Blended learning was the gateway to personalized learning in the Natick Public Schools, about 20 miles west of Boston. The district made sure each child had a laptop to use in class almost a decade ago, according to the current director of digital learning, Grace Magley. For the last three years or so, however, the focus has shifted. Project-based learning, where students have opportunities to dive deep into topics that interest and absorb them, has become a priority, and with it, the attempt to better engage students in their own education.
The paths that schools take to personalize children’s learning vary widely. That’s one reason why Magley finds it important to talk to her colleagues around the state. And the relatively new Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech consortium, known by its acronym MAPLE, has recently provided the means to do so.
MAPLE is one of many personalized learning-focused organizations that have sprung up around the country as the concept has gained a foothold in the minds of education reformers. Personalized learning has become a bit of a catch-all for school improvement more generally – because who can argue with tailoring instruction to student needs?
But the technology component was important to the founders of MAPLE, according to its chief academic officer, Ann Koufman-Frederick, who also serves as the chief academic officer of the LearnLaunch Institute, a nonprofit arm of the for-profit ed tech incubator LearnLaunch.
A lot of the definitions for personalized learning mention differentiation, being student-centered, and engaging students – goals Koufman-Frederick, a veteran Massachusetts educator and administrator, said teachers have always aspired to. MAPLE’s definition of personalized learning emphasizes what is different today.
“It was important for us to articulate that technology was part of the mix, because we believe that without having effective application of technology, you can’t enable this scaling of more student-centered personalized education,” Koufman-Frederick said.
Still, that doesn’t mean technology should be the primary focus of efforts to personalize learning. And since MAPLE launched last December as a partnership between the LearnLaunch Institute and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, it hasn’t advocated for that.
In fact, Kenneth Klau, the department’s director of digital learning, has found it’s really teachers who are leading the shift to personalized learning in schools across the state. They’re the ones in the classrooms, piloting new strategies and figuring out what works. At MAPLE learning tours, which have formed the backbone of the consortium’s first year’s activities, Klau said superintendents and principals routinely defer to teachers as the experts, and pedagogy is as much a topic of conversation as the ed tech tools being used.
While MAPLE has focused on offering support to district-level leaders in setting the stage for a systemic transition to personalized learning, Klau said much of the emphasis is on what teachers need to make that happen.
“What they require is an organizational culture that gives them the permission to do that,” Klau said. It’s less about a superintendent or a principal having a vision that gets pushed down to teachers, he added, “but giving teachers a seat at the table to see what they’re doing that’s working, and really crowd-sourcing from teachers.”
Natick has been a key source of insights for other MAPLE members, given its relatively long history with innovation. But Magley said the district gets as much as it gives by being part of the consortium. The learning tours have given her a glimpse of how other districts are approaching the same general goal. Even if districts aren’t as far along as hers, she can find individual teachers and schools doing interesting things to learn from.
“The thing about personalized learning is it looks very different in every district, in every school,” Magley said. She and other Natick educators have brought ideas back home after seeing what has worked elsewhere.
And MAPLE brings Magley together with other catalyst-like district leaders to forge stronger ties with those who have been thinking about personalized learning for a while now.
“We’re meeting regularly and learning from each other, which is really powerful,” Magley said.
Still, as with other tech-related school improvement efforts, MAPLE hasn’t been universally embraced by teachers. The Massachusetts Teachers Association came out against the consortium, and personalized learning more generally, last May.
But in the more than 30 MAPLE districts, which serve approximately one in six Massachusetts students, there seems to be a good amount of excitement around building up the personalized learning community.
Koufman-Frederick hopes the network can continue to grow bigger and stronger.
“It’s really neat to see so many people coalescing around this,” she said. “But the success of it will be in can we sustain this? Meaning people learning from each other. Can we strengthen that?”