The Importance of School Culture in Personalized Learning

Topics: Education Policy

Personalized learning is “very real solution for students and teachers,” according to KnowledgeWorks Senior Manager of Research and Advocacy Sarah Jenkins. Guest post by Natalie Matthews, a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

In implementing personalized learning, I quickly learned the significance of culture. The classroom culture is important, but I found that sustained success with personalized learning for my students stemmed from the condition of the school culture.

My administrators built a strong school culture, one in which the mindset of first doing what’s best for kids and second with the mindset that failure is okay. They rooted this from all stakeholders having a growth mindset.

In the early stages of implementing personalized learning, it was important that I knew it was okay if an idea failed as long as I was taking steps to move forward in personalizing students’ learning. The administration at my school built a culture in which teachers felt comfortable trying new things without fear of failure. The school culture built by my administration, where teachers felt comfortable trying new things without fear of failure, trickled down to the individual classroom level. Here it was my job to envision how personalized learning, this shift in my approach to teaching and learning, would be successful in my kindergarten classroom. After the school wide culture was built, it made its way down into the classroom.

Implementing this culture shift became my top priority for student ownership and success. I wanted to create the same learning experience for my students that I felt when I first began exploring personalized learning.

From the beginning, I communicated with my students that we were in this together and that we were going to try a lot of new things this year. I explained to them that if it didn’t work, that’s fine we would continue to change and adapt it until we got it just right. I was at a bit of advantage compared to other teachers for the fact of I teach kindergarten, and the majority of my students have never been in a school environment, so they had minimal expectations of what school was “supposed to be.” This afforded me the opportunity to build the culture that I wanted from scratch and share my vision of what school “should be about,” the notion of students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. I was able to share these ideas around what we learn, how we learn, and why we are learning it through Morning Meetings. Each morning we sit together on the carpet and have conversations that revolve around the importance of how we are becoming lifelong learners and how everyone learns at a different pace. We talk about how to be good people, what makes people unique, and everything between. This first 30 minutes of every school day was vital to our success in building a strong classroom climate that allowed the teaching and learning in my classroom to be truly personal to each and every student.

Without building this culture, together with my students, they would have continued to be afraid to fail, they will not want to take risks, and students will continue to believe that all students should be doing the same assignments at the same time. By building a strong classroom culture my students now feel comfortable working on different assignments, they feel comfortable talking about what they are working on and why and have started developing a growth mindset within them at the early age of five. This strong classroom culture has undoubtedly been a major contributing factor to the success of personalized learning.

Read more teacher perspectives on personalized learning in our recent paper, ‘The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching: Personalized Learning According to Teachers.’ In our research for ‘The Shifting Paradigm of Teaching: Personalized Learning According to Teachers©,” we interviewed teachers, instructional coaches and principals from across the country who lead personalized learning implementation in their communities across the country. This is just one excerpt from our paper. Read the complete paper.