Category Archives: Customized Learning

Customized Learning

How the Phases Help Support Implementation and Teachers

The Phases of Implementation are actually a tool to leverage in support of teachers and the school's or district's implementation of Customized Learning. The components of Customized Learning are certainly not new to schools, but successfully implementing CL depends on raising the level of level of implementation and the consistency of implementation across the school and school year so they don't simply occur in certain classrooms or during certain units. But learning to implement all those moving parts, in a sequence that actually works, can seem daunting! The Phases take a complex initiative (Customized Learning) and break it into manageable chunks, supporting implementation (and teachers!) in several ways.

The Phases Help Leaders Articulate Where the Staff and School are in Their Implementation
The notion of phases is helpful to leadership because they can classify their educators by the phase each is in. Not only can teachers be identified as being in a specific phase, but so can teams (grade levels, interdisciplinary teams, departments, etc.), schools, and districts based on the phase of the majority of their teachers. This helps with articulating to the district, parents, and community where you are on your journey toward implementing Customized Learning, and reminds everyone that this work will not be completed over night (our district has a 5-year plan for implementation!), and helps everyone manage expectations about what should be happening in our schools at this point in the implementation.

Keep in mind that teachers within a school will be at different phases. Districts in the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning have had success with having early adopters pilot a phase ahead of the rest of the staff, and even when the majority of staff in a school are ready to move to the next phase, there will be new staff needing initial training, or staff who are progressing at a different pace than their colleagues.

The Phases Help Teachers Focus Their Professional Learning and Implementation
The phases help educators know the “curriculum” of implementing Customized Learning, where they are in the scope and sequence of that curriculum, and what goals and next steps they might need for progressing to the next level. The goal of any phase is to develop proficiency in the skills related to that phase. This will lead to a strategic progression of more and more skill at creating a personalized learning environment for students, where we expect students to have an improved sense of having their learning needs met, resulting in increased competence, engagement, and academic success.

It is always okay for teachers to dabble, try out, and explore features of a phase or two ahead of where they are, but only within the context of informal learning (“dabbling”). Educators' primary responsibility is getting good at the skills of their current phase.

“Plan, Do, Check, and Adjust” is a crucial component of implementation at each phase, insuring that reflection, continuous improvement, collaborative problem-solving, supporting colleagues, and sharing ideas are hallmarks of the teachers' work.

The Phases Help Leaders Plan for Professional Development
Leadership can more easily plan for training, support, coaching, and professional development because of the Phases : (a) leaders can articulate where their staff are in their professional learning progression; (b) the kinds of resources, training, and coaching needed differs by phase; and (c) how much of that support is needed depends on how many staff are in each phase. Similar to how students will move through the curriculum via Customized Learning, teachers demonstrate mastery of components in one phase before moving on to the next phase.

The first three phases each begin with educators participating in specific training designed to kick off that phase by orienting them to the key components and the work that awaits them (I have come to think of them as “same page” trainings since they are intended to get everyone on the same page.). Other trainings (offered as teachers need them, see below) help teaching staff become more familiar with the curriculum organization, the complex reasoning and life-long habits of mind curriculum strands, various instructional strategies, learning progress management, student motivation, etc.

In fact, from the Classroom Culture phase on, we do not automatically provide teachers the “next” trainings and professional development until they have demostrated some proficiency with the skills, tools, and concepts of the phase they are currenty in. They must get good at the current phase before moving on.

The Phases Help Leaders Focus Positive Pressure and Support
Level of implementation matters, and leaders increase level of implementation through Positive Pressure and Support. Positive Pressure and Support has three pieces: Expectations, Supervision, and Support. We have just discussed support, but the Phases help focus Positive Pressure and Support, as well, by making clear the expectations (getting good a skills in the phase you're teachers are in), and by clarifying what to look for in classrooms when supervising and supporting (those same skills of the current phase).

Even if the Phases help provide clarity, leaders still need training and support themselves so they know the phases and what each phase's skills look like. For example, are teachers in the Classroom Culture Phase actually working within their phase toward getting feedback from students, or are they jumping ahead? Have teachers simply posted some of the tools (such as a Parking Lot) or are they actually providing students with opportunities and guidance on providing feedback using a Parking Lot. Is the absence of a Parking Lot a sign that a teacher isn't focused on Student Voice and Choice, or is the teacher simply using other strategies?


