How to Begin Implementing Personalized Learning in Your School District

Practical advice from a former superintendent

Topics: 101, Systems Change, Vision and Culture

In Michigan, they started with their “Why” to lay the foundation for personalized learning on a district wide level. Why do you do what you do? Why do you work with students? This laid a strong foundation from which to build, so when personalized learning with students was introduced to their schools, teachers could resonate.

Dave Richards, PhD, former superintendent for Fraser Public Schools in Fraser, Michigan, was a key leader in introducing personalized learning in his district. During a recent conversation, he shared insights he gained during the implementation process, as well as tips for other districts just getting started with personalized learning.

How did your school district begin its journey towards personalized learning?  

I was a high school principal at the time and we were in the midst of the economic recession that was affecting our community. I remember standing in front of the staff and saying, “We’re next. We can choose to be victims, or we can choose to control our destiny.”

We started to look at how to support learning with our students, and we did it on a district-wide level. When you start talking about personalized learning with teachers, it resonates; it’s why they got into this profession in the first place. We used that as an emotional driver. We started with discussions around the “Why.” Why do we do what we do? Do we have a shared belief and a shared understanding of this work? What does it mean to make learning personalized?

Focusing on our “Why” helped us lay a strong foundation for implementing personalized learning.

Can you say more about the policy changes that needed to be made in the beginning of your personalized learning journey?

Time and flexibility were obstacles we had to confront when implementing a competency-based program. Because seat time is what matters at the state level, we needed to request from our Department of Education and implement a student waiver that gave us more flexibility with student scheduling. We started with hybrid courses, which helps shift our thinking, reinforcing that learning can really happen anywhere. The learner could be in different places and we could still trust them to own their learning.

Allowing flexibility in scheduling and learning spaces was important, but we still needed to be able to show student attendance. We worked with a company to develop a software that helped us keep track of when students were coming and going from campus. One of the beliefs we agreed upon was to be consistent in treating our students as young adults, with the expectation that would act accordingly.

What advice to you have for learning communities just getting started?

  • Strong District and School Culture: You have to start with culture. Go after the understanding of culture while creating a healthy sense of urgency to do this work. We have to rethink how we captivate the learner
  • Be Willing to Abandon Existing Models: I took the approach of organized abandonment; what do we need to stop doing to free up resources that will allow us to start doing our new work. This was needed to start a new model of school
  • Engage Your District Leaders: You need to bring you board of education along. They have to understand the “Why” and what the path may look like. The strategic planning process serves as a great vehicle for educating the board and laying a foundation for the vision (desired state) for student learning.

Just getting started with personalized learning in your school district? We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about personalized, competency-based learning.