Driving Change in Public Education Through Personalized Learning

March 25, 2019, by Jimmy Minichello

'Community of learners,' 'navigating pathways' and 'voice and choice' were just a few of the many themes being bandied about last week when superintendents from across the country visited Pennsylvania’s North Penn School District (NPSD) during the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort’s first meeting of the year.

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While observing plenty of one-on-one instruction, collaborative activities and small group discussions among students, it was apparent administrators attending the meeting were impressed with the personalization of learning going on in classrooms in this suburban school district, located about 20 miles north of Philadelphia. The district has a student population of approximately 13,000 students.

"We're excited to share what we’re doing at North Penn School District," said Curtis R. Dietrich, superintendent, NPSD. "I'm in my 10th year as superintendent and I have seen tremendous growth during those 10 years. We've been doing our digital learning initiative here at North Penn for the last four years and the personalized learning initiative for the last two years. We’re excited to share what we’re doing and at the same time, learn from others."

"Our movements in technology over the last four years have really helped to balance the playing field and provide equity and access to all of our students," said Todd Bauer, assistant superintendent, NPSD. "Two of the biggest things that we care about at North Penn are cultural proficiency and providing the same access to all students."

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During the first full day of the 3-day meeting, cohort members visited North Penn High School, Pennbrook Middle School and Walton Farm Elementary School. On tap at the high school included visits to a tech education class, animation lab, a pre-K lab as well as the North Penn TV studio.

"The visit to North Penn has been exhilarating," said Richard Mextorf, superintendent, Hamburg Area (Pa.) School District. "We've seen lots of examples of students who own their own learning. They get to engage with the material that’s meaningful for them and they get to display their understanding of the learning in multiple venues, which increases ownership. They also have a chance to collaborate with others. We've seen that at all three levels."

At a personalization-coaching panel, the focus was clearly on the benefit of students. "It's really about kids," said one teacher-panelist. "It’s about creating experiences for kids, not comfort for adults."

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Meanwhile, middle school students weren’t shy about sharing their positive feelings and reflections about their learning experiences in Mr. Bowers' class.

  • Student: "It's hard for me to learn if I'm not interested in things I'm learning about. When I get to choose what kind of thing I want to do, it's more helpful and easier for me to learn."
  • Student: "When we're doing our projects, sometime he’ll call on us randomly just to check-in to make sure we’re doing our work."
  • Student: "In group projects, it's nice to work with your friends."
  • Student: "When we’re learning about a topic in Mr. Bowers' class, it helps us stay motivated to learn when it applies to something that we like and know more about because it helps us understand the topic."

Growing the personalized movement at North Penn is the "next step in our evolution," said Ron Martiello, learning coach, NPSD. "Every learner learns at a different pace. Every learner learns in a different way. Now we can grow students at all levels so that they can find the pathways to success that they need to." 

On the final day of the meeting, cohort members explored the essential components of a "learner-centered" education. Katie Martin, author of Learner Centered Innovation, and Devin Vodicka, former superintendent and 2015 California State Superintendent of the Year, facilitated the discussion. Both facilitators represent AltSchool, a cohort meeting co-host. AltSchool supports schools across the U.S. in their shift to become learner-centered. 

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Launched in 2015, the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort has been bringing together visionary leaders who have personalized learning environments in their school districts. "The AASA Personalized Learning Cohort was created so educators can form a critical mass to work as 'critical friends' to transform public education," said Mort Sherman, AASA associate executive director, leadership network.

To join the conversation via Twitter about the Cohort’s visit to Pennsylvania, access #AASAPersonalizedLrng or #LearnPLinAction.

Click here to access the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort 2019 March Meeting AASA photo gallery.

To learn more about the program, visit the AASA Personalized Learning Cohort web page, which includes AASA’s recently produced case studies featuring several members of the cohort. Superintendents and other school system leaders can also contact Sherman at msherman@aasa.org or Debbie Magee, program manager, at dmagee@aasa.org.