Not All At Once: The Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

Some folks have started hearing grumblings from educators and community members about their school’s work on implementing Customized Learning. And these grumblings make us worry (rightly) if working toward Customized Learning is really the right move.

Here are some of the actual grumblings I’m hearing from within my own district and from other Maine districts working toward customized learning:

  • Parents in District A have made their concerns well known (and well publicized) that they do not like, nor do they want, the changes to grading and report cards that the district has implemented.
  • Principal B wants to know how we can possibly do this work without first changing how we schedule and group students, as well as change our grading system.
  • Teachers in School C wonder what they’ll do with students who finish a course-worth of work by mid-March.
  • Teacher D says he has posted the poster-like tool that is supposed to solicit students’ questions, ideas, and feedback, but students won’t use it.
  • Colleagues and students of Teacher E don’t think the way he is implementing customized learning is working and are saying, “If the way he is doing customized learning is what customized learning is all about, we don’t want to do it.”

Hearing these kinds of concerns, it’s not hard to understand why some people might think there are (serious) problems with Customized Learning, and maybe schools shouldnt do it.

And yet, I know that schools have implemented it successfully.

I’ve enjoyed having the chance to talk with some of the educators from some of those schools about their lessons learned. And from this initiative and others, I’ve learned that by looking at the contrasts between where an initiative works and where it doesn’t, you can learn something about what the successful schools have done and what the less successful schools might not have done.

I’ve grown to believe the root of the problems I’ve shared above is not with Customized Learning itself, but with thinking of Customized Learning as some gigantic, monolithic monstrosity that must be dropped on a school all at once. There is no doubt that there are a lot of moving parts, and that those parts are interrelated, and that it is hard to imagine implementing one component completely without implementing another component completely.

And yet, all of the lessons I learned from conversations with educators in schools where it is working have focused on the opposite of doing it all at once:

  • Schools should think of implementing Customized Learning as something that will take about 5 years.
  • Although flexible, there is one general sequence (phases) of change that seems to work better than others.
  • The sequence is a little counter-intuitive, but, again, works better than others, so should be stuck to, even if it is counter-intuitive.
  • Trying to skip phases, or jump ahead phases, or doing phases out of sequence doesn’t work and derails and delays the change process.
  • Although it is always ok to experiment with and try out strategies and techniques from up-coming phases, each phase has strategies and techniques that teachers and leaders should be working to perfect prior to moving on to the next phase.
  • It is ok to have educators in the same school/district in different phases at the same time, but it is also ok to refer to the phase where the school or district is in general, as a whole.
  • It seems to help to have some early adopters in each school, who are a phase or two ahead of the rest of the staff.
  • Save the school structure changes (grading, scheduling, etc.) for last; although you can readily identify that you need new structures now, you won’t know what structures you need until you have been doing the work for a while.
Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

For Auburn, Shelly Mogul, our Curriculum Director, and I created (with some help and input from colleagues) a chart highlighting 5 phases of implementing Customized Learning (download it here). Within each phase, the chart clarifies what we have learned about what staff should be getting good at and the kinds of things they should start dabbling in. We see the following five phases:

  • Awareness Phase
  • Classroom Culture Phase (Voice & Choice)
  • Instructional Design Phase
  • Instructional Implementation Phase
  • School Structures Phase

And notice how understanding the phases of implementing Customized Learning actually helps us understand the problems described in the beginning of this post. It’s important to recognize that when we implement pieces too soon, they can cause problems or might end up being the wrong pieces. That the purpose of being in a particular phase is to get good at the strategies and techniques of that phase, both by seeking out support and resources, and by school leaders bringing support and resources to the staff in that phase. And that it is ok to say, “Yes that is a concern, but we’re only in Phase X and we should wait to deal with that when we reach Phase Y.” And it helps to be able to say, when things are running roughly for a teacher with the courage to try things out, but others bring up concerns, “Well, remember that Teacher E is in Phase X and trying out ideas two phases ahead of that, without training, and has in fact recognized himself that it isn’t going well and has asked for suggestions and support.”

I don’t believe that all the challenges of Customized Learning will be solved just by thinking about phases of implementation. Clearly some come from thinking about leadership for school change, or about the role of technology, or about student motivation. But I do think that many of the ground floor challenges that come during early implementation are related to trying to do everything at once (or out of order).

How could reflecting on and having conversations about the Phases of Implementing Customized Learning help your school or district?


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