The Promise of Personal

6a J RicabaughJim Rick­abaugh, Ph.D.
Direc­tor, The Insti­tute @ CESA 1

Before read­ing this arti­cle, ask your­self five questions:

  1. Do you believe that our schools are pro­duc­ing the results our soci­ety expects and our econ­omy needs for the next ten to twenty years?
  2. Do you think that if edu­ca­tors would focus more and work harder the chal­lenges fac­ing our edu­ca­tion sys­tem would be met?
  3. Even if you believe that more money would resolve the prob­lems fac­ing our edu­ca­tion sys­tem, do you think that enough money to meet the chal­lenge is forthcoming?
  4. Do you believe that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and other pol­icy mak­ers are on the right track to resolve the prob­lems faced by our edu­ca­tion sys­tem and if we just wait patiently, help will arrive?
  5. Do you believe that out­side foun­da­tions and pri­vate busi­nesses have the answers?
  6. A deep, com­pre­hen­sive, cur­rent under­stand­ing of the learner shared by stu­dent and educator,
  7. Co-​construction by edu­ca­tor and learner of a learn­ing path lead­ing from where the learner is cur­rently to the pro­fi­cien­cies to be mas­tered, and
  8. Clear, com­pelling, chal­leng­ing and wor­thy pro­fi­cien­cies that rep­re­sent the next learn­ing for the student.

How did you respond to these ques­tions? Over the past three years, we have pre­sented them in one form or another to edu­ca­tors across Wis­con­sin and the Mid­west. Invari­ably, the answer we hear to each ques­tion is “no.” It seems from these responses that at least two impli­ca­tions may be inescapable.

First, what we have is a sys­tem design and capac­ity prob­lem, not a peo­ple prob­lem. We need a new approach and dif­fer­ent strate­gies to improve the per­for­mance of our schools. Sec­ond, if the chal­lenges fac­ing our schools are to be solved, we must sum­mon the courage to lead the work. Help is not on the way and look­ing to oth­ers for the answers will not deliver the results our stu­dents des­per­ately need.

In short, we need to redesign key ele­ments of our sys­tem and it is urgent that we get about the work. The good news is that a large and grow­ing group of Wis­con­sin edu­ca­tors has been work­ing to build, test and scale a new design model for more than three years. Thank­fully, emerg­ing results are very pos­i­tive even though the poten­tial of the new approach has barely been tapped.

With the lead­er­ship and coor­di­na­tion of the Insti­tute @ CESA #1 more than two-​dozen school dis­tricts in South­east­ern Wis­con­sin and beyond have been col­lab­o­rat­ing to exam­ine and change a num­ber of the oper­at­ing assump­tions on which our cur­rent sys­tem resides. We have found that many of the prac­tices dri­ven by old assump­tions almost guar­an­tee that a large por­tion of our learn­ers will not be suc­cess­ful — prac­tices such as mov­ing stu­dents through the sys­tem in age-​based cohorts as though they all are ready to learn at the same time and in the same man­ner, and main­tain­ing a stan­dard instruc­tional pace cal­i­brated for one group of stu­dents while oth­ers are either being held back or unable to catch up. These are just two exam­ples of many.

The focus of the redesign is to adjust our approach to learn­ing and teach­ing in a man­ner that places the learner at the cen­ter. This approach pro­vides the flex­i­bil­ity and student-​focused oppor­tu­ni­ties nec­es­sary for vir­tu­ally all learn­ers to achieve at high lev­els. For obvi­ous rea­sons, this approach has come to be known as per­son­al­ized learning.

Per­son­al­ized learn­ing is grounded in the premise that all learn­ing is and always has been per­sonal and autonomous. Unless learn­ers see a pur­pose or sig­nif­i­cance, make a con­nec­tion, or oth­er­wise have a rea­son to pay atten­tion to what they have the poten­tial to learn, learn­ing does not occur. This is the rea­son why the legacy model of one-​size-​fits-​all instruc­tion makes it almost impos­si­ble for each stu­dent to learn at high lev­els. The good news is that research on learn­ing con­ducted over the past sev­eral decades indi­cates that a more per­son­al­ized approach holds spe­cial promise. How­ever, the research has not been pulled together in a coher­ent, prac­ti­cal, imple­mentable model until recently.


We believe there are three com­po­nents at the core of suc­cess­ful redesign:

  1. A deep, com­pre­hen­sive, cur­rent under­stand­ing of the learner shared by stu­dent and educator,
  2. Co-​construction by edu­ca­tor and learner of a learn­ing path lead­ing from where the learner is cur­rently to the pro­fi­cien­cies to be mas­tered, and
  3. Clear, com­pelling, chal­leng­ing and wor­thy pro­fi­cien­cies that rep­re­sent the next learn­ing for the student.

Sur­round­ing and sup­port­ing these three core com­po­nents are robust, flex­i­ble learn­ing and teach­ing strate­gies such as rapid cycle feed­back, flex­i­ble group­ing and respon­sive instruc­tion, all of which draw from pow­er­ful, well-​respected research. (See Hon­ey­comb graphic insert)

New roles for edu­ca­tors and learn­ers are infused through­out the redesign work. Edu­ca­tors move from being “sole source providers” of infor­ma­tion to being coaches, guides, learn­ing design­ers, data ana­lysts, reflec­tion stim­u­la­tors, moti­va­tion and engage­ment spe­cial­ists and other roles.

