Scouts, Pioneers and Settlers: The Wild, Wild West of Personalized Learning

Watching the growth and spread of personalized learning in Southeastern Wisconsin has been an amazing experience. In less than five years the movement has grown from an urgent call to action with a vision of redesigning education around the learner to a strong and growing movement transforming the practices of almost a thousand educators and the more than 14,000 learners whose lives they touch.

Within this movement, some interesting and important patterns have emerged that hold important implications for educational leaders embarking on transforming education using a personalized learning model. Each group below is important and fills a unique need as the implementation of personalized learning moves from getting started to full scale, district-wide transformation.

The Scouts

Scouts: compass

Early in the work a small group of adventuresome and risk-tolerant educators typically step forward and volunteer to explore the opportunities for learners and educators using this new approach. We call these educators the “scouts.” They are willing to venture out before many aspects of the initiative are clear in the local context. These educators typically ask for limited direct support other than some resources to fund early efforts and the flexibility to engage in new practices. Like the scouts who explored and helped to map the frontiers of our country, these independent and innovative educators help others to see possibilities, learn key skills and practices and join in the adventure. While often small in numbers, these educators highlight what is possible if we are willing to take some risks, think differently and engage in new relationships and strategies with learners.

The Pioneers

Pioneers: Covered wagon

A second group tends to follow this first wave of innovators once some of the initial implementation has taken place. This group we have come to call the “pioneers.” These educators are willing to take some risks and travel through some “yet to be settled territory” to learn and test the impact of personalized learning practices and processes with their learners. They do not necessarily expect to be given detailed directions or have all of their answers in advance, but they do want to know that where they are going will make a significant difference for their students. They also want to have basic tools and some experienced guidance to support their work. They understand that mistakes and missteps are part of the learning process for adult learners, too. Not unlike early settlers in the old West, they collaborate, share successful practices and grow from the experiences of each other. They also help show what will be necessary for success as the next group engages.

The Settlers

Settlers: Farm

The third group, we call the “settlers.” These educators help to bring the work to scale and make it the norm rather than an innovation. This group of practitioners is committed to doing the best for their students, but they want proven tools and support to develop key skills and practices. They want to be sure that the “pieces” of the system fit together. They want clarity and consistency in expectations and adequate support to accomplish the assignments they are given. While they may want more certainty in their work, when they engage, they also bring the promise of personalized learning within reach of virtually all learners.

Each of these groups plays an important role in making the practices of personalized learning a reality. Yet, each requires different types of support and guidance from leaders. Scouts need opportunities, flexibility and protection at home to try new approaches and develop new understandings. Pioneers need assurance that the work they are doing is leading to good outcomes for learners and enough support to solidify their practices and see results. Settlers seek more clarity, stability and direct support to assure they are doing what is necessary and expected. For this group formal professional learning systems need to be in place and standards and curriculum elements need to align with the work.

All of these groups need leaders who believe in and advocate for them, are ready to support their professional journey and who are willing to be partners in the journey when needed. Together, these groups and the leaders next to them are changing the education world.

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