Personalized Learning: From Occasional Success Story to System-Level Reality

Personalized Learning: From Occasional Success Story to System-Level Reality

Since publishing our paper on the district conditions to scale personalized learning, the policy team at KnowledgeWorks has been moving through the next phase of our work, aiming to make personalized learning a system-level reality rather than an occasional success story. To this end, we are creating tools for states and districts interested in fundamentally transforming learning and moving towards student-centered systems.

At a convening at the beginning of April with a group of great thinkers in personalized learning, KnowledgeWorks shared prototypes of a district strategic planning and communications toolkit and a state policy framework. We received a tremendous amount of feedback that will help us produce materials that will really support districts to undertake this transformative work and maximize states’ ability to support them appropriately.

In sifting through the feedback and refining our work, three big ideas from the convening have stuck in my mind and will shape my thinking in next steps.

  1. It’s easy to underestimate the size and complexity of a transformation-minded approach to the education system. It can be tempting to think that if we get personalized learning in schools right, some magical alignment will occur and kids will have vastly expanded access to all kinds of great opportunities. The truth is that K-12 education is just one piece that must be aligned with a number of other systems—health, early childhood, higher education, social services, etc.—that are learner-centered (our strategic foresight team has explored this idea in a number of publications). As our team refines our work, I will keep in mind that any opportunity to extend our impact through partnerships and alignment with similar-minded people should be taken to really lead towards a personalized learning ecosystem rather perpetuating existing siloes in thinking.
  1. While navigating our work in the K-12 sector with an eye towards partnerships and alignment, we must remember our work includes a diverse group of people who represent many different perspectives. Even in the microcosm of the convening, the easy part was agreeing that learning has to become more student-centered, but there are many different, even seemingly opposed, proposed ways to get there. While we may not all agree on a range of issues, I saw that working through that tension, even if we end up agreeing to disagree, makes our ideas better. A foundational premise of the district conditions is encouraging a culture of innovation and risk-taking. To me, that means that we need to allow space for thinking that diverges from the norm and encourage the testing of new ideas in the face of uncertainty. By discussing and testing a variety of ideas, we are ever more likely to create a system that adapts to individual student needs and truly serves its learners.
  1. The transformation we want to see in our education system will not come from a traditional course of action. To transform, we may need to completely redefine the key levers for change and how we approach them. For example, a current trend in moving towards student-centered learning is focusing on increasing flexibility in time, the thinking being that if we give more time or release restrictions on time, learning can finally be personalized. In reality, even though it is a powerful tool, time does not drive personalized learning. We do need to be able to maximize the tools that lead to personalized learning (time, technology, etc.), but our work needs to first transform the foundational vision and culture of a district that is wanting to implement high quality personalized learning.

Keeping these takeaways in mind will help to frame my thinking so that I can focus on realistic collaboration, encourage thoughtful risk taking, and question traditional ways of doing things. Our work is only one part in the big picture of a personalized learning ecosystem, but thanks to the valuable input of the convening participants, we look forward to moving closer to seeing a more personalized education system.

Sarah Jenkins

Written by: Sarah Jenkins

Sarah Jenkins is the Senior Manager of Research and Advocacy for the KnowledgeWorks Policy and Strategic Foresight team.

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