When Mike Burde thinks about his school district’s shift to personalized learning, he recognizes the move for what it is: personal.
“This community is my home,” said Burde, who has been the assistant superintendent of Kenowa Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan, since 2012. “I have two children who are unique as learners. Do we have a system that meets both of their needs? There’s a personal and a professional urge to make learning special, for all students.”
Considering the needs and strengths of all students is a driving force in Kenowa Hills’ implementation of personalized, competency-based learning, which they call personal mastery.
“I don’t view personal mastery as a program or a system. It’s a philosophy and a belief that all students will learn – not just can learn.”
“I don’t view personal mastery as a program or a system,” Burde said. “It’s a philosophy and a belief that all students will learn – not just can learn. If all students will learn, it forces you think differently about how you’re going to program and deliver instruction, it forces you to tackle some of those long-standing traditions within education.”
Personalized learning isn’t just one more thing – it’s the thing.
In the spring of 2012, the Kenowa Hills district leadership team read Richard DeLorenzo’s Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution, which explores dramatic education transformation through standards-based learning. That summer they read it again, this time with the district’s school improvement team. And in the fall of 2012, the entire staff was reading it, some of them for the third time.
The book galvanized the district’s thinking around their mission and their vision for all students. Stakeholder groups of students, parents, community members and educators were convened to discuss their hopes for learners in the community, and to visit three schools who were engaged in implementing their own versions of personalized learning: RSU2 in central Maine, who was at that time early in their work, Highland Academy Charter School in Anchorage, Alaska, and Lindsay Unified School District in Lindsay, California, who were many years deep into personalized, competency-based learning. They went with questions, hoping to clarify their own vision for personalized learning and what the work of implementation would entail. They returned with answers – but they wouldn’t begin implementation without the support of the learning community.
“We held a committee vote with our teachers,” explained Burde. “If we didn’t have 80 percent in favor of moving forward with personal mastery, we were going to hit the brakes. But we got more than that: 82 percent.”
The district spent nearly a year after that working on their vision for personal mastery, as they knew it would be foundational to everything that happened after. Jason Snyder, principal at Alpine Elementary, embraces the potential for personal mastery to offer flexibility with a focus on student abilities, to help learners refine and grow not only when they are challenged but also in areas where they perform strongly.
“We’re not looking at personal mastery as one more thing,” said Snyder, who notes that though teaching might have looked different before implementation, there were still many practices within Kenowa Hills schools that aligned to personal mastery. Educators have continued to do those things, as well as developing new structures and strategies. “We try to keep our end goal in mind: our mission and vision for every student. Personal mastery is what’s best for kids. It’s just what good teaching looks like.”
Randle Green, a senior at Kenowa Hills High School, appreciates the opportunities personal mastery has allowed him to pursue – and the emphasis it places on his relationships with his teachers by breaking down the barriers that might keep him from asking questions or operating on a different page from his instructors.
“As a human, as a person, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to be good at,” said Green. “With personal mastery, you’re continually growing. You’re not in class eight hours a day by yourself. You’re working with your teacher, like a partner.”
For Lisa Botsford, an English Language Arts teacher at Kenowa Hills High School, the ownership students take over their learning has transformed her classroom.
“Teachers aren’t the giver of knowledge. They’re the guide,” Botsford said, who notes the greater reflection and collaboration among her students, as well as their confidence in using their voices, whether they’re writing or communicating with each other. “The student is the one who is forging the path to become educated.”
In Kenowa Hills, supporting learners means supporting teachers.
Teachers in Kenowa Hills are as supported in their pursuit of personal mastery as students are. The district has seven instructional coaches across five of their six schools, some of whom are still teaching in the classroom, as well. Instructional coaching was identified as a key strategy for supporting the shifts in instruction required of personal mastery.
“I have the opportunity to share experiences with my students and get feedback from them on how different strategies are impacting their learning,” said Kelli Huizen, who serves as an instructional coach and a mathematics teacher at Kenowa Hills Middle School. “It’s revolutionized my teaching.”
Instructional coaches provide an essential bridge between new ideas and classroom practices that Brett Zuver, principal at Kenowa Hills High School, considers a critical part of the district’s work to personalize learning.
“Our coaches build trust,” said Zuver. “We don’t want anyone feeling forced or pushed. Personal mastery requires a big change in the role that a teacher plays. It’s a big leap of faith and coaches have been instrumental in helping our teachers make it.”
In addition to instructional coaches in every building, the district’s partnership with KnowledgeWorks provides regular professional development that is tailored to meet educators where they are, just as the district hopes teachers will meet students where they are. If all students will learn, all teachers must have the opportunity to learn, too.
“Learning as an adult is a vulnerable thing. It’s not just about the content,” said Laura Hilger, a teaching and learning director with KnowledgeWorks who has been working with Kenowa Hills since the beginning. “My hope is that educators, through the conversations we have, the coaching opportunities and the shared decision-making, begin to build a collegial team. That they come to believe we can do this together.”
Personalized, Competency-Based Learning for All Kids
Graduation isn’t the end of learning, and a foundation of personalized competency-based learning prepares today’s students to become lifelong learners. From Vision to Reality: Personalized, Competency-Based Learning for All Kids© is designed to help school districts take steps toward personalized, competency-based learning, and equip leaders with support to do this critical work.
Modeling risk-taking and growth mindset at the district level.
The growth mindset and willingness to learn that Kenowa Hills hopes to see from teachers and students is modeled by leaders within the district.
“This paradigm shift is second order change, and if you try to tackle everything at once, you’ll have staff who are frustrated and anxious,” said Burde, who explores a challenge the district faced around their learning management system (LMS) at the secondary level this year. Based on feedback they’d received, it wasn’t working, and Burde and other district leaders recognized that they needed to find something that would better meet the needs of the district and their mission to meet all learners where they are – including teachers. “I think it’s powerful to your learning community to tell them, we’ve listened to your feedback and based on your feedback, we’re moving in this direction. And thank them. We need some humility to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers, but we’re in this together and we’re going to get through this together.”
Willingness to take risks and try again is something Botsford has seen in her students, as well, and she is excited about the futures she believes personal mastery is unlocking for her students.
“To be in charge of oneself, to set goals and understand that there will be setbacks and successes coming with that, I think most students will leave with those ideas and be able to translate them into their adult lives,” said Botsford. “They don’t see these skills in isolation. They’re part a continuum, part of their growth as a person and a student.”