Summit Public Schools CEO Diane Tavenner has been described as transformative, innovative, and entrepreneurial—apropos for the founder of a pioneering network of charter schools that combine teacher-led instruction and self-paced student learning online.
Summit piloted its first blended learning initiative in 2011, ancient history in the world of edtech. Four years later, Tavenner says she no longer uses the term 'blended learning.' "I prefer to say 'personalized learning,'" she explains. "Blended learning is a pretty basic thing, but personalized learning is what we're all driving for."
Success is certainly what Tavenner is driving for, and achieving. Since launching its flagship school in 2003, Summit has graduated more than 1700 students, 100% of whom meet or exceed 4-year college entrance requirements. It’s not just students whose lives are being transformed; the charter management organization has trained an estimated 400 teachers as personalized learning leaders.
Before founding Summit, Tavenner spent a decade as a public school teacher and administrator; she now serves as Board Chair of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). Given her deep bench of experience, we sat down to ask her our questions about what it takes to be a blended—and personalized—learning leader.
EdSurge: Think about the most successful personalized learning leaders you know—educators that you have trained, mentored or have learned from yourself. What traits and skills do they share? Are there any that are universal?
Tavenner: A personalized learning educator has the mindset that we as educators are helping students become self-directed learners. It’s not about asking, “What am I doing to disseminate my knowledge to my students?” But instead, “What am I doing to empower students to own their own learning and reach their full potential?”
When that’s your goal and that’s how you’re organizing the learning experience, there are a set of qualities and characteristics you employ. These are the hats personalized learning teachers wear: coach, mentor, tutor, curator, facilitator, and analyst.
What does wearing each one entail? Let's start with Coach, with whom most students can likely identify.
What do coaches do? They provide opportunities for students to practice skills, give really good real-time feedback, evaluate the performance over time and inspire.
Think about a basketball coach; the ultimate goal is for a player to go into the game Friday night, play the game and win. So the basketball coach designs practice to drill the skills the players need in order to win the game—free throws, man to man coverage, three point shots and many more. In the drill, the coach gives real time feedback that gets put to use immediately. And of course both during practice and games the coach is there to inspire players.
It’s the same in classroom. For example, if a student’s goal is to create a persuasive speech, a teacher would set up drills to practice the necessary skills—argumentative claim, counterclaim and integration of evidence.
OK. What about my personal favorite, Mentor?
Personalized learning educators mentor students; they help them think about their goals and aspirations, and help them develop plans to achieve those goals. Mentors also hold students personally accountable. They develop a relationship with the student that makes evident that they are invested in the student’s success.
Think about a one-on-one conversation between a student and mentor. The student’s goal is to be a journalist one day. The mentor prompts reflection and connection by asking, “How is this persuasive speech related to journalism? How can you use this opportunity to get closer to your long-term goal? What do you expect from yourself on the speech, what is your plan and what choices can I help hold you accountable to as you work through this experience?” The mentor guides them in the choices they’re making.
I think I've got a handle on Tutor.
Tutoring goes on in a personalized learning environment as needed, when educators are helping to diagnose misconceptions or misunderstandings or blockages for kids. It’s targeted personal intervention.
It is also very student-driven. The student has worked and struggled and knows to ask for help. The tutor steps in and has deep understanding of the subject and can recognize and redirect the student. The tutor doesn’t do it for the student, but unlocks the blockage so the student can move on. It’s very surgical in nature.
When I think Curator, I think art exhibit.
Personalized learning teachers take the universe of resources and opportunities that exist out there and curate a set of them into a reasonable and meaningful experience for their students. Thoughtfully curating resources is a really big role; there is some artistry in there, some creation.
The idea that a teacher is going to write all her own curriculum and assessments is silly when there are so many high quality options out there. Teachers need to understand the context in which they’re serving students and curate resources to the individual.
Facilitator sounds very no-nonsense.
Facilitators create processes whereby students can learn. After you curate, you set up signposts to help them get through the learning experience.
If you have ever attended a really well run meeting, it is likely because the facilitator has created an agenda with clear objectives and processes for how to achieve them. In personalized learning, it’s the same. Teachers know what every student wants to achieve and uses their expertise to structure a set of activities that will help them get to their goals. When done well it looks like the students are learning on their own.
Good facilitators are really flexible. If the process is not working, they make changes in the moment. They aren’t controlling the actual discussion or content; they are helping students do it.
Lately, we hear a lot about teacher-as-analyst.
In a personalized learning model—and technology makes this possible—the teacher is a data analyst. There is quality data that provides insights into student struggles, what strategies work best and with which students, and when intervention is needed.
Again, consider the skill of persuasive speech. After some drills, a teacher could collect data on how students did on a couple of formative assessments on the skill of creating a persuasive argument. They can analyze and ask, “Where do I need to go back and tutor?” They can do this on a broad scale or with a few kids only, and most importantly during the process of learning, not after the experience is over.
Teachers have always tried to assemble data as they could when available, but there’s a fundamental difference with our current technology and it is only getting better. A profoundly different amount of data is available at the granular level in quick sortable ways.
That's a lot of hats. Are there any other skills—ones that perhaps you haven't seen widely—that you wish all personalized learning leaders had?
I’d add collaboration. I am looking for this. Given all I just talked about, it’s really hard or impossible to personalize by yourself. So the ability to collaborate with other teachers and data people and curate together and share and learn from each other is a really imperative skill.
What new skills or traits do principals in personalized learning schools need that principals in general didn't ten years before?
There are many transferable skills that certainly still are useful. In addition, what’s most important today is vision, resource allocation, and communication.
All principals benefit from being visionary leaders, but it’s a fundamentally different requirement now. Principals today need to be able to envision and lead a school that looks different than it looked before, that is unfamiliar to parents, teachers and students. It is connected to the ability to lead change in an organization.
There are also new leadership skills required around resource allocation. It’s a very different process to lead a school through a textbook adoption cycle than to lead a school through a selection of multiple online resources and software platforms, hardware data systems, and infrastructure. The use of technology opens up new vulnerabilities and risk related to privacy and invasion, which require an informed understanding to navigate.
Finally, both strategic and responsive communication to all stakeholders is now required 24/7.
That sounds a lot like being the CEO of an edtech startup.
I sit in both seats. I sit in the educator seat and I lead the program where we built a technology product. So yes, a personalized learning principal needs the same skill set as a technology company CEO; the experiences are remarkably similar.