How to Stay Faithful to a Personalized Learning Approach (and Hold Your School Accountable)

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When it comes to personalized learning, “fidelity” refers to the faithfulness of individual teachers and classes to the school's driving instructional philosophy and approach. Questions come to mind, like “Do teachers actually stick to the school’s chosen personalized learning plan? Do they use the software and review/utilize data as often as they should?”

As I previously discussed, fidelity is powerful, but also can be elusive and challenging. So, how do we make it happen?

The purpose of fidelity is to ensure the highest-quality experience for students that meets their needs regardless of which class or teacher they happen to have. If fidelity is the goal, then I suggest that the “7 C’s of Fidelity” are what will help you get there.

In order to make this framework extremely concrete and actionable, we’re going to use a very specific example of fidelity done well by effectively incorporating each of the 7 C’s. Of course, the list can apply to a wide variety of models, strategies, and tools for which you would like to improve fidelity. For example, “Your school would like to be more data-driven by reviewing and utilizing data across the school with fidelity.”

Let’s go through each of them, one at a time.

1. Clarity

For people to stick to something, they have to understand what that something is. Clarity around the instructional model, tools, technologies, routines, language, and/or curriculum is critical in ensuring that expectations are set appropriately.

Example: After asking lots of pointed, clarifying questions, a vision is refined into a targeted and specific goal, such as “Teachers will review i-Ready data at the end of each week, and follow up on Monday with any student who failed a lesson the previous week.”

2. Commitment

School leadership must be fully committed, with teachers and other stakeholders engaged early and involved in implementation discussions. The more people are committed to the end goal, the better they will be able to weather the inevitable bumps along the way. Throughout the planning process, the focus should be on the “why” - why will this ultimately help our students in a significant way?

Example: This initiative (in the example above) was generated in response to challenges and questions that were received from administrators and teachers about how to prevent struggling students from falling through the cracks. Both groups also provided their own perspective and input before the decision was made to move forward with this goal.

3. Coaching

In order for people to follow a model or tactic with fidelity, they must first receive the requisite training and coaching. Whether coaching comes from the inside (administrators, teacher mentors, district leadership, etc.) or the outside (consultants), teachers must feel that they have been given sufficient tools and skills for the task at hand.

Example: Throughout the rollout of this initiative, teachers and administrators are shown how to access the data, how to identify struggling students, and some possible strategies for following up with those students. They are also provided with reports, tools, and analysis that minimize the time and work necessary for achieving this goal.

4. Consistency

As Clayton Christensen writes, “it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time.” Once your school has established a vision and chosen its guidelines, those guidelines should take effect in every class, for every child, every day. Fidelity is about consistency.

Example: The expectation is made clear that this goal is only achieved as a school when there is 100% participation. The school can then confidently say that “each and every student who is struggling on i-Ready will receive targeted support from his or her teacher.”

5. Coordination

Fidelity needs to be managed—not assumed. Leaders must ensure follow-through on all levels and that teachers have access to the supports and tools they need to deliver.

Example: Leaders actively manage the rollout and check in with teachers. Are they reviewing data as regularly as prescribed? If so, how is it going? Is it achieving the desired outcomes? If not, why not? Are there obstacles in the way that need to be removed? Are there tools, strategies, or supports that are needed in order to meet these goals?

6. Communication

Initiatives never go exactly as planned, and tweaks are inevitable. Structured, proactive communication is the best way to quickly identify gaps and changes that need to be made, as well as innovative ideas that can then be shared with others and immediately put into practice across the board.

Example: Times are set for teachers and administrators to communicate with each other about their efforts to review data. Have they developed strategies to make the process more effective or efficient? Have they struggled with following up with students? Workshops are scheduled for teachers to review each other’s data and develop action plans together.

7. Creativity

Within the structures and requirements that frequently accompany a fidelity mindset, there must be clear and significant room for teachers to utilize their expertise and exercise their individuality. The structures that are in place are established to empower teachers to focus their energies and ultimately help their each and every one of their students flourish.

Example: The assurance that struggling students will be identified relatively quickly provides critical information for teachers to do what they do best: teach and connect with students. Each teacher is encouraged to use his or her own personal touch when following up with struggling students. How do they approach the student? What language do they use? What do they do to help the student master the difficult concept? How do they motivate the student to continue working through obstacles?

This is where the magic happens.

Jeff Kiderman (@JeffKiderman) is co-founder of 2 Sigma Education. Jeff also co-founded AJE, a non-profit that established two innovative elementary schools in New York City.

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