Case Study: Personalizing Learning for Students and Teachers in Marysville, Ohio

How Marysville School District’s implementation of competency-based education empowers students and teachers to learn and grow

Topics: Early College High School, Education Policy, ESSA, Higher Education, Overcoming Challenges, Systems Change

It’s time for morning meeting in Kelly Doty’s kindergarten classroom at Navin Elementary in Marysville, Ohio. Doty joins her eager students on the rug where they begin singing their class song, celebrating each student by name and crooning that “it’s a great day” because they’re here. Everyone is smiling and eager, some covering their faces shyly when it’s their turn to have their name sung, others beaming and wiggling excitedly at the chorus. But everyone is recognized. Everyone contributes. And everyone has a moment to shine.

At Navin, and all Marysville Schools, this student-centered positivity runs deep, which is why their recent implementation of a competency-based approach to education makes so much sense.

“The culture here has always been one of family, providing safety and love to every child that walks through the door,” says Lynette Lewis, who has served as Navin Elementary’s principal for eight years. “Personalized learning has helped us to look even more at every child as an individual: how they learn best, what they care about, and what makes them excited to learn and want to be involved with their education.”

Transforming teaching and learning

“At the end of the day every student deserves a sense of hope, a sense of belonging, and a sense of high academic achievement.” – Diane Mankins Superintendent of Marysville Schools

For superintendent Diane Mankins, who came into the district following several levy failures and helped to secure a state Straight A Grant to launch Marysville Early College High School in 2014, the desire to serve every student in Marysville is critical – and competency-based education is critical to the success of every student. A personalized learning model, like competency-based education, flips the traditional school model on its head and puts each student at the center.

“We can make the claim by our school report card that subgroups of students do well, but when we really drill down and talk about every student performing at high levels, we were not making the marks,” says Mankins. “At the end of the day every student deserves a sense of hope, a sense of belonging, and a sense of high academic achievement.”

And while Lewis explains that the love for all children has always been there, since their recent implementation of competency-based education, she now sees teachers working even harder to truly get to know each and every student. At the start of the school year, all of the students at Navin took surveys to build out a personal learning profile, which included questions like how they feel they learn best, what they consider their strengths and weaknesses to be, and even more granular preferences, such as whether or not they liked soft music playing while they are working in their classrooms.

“After students completed their profiles, we had a discussion about how we could meet the needs of everyone in the classroom, since we all prefer different things,” says Erin Morrison, a teacher who began her career eleven years ago at Navin. Her third graders had overwhelmingly indicated that they preferred to play music in the classroom, though there were a handful of students who wanted to keep things quiet. It wasn’t Morrison who came up with a solution to the problem, but her students: they agreed as a class to use headphones to muffle out the noise for kids who preferred to work without music.

Morrison insists that this was one of many opportunities for children to take ownership in the classroom. Creating a space for student voice through exercises like this one or similar activities, such as crafting classroom rules together rather than having them all decided by a teacher, begins to create the conditions necessary for students to begin to personalize their own learning. Though her students were initially challenged by the choices they were given, as they were used to being told specifically what to do, they’ve embraced this new approach. And as an educator, Morrison feels freer than ever to do what she loves: teach.

“At Navin, I can follow my students’ lead and adjust my teaching to what my students’ needs are,” says Morrison. “I’m not put into a mold and I don’t have to teach a specific way.”

Personalized for students and teachers

“At Navin, I can follow my students’ lead and adjust my teaching to what my students’ needs are. I’m not put into a mold and I don’t have to teach a specific way.” – Erin Morrison, 3rd Grade Teacher at Navin Elementary

“The biggest thing I can do for teachers is to stay out of their way,” says Mankins. “I need to give them permission to take risks, and permission to fail. It’s okay when things don’t work right away – we can redesign, recreate, and implement again.”

Teachers in Marysville schools benefit from the support of their administration, of each other, and of two personalized learning coaches who empower them to explore the best options for personalizing learning in their classrooms for each and every student. Ashley Thompson is one of these coaches, who was an intervention specialist and district special education coordinator for eight years before becoming an instructional coach with the district.