Mean­while, the roles of learn­ers change dra­mat­i­cally from:

  • Being seen as recep­ta­cles to be filled to resources to be tapped and built
  • Being com­pli­ant actors in a scene cre­ated by adults to actively com­mit­ting to learn­ing, cre­at­ing and expand­ing their under­stand­ing and potential
  • Act­ing as pas­sive recip­i­ents of infor­ma­tion to active inves­ti­ga­tors, assim­i­la­tors and syn­the­siz­ers of new infor­ma­tion and knowledge
  • Fol­low­ing a com­mon pre­scribed learn­ing path to co-​designing learn­ing paths with edu­ca­tors, set­ting goals and co-​identifying resources and activ­i­ties to sup­port their own learning.

A key shift in this new approach is for learn­ing to go beyond mem­o­riz­ing and accu­mu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion to build­ing per­sonal learn­ing capac­ity for suc­cess in school, career and life. Key aca­d­e­mic skills and knowl­edge remain crit­i­cal to progress, but the focus of learn­ing is expanded to address skills that sup­port learn­ing in any con­text and any stage of life, includ­ing skills such as per­sis­tence, self-​regulation, dis­ci­pline, prob­lem def­i­n­i­tion and solu­tion strate­gies, resilience, col­lab­o­ra­tion or learn­ing independence.

Of course, this shift demands that we change what and how we assess learn­ing. The stan­dard­ized tests with which we live prob­a­bly are not going to go away in the near term. In fact, our ini­tial premise and sub­se­quent expe­ri­ence has been that per­for­mance on tra­di­tional assess­ment instru­ments has to at least be main­tained and in most cases must improve as a result of the shift in approach and focus of learn­ing and teach­ing or pres­sure will mount to return to legacy prac­tices. For­tu­nately, this bench­mark is being met across the net­work of per­son­al­ized learn­ing ini­tia­tives. How­ever, many of the schools engaged in this work are expand­ing their assess­ment focus to include demon­stra­tions, pre­sen­ta­tions, projects and prod­ucts to show what is learned. The knowl­edge and skills being assessed, too, are expand­ing to include more than facts, fig­ures and for­mu­las. Learn­ers are being asked to demon­strate exper­tise in prob­lem for­mu­la­tion, not just prob­lem solv­ing; appli­ca­tion of new learn­ing, not just restate­ment and recall; and under­stand­ing of rela­tion­ships, impli­ca­tions and inter­ac­tions, not just descrip­tion, dimen­sions and characteristics.

Finally, this new design addresses struc­tural and pol­icy issues such as sched­ules, grad­ing, pro­gres­sion paths, or strate­gic use of tech­nol­ogy, but only when they begin to get in the way or form bar­ri­ers to the core work. Too often the focus is on struc­ture and pol­icy ele­ments too early in the change process, and the oppor­tu­nity for real, trans­form­ing change is missed.

Many peo­ple think of per­son­al­ized learn­ing as being tech­nol­ogy dri­ven. This is not the case. Tech­nol­ogy is a key sup­port and cru­cial to mov­ing this approach to scale in classes, schools and even­tu­ally the entire edu­ca­tion sys­tem. How­ever, the key to the inno­va­tion resides at the inter­sec­tion of learn­ing and teach­ing. Tech­nol­ogy allows more tasks and data to be man­aged with effi­ciency, but tech­nol­ogy alone is not the answer.

The pic­ture emerg­ing in classes and schools is very excit­ing. Results cap­tured on tra­di­tional assess­ments show stu­dents achiev­ing at sig­nif­i­cantly higher lev­els across the per­for­mance con­tin­uum. Edu­ca­tors are report­ing amaz­ing increases in stu­dent engage­ment, learn­ing per­sis­tence and inde­pen­dence, own­er­ship for learn­ing and con­fi­dence. Mean­while the fre­quency of mis­be­hav­ior is drop­ping dra­mat­i­cally and gen­eral stu­dent atti­tudes about school are improv­ing remarkably.

We are engaged in and prepar­ing for a num­ber of sig­nif­i­cant ini­tia­tives across our state. Each effort holds poten­tial to assist over­all sys­tem improve­ment. How­ever, bet­ter test­ing and high stan­dards alone have not been shown to improve learn­ing. More effec­tive teach­ing and bet­ter strate­gies can help, but with­out sig­nif­i­cant redesign of the sys­tem even the best efforts push against a process never designed to have all stu­dents suc­ceed. The time has come to deal with the capac­ity of our edu­ca­tional sys­tem and make it real­is­tic for edu­ca­tors to reach, coach, teach and sup­port every stu­dent, not just those for whom the cur­rent sys­tem was designed to favor.

Inter­est in and imple­men­ta­tion of per­son­al­ized learn­ing strate­gies are spread­ing across Wis­con­sin and other states in the Mid­west. If you want to learn more or join the move­ment, visit the Insti­tute web­site, or con­tact us directly at This email address is being pro­tected from spam­bots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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