Until recently, one of the only things people talking about personalized learning could agree upon was that there was nothing standardized about it. There is no single accepted definition, nor is there a single right approach or way to measure its impact.
But in a recent study of 450 educators, including district leaders, school leaders, teachers, private businesses and other groups from 46 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and multiple foreign countries, it became clear there is one thing everyone could agree on: The biggest challenge to personalized learning is getting others to buy into it.
No other answers came close, and even the second biggest challenge was different for district leaders and teachers versus that of school leaders. Given the variety of definitions of personalized learning, it makes sense that buy-in is a challenge. By name alone, personalized learning sounds like just another jargon-heavy initiative.
To convince an entire organization of the transformative, instructional and mindset shift that personalized learning entails, education leaders need a deep foundational understanding of the district's definition and vision for this work — and a clear plan on how do it.
Align it, don’t add it
Frame personalized learning not as something entirely new, but as an enhancement of existing practices. Most teachers already personalize learning in some way, and ambitious teachers are probably ahead of administration in thinking about this work.
A new district initiative of this type should focus on taking existing student-centered teaching techniques and combining them in a clear model that can be shared, adopted by and improved by others.
Then, rather than an entirely new initiative, personalized learning becomes a collaborative dialogue around how current practices do and don't allow for student choice and voice. This does not mean you should not celebrate it, focus on it and create a rallying cry around it.
You should do all of these things, but they should be done while showing teachers that this is making something they already do in small ways better by making it bigger.
The challenge for district leaders and teachers
While the second most common challenge for district leaders and teachers was support and training, school leaders stated they struggle the most with implementation.
It is important to recognize that the support and training envisioned by district leaders might be very different than what is desired by teachers. For a comprehensive personalized learning implementation, a superintendent will consider communication plans, professional development calendars, infrastructure improvements and perhaps even request legal exemptions for policies such as seat time.
Teachers will be concerned about specifics — how to set up the classroom, how to manage devices and software, and what good personalized learning actually looks like.
To deliver adequate teacher support and training, districts should opt for experiential workshops. District leadership can bring together school leaders, coaches and lead teachers to experience personalized learning, while learning more about it.
For example, they can design a three station rotation where participants develop a shared understanding of personalized learning through targeted instruction, independent learning time and small group collaboration. Once leaders have experienced a workshop and built their own understanding, they can replicate these workshops in their buildings.
The challenge of implementation
School leaders have a lot on their plates — they often get multiple directives from the district and risk being shot as the messenger. They need to sort through ideas and prioritize constantly, balancing what they have been asked to do with what they believe their teachers have the capacity to do.
Add to that taking into consideration the needs and desires of the students and their parents with everyday distractions and their hands are full. Understandably then, the idea of implementing something this big can often feel like it is going to be overwhelming.
School leaders worried about implementation are concerned about everything from training and support, to device management, classroom management, and parent communication. They need support to move from “let’s do this” to “it’s happening.”
Inviting school leaders to be a part of the design process is not only good for buy-in, it is essential for implementation. The leaders of each school site should not only be champions — they should also be designers and experts.
They should deeply understand not just what personalized learning is in general, but also what it means for their school in particular. Leaders will provide essential input so that the implementation is a success, and as a result they will also be stronger supporters because they built capacity along the way.
That doesn’t mean implementing personalized learning is easy, but knowing what to do is at least part of the battle. Leaders and educators across the country can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone in their challenges, and that we can come together in overcoming them.