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A teacher helps a student who is otherwise working independently on his laptop.
A teacher helps a student who is otherwise working independently on his laptop.

Three different districts. Three different time zones. Three different paths to the same general goal — personalized learning.

Administrators from Henry County Schools, southwest of Atlanta; School District 51 in Mesa County, Colorado; and CICS West Belden, a Chicago International Charter School campus, discussed their efforts to personalize learning during a panel at the recent iNACOL symposium in Orlando, Florida. All were between three and four years into their work.

“Personalized learning” is defined differently by many of the schools and districts that employ the model, but in general, it refers to a style of teaching and learning that prioritizes student wants and needs. Students can often move at their own pace through the material and they play a more active role in their learning. Technology has become a staple of personalization efforts because online programs can facilitate self-paced learning for students, freeing up teachers to work with students one-on-one or in small groups.

In the Henry County Schools district, individual schools have been applying to be part of a personalized learning initiative since 2014. Six schools were chosen to redesign learning for the fall of 2015, with subsequent cohorts of seven to nine schools selected each year since then. Only about 10 of the district’s 50 schools have yet to start their transition, which is designed at the school level, based on the desires of local parents, teachers, students and staff members.

Related: When personalized learning includes skateboarding: One suburban district’s dramatic transformation

Aaryn Schmuhl, assistant superintendent for learning and leadership at Henry County Schools, said the district’s path to personalized learning is built around a philosophy rather than a model. Schools can implement personalized learning as they see fit, with support from the district. This combination of local autonomy and centralized backing has been key, he said.

“In order for any teacher to provide their students with a personalized learning experience during the school day, teachers need to be given the opportunity to experience this as well.”

Schmuhl compared school improvement efforts to cooking. Historically, he said schools have been handed recipes instead of given ingredients and told to make a good meal.

But getting school leaders to be bold about redesign can be difficult.

“There’s a need to push people — say [that] we’re not tinkering around the edges, we really want this to look and feel different,” Schmuhl said.

In Henry County, the shift to personalized learning has been focused on increasing student agency. In Mesa County, a focus on improving school culture and climate has been at the core.

Rebecca Midles, executive director of performance-based systems at School District 51, said that early conversations in the district centered on making sure students feel safe and supported. Social and emotional learning, which gets beyond the traditional academic subject areas, has played an important role in District 51’s changing school system, she said.

For both Mesa and Henry County districts, competency-based education has also been a key stepping stone toward personalization. Competency-based education gives students credit for academic progress based on mastery of specific skills rather than their time spent in the classroom. Schmuhl said expecting mastery, and supporting students to reach it, should close achievement gaps — a key goal of many school improvement efforts.

Midles said personalized learning is happening in pockets around Mesa County, but competency-based education is a starting point for many schools.

At CICS West Belden, the road to a personalized education for each student is grounded in competency-based education, too, along with learner profiles, flexible learning environments (based on classroom design and school schedule), and personal learning paths that give students choice about how they actually complete lessons and assignments. Teachers and students develop learner profiles together, and they shape instruction for the student for the rest of the academic year.

Professional development for teachers – using personalized learning methods – has been critical for CICS West Belden’s progress.

“In order for any teacher to provide their students with a personalized learning experience during the school day, teachers need to be given the opportunity to experience this as well,” said Colleen Collins, the school’s principal.

FSG, a social change-focused consulting firm, will release case studies with more information about the journeys toward personalized learning in Henry County, District 51 and CICS West Belden this winter.

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