Expanding Meaningful Education Advances Within States: How My Personal Journey in Personalized Learning Started in Nashville

Topics: Education Policy

This post was written by Terrance Sullivan, former KnowledgeWorks director of state policy.

My second day working at KnowledgeWorks and I was driving at 5 am across state lines for a full immersion into personalized learning at the 2018 iNACOL Symposium thinking, “this better be worth it.” A couple hours later I was in Nashville and ready for the first session, which introduced me, and other attendees, to the work North Dakota (pronounced DaKohhtah). It was in this session that I gained my first insight into how this concept was playing out in schools and districts in different parts of the country. The presenters talked about the successes and challenges they have faced as they have implemented personalized learning practices but also questions around how to scale those efforts for larger implementation. The discussion in the room was very forward thinking and I felt lucky to be able to soak in the information and content knowledge in this room. I concluded the day cognizant that I had a lot to learn, but that there was also a lot of good information coming my way.

Districts across North Dakota have the opportunity to be more innovative and creative in their classrooms thanks in part to a bill that passed in 2017. Learn more.

The rest of my time at the iNACOL Symposium can be summed up in a simple phrase: eye opening. Session after session, I heard from varying groups from around the country on how personalized learning worked for them. Nothing, however, compares to the student panels I heard throughout the week.

In one student led session, students from a school they refer to as “The Met”, talked about their school in comparison to previous experiences in traditional schools. The difference was evident not only in their words but in their smiles as they discussed the project-based learning model their school employed. One student wrote and directed a play, while another student completed a project and then defended that project as a way of explanation of content learned and mastered. I had heard of this type of competency-based learning before, but hearing directly from the students and seeing the pride they took in their work seemed much more impactful than how I remember feeling getting an A on a multiple-choice test in school.

Another student led session evoked a profound quote that stuck with me as I contemplated diving further into the merits of personalized learning. In discussing the transition from traditional school, one student said, “It was a shift from testing to see if they were smart to a model that tests how they are smart.” That was a strong statement for a kid to make, and while not a rebuke of the traditional model, it was proof that some models may work better for certain students.

My last night in Nashville, I went back to the room and reflected on what I had seen over the days at the iNACOL Symposium and was able to summarize it in one simple assessment: personalized learning is a concept that means exactly what the name suggests. On my drive to Nashville, I was thinking personalized learning meant that there is one way to personalize learning that best serves students. Then I heard from North Dakota. And I heard from the students in schools across the country. The only thing that they had in common was that the learning was just what it says it is, personalized. The things that work in North Dakota were different than other school districts across the country. Personalized learning is best served as a case by case situation that doesn’t seek to determine if a kid is smart, but how a kid is smart.

Reflecting on all of this, I looked at how this would apply to my new role as director of state policy. I relish the thought of taking the models that have worked in North Dakota and applying my knowledge of laws and policy to create adapted models that can work in other states. Hearing how KnowledgeWorks has partnered with policymakers and district leaders, as well as the discussions in the sessions at iNACOL, fortifies my conviction that we can do this and expand meaningful education advances within states. I could not be more excited to be joining the KnowledgeWorks team and have the ability to do this work.

KnowledgeWorks believes state leaders and policymakers play a critical role in helping school districts and schools build dynamic education systems where every student is challenged, and every student succeeds.