“When we first entered the landscape of personalized learning, there was a fear that it was going to diminish the teacher in the classroom. We’re debunking that myth in Marysville,” says Thompson, confronting the notion that a personalized learning classroom is one where the
students are stuck in front of computers. But given the relationships they’re building with students, teachers are more critical than ever. “The teacher is a powerful unit in the classroom, a facilitator of learning, and we’re giving them the tools and technology they need to meet every child’s needs.”

Thompson works closely with Robin Kanaan, KnowledgeWorks’ Director of Teaching and Learning, to design and implement professional development for Marysville’s teachers and administrators.

“We’re seeing a shift in intentional classroom culture and climate,” says Kanaan, who highlights the importance of regular communication and utilizing design thinking to refine and localize the process of implementing personalized learning across the district. From co-constructing standard operating procedures in their classrooms to designing classroom environments to better serve student learning, teachers and students are empowered to work together in new ways. “We’re seeing teachers begin to allow students to benchmark their own progress and really thinking about student agency. They’re asking learners, how do you want to show me that you know this?”

“We’re talking about kids and how they learn, not just what they’re learning.” – Jodi Robertson, 9th Grade Teacher Marysville Early College High School

Teachers and students alike are also encouraged to develop a growth mindset – they’re not afraid to try new things, and they’re not afraid to fail. Third grader Ava Taylor’s classroom includes a large poster board with questions and statements students can ask themselves and each other to help them develop a growth mindset. Rather than saying, “This is too hard,” Ava and her classmates are learning to think instead, “This is going to take me some time.”

“Growth mindset is someone who puts their mind to a goal,” says Ava, whose personal goals include regular practice for gymnastics. “We’re learning that a fixed mind set is when someone says they can’t do it.”

But students and teachers in Marysville can do it, and it’s because they aren’t doing it alone. Ava has a “responsibility partner” in her classroom, someone that she can count on for help when she needs it, whether it’s help explaining a concept in a new way or help working on a project, and vice versa.

Teachers are equally as supported by their peers and an administration that believes they need as much freedom to teach and learn as their students do.

“We need to teach students, and need to embrace ourselves, that we can do anything,” says Lewis. “By trying and facing challenges – and failing sometimes – and then trying again, we are actually able to grow our brains and grow our ability to master a lot of different things.”

With a common office area at the early college and an approach to curriculum design across the district that doesn’t assume teachers work in silos, teachers like Jodi Robertson, who has been with the early college since its inception and taught previously in a more traditional environment, feel “comfortable with failure.”

“In a more traditional learning environment, we’d try new ideas and if they didn’t work out right away, we’d say it was a bad idea and give up,” says Robertson. “Here we’re actually using a structure and have a thought process to try new things, adapt them as we go, and be more strategic about finding issues and addressing them.”

And because teachers collaborate and communicate across disciplines, everyone is better equipped to meet students where they are and make the necessary connections to ensure every student is getting what they need to succeed.

“We’re talking about kids and how they learn, not just what they’re learning,” insists Robertson.

Her colleague, Jennifer Hinderer, who has also taught with the early college since its inception and previously at the district’s traditional high school, agrees.

“We are really not just trying to grow the student in our subject,” says Hinderer. “We’re trying to grow that child as a whole.”

Learning to let go

“This classroom is theirs. They take ownership of what happens here.” – Hillary Weiser, Kindergarten Teacher at Navin Elementary

Hillary Weiser, a kindergarten teacher at Navin Elementary with eighteen years of experience, explains that letting go of control in the classroom wasn’t easy at first – but it’s paid off in a big way.

“I really wanted to be in charge,” says Weiser. “But I’ve learned to let the kids take charge of their own learning. I tell them what their end goal is, and explain that it’s up to them how they get there.”

