students for a future that will require competencies unfamiliar to earlier generations. Recognizing the need to reimagine our schools, Maine recently passed legislation requiring that beginning in 2018, high school diplomas must be awarded on the basis of student proficiency. No longer will "seat time" be a passport to graduation.
Under the new legislation, schools must offer students multiple pathways and opportunities to demonstrate learning proficiency, including teacher-designed or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions, projects, and community service. To reach this goal, all Maine school districts will need to explore personalized—also known as customized—student learning.
Fortunately, the work is already well underway. In fall 2010, a small group of educators in Maine challenged the status quo and dedicated themselves and their school communities to transformational change. The following spring, the group officially formed the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning to help districts work together and share financial resources for professional training in the areas of leadership, curriculum design, instruction, and assessment for personalized learning. My K–12 school district, RSU #57 in southern Maine, was one of the original members of this cohort. Since the effort began, our teachers, support staff, and administrators have been working tirelessly to dig into the many layers of learning involved in growing a personalized, proficiency-based education system.

Building a Learner-Centered Culture

One of the first things we did was to involve all stakeholders in developing our shared vision. The question, "What skills do our students need to be successful in the 21st century?" served as the guide for staff meetings, classroom lessons, and parent and community forums throughout the district. A district committee then analyzed the data and worked through several drafts of what would become our shared vision.
Once we had established our vision—RSU #57 prepares respectful, responsible, and creative thinkers for success in the global community—we had to find innovative ways to make this statement meaningful and relevant for our learners. I have seen teachers incorporate our vision into activities with students and parents in many interesting ways, including brainstorming sessions, read-alouds, student-created posters, and chants that students enthusiastically recite with hand gestures.
Each class or team also works together to develop its own code of cooperation and standard operating procedures, which support the shared vision. For example, one group of children in a primary classroom who had discussed what they wanted their learning space to feel, look, and sound like excitedly chanted the resulting vision and code of cooperation to me: "At school we want to feel happy, have friends, and be kind. We want to learn lots of new things. We will do this by being safe with our bodies and our words, being kind with our bodies and our words, and doing our BEST!"
The shared vision and code of cooperation help each student internalize what he or she needs to do to be a successful learner. These foundational pieces have been crucial in establishing a learner-centered culture in our schools.

Developing Transparency of Learning

As we moved into curriculum work, teacher representatives from several districts worked collaboratively with education consultant Bea McGarvey to develop learning progressions and assessment language. The group started by examining multiple resources, including the Common Core State Standards and the Maine Learning Results, to determine essential learning in grades K–12. We incorporated Bob Marzano's complex reasoning taxonomy (Marzano & Kendall, 2006; Marzano & Pickering, 2013) to provide the appropriate level of rigor to the learning progressions and to inform the development of assessments.
We spent time helping students understand the learning progressions, and we wrote the learning targets in student-friendly language. They are visible in classrooms, and many students have their own folders or portfolios that include their targets and related pieces of evidence. This transparency has been an essential part of our students' motivation and investment in their learning.
On several recent visits to a primary classroom, I observed a purposeful, yet gradual, release of responsibility model (Fisher & Frey, 2010) in action. A team of three teachers carefully planned core instruction that included minilessons based on the individual needs of the students. While some children sat on the floor with one of the teachers for either direct or guided instruction, others were actively engaged in collaborative tasks or independent learning. Children were eager to talk to me about their learning.
Seven-year-old Brooklyn took me on a tour of her portfolio. When showing me her math target page, Brooklyn proudly shared, "These are my math targets and what I've been learning. If they have an X on them, it means I already know them. The yellow means I mastered the first level, the gray means I mastered the second level, and the green means I mastered the third level of math targets." She explained to me that she knows what she has finished and what she needs to learn next. Her teacher offers a variety of ways for her to demonstrate her math knowledge, including Brooklyn's favorite math games: bump, broken calculator, and number line squeeze.
Brooklyn also explained the interdisciplinary animal unit that she recently started. A personalized learning menu in the form of a bingo board provided her with a variety of activities that she could choose from. For example, to generate evidence of proficiency in the learning target I understand research includes recalling information from experiences and gathering information from print and digital sources to answer a question, Brooklyn was working with Ava and Zoey to find and read information about red foxes. They consulted library books, conducted research using iPads, took notes, and would later incorporate the information into some writing. Another task she enjoyed was an animal habitat classifying activity in which she created and sorted cards to categorize each animal into its appropriate habitat.
Brooklyn was excited to show me that she had completed a whole row on her bingo board last Friday through her work selections during the week. She told me, "Every time we do something, we check it off. Then the teacher knows what we've done. I liked the book What If You Had Animal Teeth? (Scholastic, 2013). My comprehension goal is to reread it when it doesn't make sense and self-correct. I practice at school and at home." I was struck by her confidence in articulating her learning goal and explaining what action steps she would take to meet her goal. One of her teachers later told me that Brooklyn has made significant improvement as a reader this year. She seems to be thriving in this thoughtfully planned environment, where she has daily opportunities to engage in a balance of focused instruction, guided instruction, collaborative learning, and independent learning.

Tracking Learning Progress

Our staff continues to design interactive and manageable ways for students to have a role in tracking their learning progress. For example, some teachers have set up individual notebooks in Evernote to capture student thinking and learning over time. The camera capability embedded in this application enables even our youngest learners to snap a photo of an individual or group project and save it in an electronic notebook. With the audio function, they can record reflections of their learning to accompany photographs.
Students feel a sense of empowerment when they are actively involved in tracking their learning progress. We have also used the sharing feature in Evernote to e-mail student notes to parents. This has increased communication and helped strengthen the connection between home and school.
In an effort to have a consistent system of tracking proficiency among schools and from one school year to the next, we have used Educate, an online learning management system that Scott Bacon developed, to house all our measurement topics, progressions of learning targets, scoring guides, and taxonomies of learning. Habits of mind essential for lifelong learning are also included in our online program. Teachers create, assign, and score tasks within the system, and this information serves as evidence toward proficiency on the designated learning targets. Interdisciplinary units can also be entered as "pathways" in Educate.

Providing Professional Learning and Instructional Coaching

Through conversations, collaborations, and adjustments, as well as many hours of training, planning, and early implementation, we are making steady progress toward our district's ambitious goal of a personalized, proficiency-based learning experience for each student. Ongoing professional learning, collaboration time, and instructional coaching will continue to be necessary as we make the cultural and pedagogical shifts needed in our classrooms. Social media now provide educators with a way to expand their professional learning networks, enabling them to connect and learn with others beyond their school communities who are also committed to reimagining schools.

Worth the Effort

I believe the promise of personalized learning is well worth the time and effort, as it paves the way for our students to become creative thinkers, engaged problem-solvers, and connected innovators. By supporting one another in this difficult work, we are encouraging our teachers and school leaders to take the necessary risks throughout the process. I am proud to work alongside such dedicated educators, who are willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference and prepare our children for life in today's global society.
Author's note: The following people and organizations have provided support to many Maine schools in moving toward personalization: Bea McGarvey and Chuck Schwahn, who developed a vision of mass customized learning; the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which provided our district with extensive training and coaching; the Great Schools Partnership, which assisted in the transition to a proficiency-based system for our students; and the Maine Department of Education.In addition, Heidi Hayes Jacobs has shared ways to increase personalization through technology integration within our curriculum, instruction, and assessments.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2010). Enhancing RTI: How to ensure success with effective classroom instruction and intervention. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (2006). The new taxonomy of educational objectives (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. (2013). Dimensions of learning teacher's manual (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image el_summer_14.jpg
Making a Difference
Go To Publication