Three Tips for Picking Personalized Learning Frameworks

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You are a teacher, school leader, charter network or district administrator looking for guidance on how to design classrooms and schools for personalized learning. You’re not alone.

Teams of educators all over the country are launching new schools and redesigning existing ones, and they are eager to build on the early lessons of the pioneers who have been at it for a few years. This is great – if everyone treats designing and implementing personalized learning as an invention challenge, the state of knowledge and practice will move very slowly. In other words, not everyone has to start with a blank slate and create new designs from scratch. Learning from the failures and early wins of other teams and building on their lessons will help us move faster and with higher quality toward schools designed to meet the needs of every student, every day.

The good news: a number of frameworks that incorporate the wisdom of practice are available.

The complicating factors: you’ll probably need more than one, none are perfect and all were created by a person, team or organization with a specific point of view about what’s important and how to implement it.

Here are three tips for selecting frameworks to help your team get started:

1. What you do is more important than what you call it. 

Don’t get hung up on the debates that think-tankers and funders like to engage in about what to call what you are doing. Is it personalized? Blended? Competency-based? Your team could burn a lot of productive time on abstract questions that won’t matter much in practice. Instead, develop some clarity about what you are trying to accomplish for students and the instructional approach you aim to implement. Then take a look at the content of the frameworks and determine which are relevant. Use the language and framing that make most sense for your context and your community.

2. Understand how the framework was developed (and by whom). 

The most powerful frameworks are usually based on deep field observations and “sense-making” of what real people are doing across many situations and contexts. Did the developers work to understand the design and implementation choices of multiple teams and then identify general principles that help describe what’s going on across them? Did they work out their categories, guiding questions, and recommended steps in collaboration with professionals actually doing the work? The more the answer to these questions is “yes”, the more likely the framework will be of practical use to your team.

A few companies have frameworks you can review at a high level for free, and if you want more help you can contract for support services and products. For instance, Pearson’s 1:1 Learning Framework has some general categories and advice, but also recommends a variety of the company’s products and services to make it all come together. More entrepreneurial companies like Education Elements and 2Revolutions also have helpful frameworks. You can contract with them for help with design and implementation.

A number of nonprofit organizations have helpful tools that have grown out of their work with early implementers. They make them widely available in an effort to further their knowledge sharing missions. Organizations with such frameworks include Future Ready, the Christensen Institute, Competency Works, andThe Learning Accelerator. None of these tools are connected to product or service offerings, which means they don’t rely on buying anything to be useful, but it also means there’s usually little direct support standing ready to help you put them into practice.

At NewSchools, we use a personalized learning framework that grew out of the work of 16 school networks and a number of support organizations and funders (including some folks now at NewSchools). It was developed through multiple working sessions over the course of about a year and has since been vetted by many more schools. Our friends at the Next Generation Learning Challenges use it too. We like it because it was developed with practitioners and includes questions to help guide choices rather than prescriptive answers.

3. Mix, Match, and Adapt. 

You might need one tool for the planning phase, another for framing up design choices, and perhaps another when you’re ready to implement. Just make sure to resolve any potential conflicts between them during your planning phase. And remember, the important thing is good guidance, coupled with the messy process of discussing and deciding, not following someone else’s recipe to the letter.

It’s been said that designing schools for personalized learning is like making beef stew – there are some basic ingredients and general steps, but plenty of room for experimentation and seasoning to taste. It’s different from making some fancy dessert that only turns out well if you do everything perfectly. Be wary of frameworks that suggest they will work if you “do it right.” The state of practice and evidence isn’t nearly far enough along for anyone to claim there’s a foolproof recipe for success. 

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