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Rumble of Thunder – November 15, 2015

In a blog post from July, I wrote a bit about the power of personalized learning after my doctoral graduation. Like that blog post, this one is also being written while sitting in an airport, but this time from Orlando. I had the opportunity to attend the iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) for the Blended and Online Learning Symposium, the trip fully funded by an outside leadership grant. I left my family and Ilion very early Sunday morning in order to get to the symposium in time to meet up with the other LELA Finalists from around the nation. Little did I know the learning was just beginning.

Over the past three days, I was able to talk to school leaders from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska and as close as Randolph in Western New York. We were chosen by the Lexington Institute, in conjunction with Education Elements, to come together, to share our stories and delve into intensive professional development, all centered on the theme of personalized learning. This is in contrast to our current education system, which is still based on a factory model created over 100 years ago. Since the 1950’s, our students have had to deal with one reform movement after another all based on accountability:

  • In the 1950’s, our education system was deemed inferior when the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik resulting in a national accountability focus.
  • In the 1980’s alarm bells again sounded when A Nation at Risk reported how poorly our students were performing compared to the rest of the world. Accountability shifted from the national level to the states.
  • The turn of the century introduced No Child Left Behind to focus accountability down to school districts and buildings.
  • The latest call to arms was brought about by Race to the Top. With our nation’s students still performing below their peers in almost all other industrialized countries, the accountability focus shifted one more time. This time it shifted to a new evaluation system with teachers and principals measured by the scores their students receive on a yearly assessment.

Not once during the never-ending accountability reforms were students and their individual needs considered. Personalized learning, if practiced with fidelity and good pedagogy, can do just that.

Personalized learning occurs when the individual needs of the child take precedence over getting through the content to advance get to the next grade level or course in the sequence. Don’t get me wrong, reading, writing and math along with all other subjects are critical to the well-rounded development of our students, but so are the concepts of problem-solving, civic pride, community service and work ethic. Personalized learning requires high expectations for all students with a curriculum that is relevant and rigorous.

Rigor has nothing to do with how many math problems are assigned and completed for homework. Rigor is about having students focus on utilizing the knowledge they have learned and can learn through guided exploration.

Ultimately, personalized learning is about growth via mastering learning and its application over getting a high grade. Grading, in and of itself, is a huge topic to discuss, but that will have to wait for another time. Assessments, both summative and formative, have their place, but are used to personalize learning to push the child to reach their potential and to identify gaps that must be closed for mastery to be achieved.

So how do we go about creating a personalized learning environment for our Thunder? One way is through the use of blended learning via the coupling of good pedagogy with technology. Blended learning has many forms. What blended learning is not, is the end of the spectrum with the factory model seen in some classes where the teacher stands at the front of the room acting as the giver of all knowledge.  In a blended learning classroom, the teacher mostly acts as a guide to help the students explore the content and apply it appropriately to solve problems or create. Blended learning supports equitable instruction and ensures academic achievement and success of all students through: data and feedback for all students to push their learning, differentiation and personalization, rigorous content instruction aligned to standards, and engagement for all students. Technology and the tools it provides are critical to successful blended learning.

The Strategic Planning Team, made up of community, staff, and administrators began its work last week. Part of the work was to create goals that will then be aligned with action steps created in concert with the Strategic Partners. After seeing our student data that showed we rank 35 out of 36 area schools due to low percentage of students reading or numerate at grade level, high number of course repeaters, and overall poor test performance, the team created four goals.  The goals will act as both aspirational standards for Central Valley and as checkpoints to make sure we are moving in the right direction.

One of the overarching themes is to help each child reach their potential. As we never know what someone’s potential might be, it requires all of us to continually push to get better with no end in sight. Personalized learning naturally fits.

One of my fellow LELA finalists said this morning, “Without failures, you don’t have wins.” We will never have all the answers but by working together and being willing to take risks to do things differently, we can begin to fully realize the promise the merger was meant to provide. It won’t be easy and we have a lot of work to do, but we can make Central Valley the best school district for all our Thunder.