And how they get there is different for every student. Some prefer to work with a partner, others prefer to work alone, some will use pencils and paper while others will work on Chromebooks or iPads. Still more students prefer to demonstrate their learning by building something hands-on and sharing it with Weiser. Like the students in Morrison’s class, Weiser’s kindergarteners also have flexible seating, and despite the fact that there isn’t an orderly row of desks to be seen in her classroom, there’s a definite sense of order. Whether they’re seated on the floor, in a laundry basket, or on a wobble stool, they’re intently working and reporting back to Weiser when they’re ready to move on, or they have questions, or just want to share the joy of discovery with their teacher.

“I have no discipline issues this year, and I don’t think it’s anything I’ve done,” says Weiser. “This classroom is theirs. They take ownership of what happens here.”

Students at the early college are just as empowered to make choices about what they’re learning, and how. They frequently choose to work in the open, collaborative spaces throughout the early college building, whether they’re doing so independently or in groups. Teachers like Brooke Young, a math teacher with the early college, appreciates an atmosphere that promotes risk-taking and true understanding – both for her, and for her students.

“I get to focus on what kids really know, and what they don’t know, and what I can do to get them there,” says Young, describing a recent project her students undertook to demonstrate their understanding of quadratic functions. Rather than just take a test, her students chose to pursue a video project. Young recognized her students’ passion for video production and IT, and provided the structure necessary for her students to plug their learning into something that was meaningful for them.

“I told them, ‘I’m going to take a risk with you.’ We dove in together,” Young says.

Rules to live (and learn) by

“I get to focus on what kids really know, and what they don’t know, and what I can do to get them there.” – Brooke Young, 10th-11th Grade Teacher Marysville Early College High School

“Our teachers and staff have five simple rules,” says Lewis. “One, love your kids. Two, love them even more when they are difficult. Three, love them the most when they push you away. Four, every child that walks through our doors belongs to everyone. And five? Every child deserves our very best, every day.”

Morrison, like many of her colleagues, admits that personalized learning wasn’t easy at first. Giving over more control to her students, recognizing her role as a facilitator of learning rather than standing at the head of the class as the “expert” in the room, was different, and required some coaching not only for her students but also for herself. But ultimately? Morrison is adamant that her “leap of faith” into personalized learning has been one of the greatest things she’s ever done in her teaching career.

Kanaan recognizes the challenges that teachers have faced, and stresses that the strides Marysville has made have been due to a commitment on the part of the leadership to make the implementation their own.

“KnowledgeWorks has been a thought partner with the district, and we’ve looked together at the local context and crafted the best steps forward together,” says Kanaan. “They’re leading the way – we’re just helping them navigate the change process.”

“KnowledgeWorks has been a thought partner with the district, and we’ve looked together at the local context and crafted the best steps forward together,” says Kanaan. “They’re leading the way – we’re just helping them navigate the change process.”

Because when students and teachers feel supported and empowered, anything is possible. For Thompson, this first foray into competency-based education is just the beginning.

“My hope for the future at Marysville is to facilitate a structure where everyone is embracing what’s best for every kid,” Thompson says. “I want students to have agency, but I want teachers to feel supported, too.”

Ready to personalize learning for students in your district?

  • Provide clear expectations – and the flexibility to meet them. When adopting a personalized learning approach, providing teachers clear expectations is essential. But allowing them to innovate and use their best professional judgment to meet students’ needs is just as critical.
  • Empower teachers to be the ones that make student-centered changes in their classrooms. Personalized learning isn’t a top-down implementation. An administrator’s role isn’t to ensure compliance, but to provide support; to work with teachers to identify and remove barriers to a new style of teaching and learning and provide targeted professional development and coaching to support teachers.
  • Success depends on a continuous improvement mindset – for everyone. Students, teachers, and administrators need to learn to be comfortable with risk-taking and with failure. In many cases, a district’s goals around personalized learning are far removed from the reality of classrooms. Everyone needs time, and the freedom to try new things and learn from their mistakes, for a successful implementation.
  • There’s no one way to personalize learning. As individual teachers and schools work to put their own stamp on their personalized learning environments, schools and classrooms might look different from one another. Creating a space for collaboration and relationship-building between teachers, between parents, students, and community members, ensures that your approach reflects the unique needs of your community. Transparency is key. You’re not just educating every student – but every stakeholder.