Feature                                                   Pages 38-40


Personalization/Customized Learning:
Not Students and Teachers But Learners and Facilitators


If you study the research of the best practices of the most effective out-of-date schools and then combine that research into a meta-analysis of the most effective practices of out-of-date schools, you will end with a convincing list of best practices of the best out-of-date schools.

Face it, Singapore is better at being obsolete than we are. And, the United States is not a “catchup” country. We are a “leapfrogging” country. The leap is from the assembly line to customized learning.

Gary Marx’s chapter “Personalization” in his book Twenty-One Trends for the 21st Century makes a clear and motivational case for change that is beyond debate. Customized learning is in our future. My contribution partially answers the critical question: So what?

Lindsay’s Learners

Customized learning happens when we are meeting the learning needs of every learner every hour of every day, while simultaneously meeting the learning needs of every other learner every hour of every day.

The 4,100-student Lindsay, Calif., Unified School District has been working toward a personalized/customized vision for a half dozen years and probably represents the best working example of mass customizing learning in a public school setting. Thomas Rooney, now in his third year as superintendent after overseeing curriculum and instruction, rolled out the district’s perform-ance-based and customizing learning system in 2009 for freshmen at the high school and has since taken it districtwide.

Rooney and his predecessor in the superintendency involved staff and community members in the creation of a strategic design in 2007 centered upon performance-based and customized learning. He also systematically implemented a supervision for alignment process among site leaders to ensure “all the arrows are going in the same direction.”

I have watched and listened to high school learners in Lindsay, a small city in central California where about 86 percent of the residents are Latino or Hispanic. The students are able to describe their personal learning plans and discuss their achievements.

In Lindsay’s student-centered approach to learning, students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.

In a real sense, there no longer are students in Lindsay, and neither are there teachers. They are now learners, learning facilitators and learning coaches. The vocabulary change has fostered role change. The most striking takeaway is how the learners have taken responsibility for their learning and how learning facilitators and coaches are working as true professionals.

What’s resulted in Lindsay during Rooney’s tenure are improved test scores, significantly fewer dropouts, higher attendance rates and a decline in gang activities, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Lindsay’s website shares the district’s mission statement and vision (http://bit.ly/lindsay-mission-packet) along with short videos that explain what the district is doing and why. You can watch “a day in the life of a Lindsay learner” to see what customization looks like from the perspective of a learner.

 Schwahn feature
Charles Schwahn, a former superintendent, is the lead author of Inevitable: Learning in the Age of Empowerment (CreateSpace, 2013).

Lindsay routinely receives so many requests from school districts to observe its performance-based system that the district now limits visitations to five dates during the school calendar. In 2013-14, educators from at least 20 school districts in nine states conducted site visits at Lindsay’s K-8 schools and high school to observe customized learning in action.

Structural Obstacles

Seven years ago, a group of about 70 superintendents from Lake County in Illinois asked me to work with them to explore alternatives to our present bureaucratic, time-based, Industrial Age, assembly-line structure of schools and school systems.

We used a weight-bearing wall metaphor to identify the major structural components of our present timeworn structure. This list has been tweaked a bit, but basically the superintendents agreed on the following: grade levels; students assigned to classes; class periods/bell schedule; courses/curriculum; textbooks; paper and pencil; ABC grading system; report cards; learning happens in schools; and a nine-month school year.

After creating our weight-bearing wall list, we identified and discussed what each item did for us and what each “stopped us from doing for learners.” We quickly realized the weight-bearing walls were nearly all about administrative convenience, and they stopped us from meeting individual learner needs.

When contemplating how these structures could be removed, we realized each weight-bearing wall was supportive of and dependent upon all of the others. Remove one and the system wouldn’t work. The roof would cave.

Personalized/customized structures also have weight-bearing walls that are supportive and dependent. And therein lies the “change rub” — it is difficult to tiptoe into an Information Age structure. Changing one at a time doesn’t work.

A Customized View

When we think of visions, the late Steve Jobs, the consummate visionary, comes to mind. Jobs didn’t come up with the iTunes vision by going into a now-defunct Blockbuster store and asking himself, “How could I improve on how Blockbuster sells CDs.” His vision was probably not about music, but about the ideal listening experience. The vision of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, was probably not about books, but about the ideal reading experience. The Starbucks vision isn’t about coffee, but about the coffee experience.

So let’s transfer this thought process to education. What might be our vision of the ideal learning experience? How about this:

Each learner will arrive at school,

Be met at his/her learning level every hour of every day,

Learn using one of his/her best learning styles,

Learn skills and concepts with content of high personal interest,

Understand the relevance of what he/she is learning,

Be challenged, be successful, and

Look forward to coming back tomorrow.

This vision as stated is most desirable, but previously only a dream. With the advent of customizing technology, this vision is now doable. The technology to make this vision a reality was available seven years ago when the Lake County superintendents first talked about creating an Information Age structure for schools. That technology is much more sophisticated today.

So what did Jobs do with his vision of the ideal listening experience? And what must we educators do with our vision for an ideal learning experience? Jobs, like my education leader colleagues, walked that vision back, asking at every level, “if we want this to happen, then what will we have to do, have to create, to make it happen?” Eventually that level-by-level “walk back” becomes specific to the point that a team can begin working on it and begin the “walk forward” to the vision.

For Jobs and Apple, that meant downloading your favorite song from an inventory of seven million options in about 60 seconds.

Here is where Jobs and the educators differ. Jobs didn’t think of how iTunes was to be structured until he fully understood what it took to create the ideal listening experience. Then he followed the golden rule of effective organizational structures: Form follows function.

Educators, on the other hand, almost universally try to stuff that beautiful learning experience into a bureaucratic, time-based, Industrial Age, assembly-line structure. We reverse the golden rule of organizational structure as we put form before function.

Management’s Role

Today’s technology supports education in three basic ways: It delivers content, it can be the teacher for a significant portion of our learner outcomes, and it can be a great tool for managing complex organizations.

Customizing learning is highly dependent on the managing aspect. iTunes has become Apple’s retail management system. The iPortfolio has the potential to do the same for customized learning.

So what’s on the “to do” list before customized learning can be rolled out in a school system? Probably these steps:

  • A strategic design/plan that includes core values, mission and vision.
  • A written curriculum with learner outcomes that articulates what we want our learners to know and to be able to do.
  • Categorized learner outcomes by learning format that identifies how each learner outcome is best learned, not best taught.
  • Learning outcomes online that are accessible to all learners 24/7.
  • Interactive seminars that identify the critical learner outcomes best learned through interaction with a learning facilitator.
  • Scheduling technology for individual learners that provides each learner with a unique schedule.
  • iPortfolio technology that contains the demonstrations of all mastered learner outcomes.

Accountability technology for administration that help the learning center leader to know the schedules and locations of individual staff members and learners at all times.

Video Evidence

If you wonder how all of this might work for a 14-year-old student, access the masscustomizedlearning.com website and find a vision video titled “Lori Does Her Learning Plan.” The video also is available directly on YouTube.

Charles Schwahn, a former superintendent, leads Schwahn Leadership Associates in the Black Hills of South Dakota. E-mail: chuckschwahn@yahoo.com. Twitter: @chuckschwahn




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