Time for a Look Back

Progress on Five Key Principles for a New Learning Ecosystem

by Jim Rickabaugh, Director

As we approach the sixth anniversary of the Institute for Personalized Learning and our personalized learning transformation work, it seems like a good time to pause and reflect on some key areas of progress. The work is by no means finished, but much has been accomplished and deserves recognition and celebration.

When we began this work in 2010, the group investigating and designing a different approach to learning and teaching identified five key principles on which the new learning ecosystem should rest. Our discussion was that the new ecosystem must:

  1. Have the capacity to create a clear path to success for each learner
  2. Be sustainable without significant increases in the amount of staff and levels of required effort
  3. Improve aggregate student performance on traditional measures while building student capacity to engage in and learn independently
  4. Be affordable with current resources
  5. Be scalable to entire schools, school districts and regions

Here is a quick look at progress and how each of these principles are continuing to drive our efforts today:

Learner Success
There is significant evidence that a much wider array of learners are finding success, including students who have been identified as “at risk,” those with special learning needs and special gifts and talents, and even so called “reluctant learners” who have the capacity to succeed, but have not been convinced of the relevance and purpose of the school experience. Equally important, learners who have functioned satisfactorily in the legacy system are building a new and wider set of skills, experiencing greater commitment to learning and gaining clarity and direction to prepare them for success in future careers and life.  

School leaders and educators implementing personalized learning practices have found that they can successfully implement and sustain the new learning and teaching practices without having to hire additional staff. Once educators develop and become comfortable and skilled with the new practices and processes, they report approximately the same workload as in the legacy system. However, both the impact they feel and level of collaboration with learners are significantly higher. At least in part, this shift is the result of the more active and engaged role that learners play in a personalized learning environment.     

Improved performance
In high performing schools performance on traditional assessments and other measures of educational effectiveness have been sustained. The absence of significant growth on traditional measures is not surprising since little room for growth is available on traditional assessment instruments. On the other hand, schools that previously performed at average and below average levels are showing significant and often dramatic growth on traditional performance measures. In some cases, the growth has been as much as 30 percent, with evidence that the longer students experience learning that is personalized, the greater the performance gains. Remarkably, while not captured in traditional performance measures, schools are reporting significant decreases in student behavior problems, increased student self-regulation, greater goal orientation, higher learning aspirations and growth in the ability to learn independently. 

With rare exception, schools and districts are implementing the personalized learning practices with current resources. They are not dependent on outside grants or other funding to establish and sustain the work. In most cases resources have been reallocated within budgets to align with personalized learning processes and practices. Granted, leaders often are faced with difficult decisions to ensure the availability of critical resources. Still, even during times of stagnant and diminishing financial support, school districts have been able to initiate and sustain this work.

While the work has expanded from individual classrooms to school-wide initiatives and even multi-school programs, scaling has yet to be fully accomplished. Schools have been able to implement personalized learning practices across disciplines and age groups. A few school districts have even established paths that allow learners to enter school and follow a personalized learning path to graduation from high school. 

Much has been learned as a result of the initial scaling work, but there remains a challenge to learn how to scale across regions.  We still must build processes, approaches, tools and structures to support implementation of the model anywhere and everywhere for communities that want to provide this type of learning experience for their children and youth. This last key principle will be an area of focus for the Institute as we move forward with the work.

Looking back to the beginning, barely a dozen school districts were involved in developing early prototypes of the model across Southeastern Wisconsin. Now, almost six years later, the design and associated learning and teaching practices have spread to more than 50 schools and school districts. The work has expanded from Southeastern Wisconsin to include sites throughout the state and in Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Missouri. 

Six years into the journey, there is much to celebrate and hundreds of educators and tens of thousands of students to thank. It is true that the work is far from finished, but working together, we have made an impressive start. We are excited to see what the next six years will hold.