This approach to scaling the reform is successful specifically because, at any given moment, the work is personalized to the immediate needs of the teacher, team, school, or district. Team level, school level, district level, and consortium level. Shared leadership teams (a) determine where their educators and communities are in the process of implementing customized learning (using the phases as a guide), (b) design individualized implementation plans and interventions for their group, and (c) provide positive pressure and support for moving to the next level.


Form Follows Function: The Phases Inform Structural Change

One of the big mistakes schools and districts new to Customized Learning make too often is to make structural changes to things like grading, grade levels, courses, and student grouping too early in the change process.

I think this happens for a couple reasons.

One may be that much of the work in the early phases is to address a shared vision and burning platform, to examine our beliefs about learning, to explore what Customized Learning looks like in action, to build the right kind of culture in your classroom, and to make the curriculum more transparent and navigable for students and teachers. This is heady work that often doesn’t seem like action. Changing grading or the schedule is tangible and is action.

Another reason I think it happens is that it doesn’t take long doing even the early stages of this work to realize that how we currently grade, and schedule, and group students, and organize curriculum into courses probably will need to be changed to do Customized Learning well.

There is a major problem with these reasons (even if it is perfectly understandable why educators would feel them): change those structures to what?

It is understandable to want more tangible action. And it is obvious quickly that the structures will need to change. But until a critical mass of the staff have built a classroom culture of voice and choice, made the curriculum transparent and navigable, and have developed some proficiency at a balanced instructional model that provides for both learning higher-order thinking and lower-level thinking, it will not be clear what kind of grading will work for you, or scheduling, or organizing “courses” or “seminars,” etc.

Then there are the political or strategic issues around the public being ready for those kinds of changes (heaven forbid school look different than when they were students!). Making structural changes too soon has led to public backlash (this, for example). When the school is further along with implementation, and there have been strong efforts to build understanding and support among parents, the public understands why those changes are being made and sees a need for them.

Recently, I discussed the phases of implementation. You might have noticed how each of the early phases said “In the Current System.” This is a reminder that those big structural changes come later. The phases should follow the Biology principal of “form follows function.” The initial phases are implemented within the current school system, but the changes in curriculum organization, classroom culture, and instruction inform us about how school structures (student grouping, grades, courses, schedules, etc.) need to change. Even early implementation makes clear the inadequacy of the current approach of these components for Customized Learning, leading to educators often wanting to jump to making these structural changed early in the process.

But, in truth, we don’t know what to change them to until we’ve had a chance to get good at the components of earlier phases in the process.

They are important changes. And they will come. But wait until the right time.

If It Sounds Crazy, That’s Probably Not How They’re Doing It

Teachers can sometimes have wild ideas about how a new initiative will work, but a recent experience helped us figure out how to lower teachers's anxiety.

A while back, one of the schools I'm working with had a staff meeting where we talked with middle grades students what had been student reporters at a conference focused on Customized Learning and iPads.

The students were enthusiastic and passionate about their involvement in the conference, as well as what they were starting to learn about Customized Learning.

Other than a handful of pilot teachers, this school has not received any significant training on Customized Learning and is very much at the beginning of their journey to implementation. Therefore the teachers were very interested in what the students had to say and their enthusiasm, and started asking student all their numerous questions about CL and even started to ask the students lots of “how to” questions about how things worked in CL.

I had to quickly remind the teachers that these students had simply attended and reported on a handful of conference sessions about CL and had experienced very little of it themselves. All the questions were perfectly legitimate, and reflect the natural curiosity that you would expect teachers to have at the Awareness Phase of implementation, but that we should probably save our practical, how-to questions for teachers and students who are more experienced! (and we all laughed – the student passion had certainly left us all feeling for the moment that the students were all-knowing experts about Customized Learning! And, of course, these middle grades students never hesitated to create an answer if they didn't actually know it!)

What was really interesting, however, were the teachers' questions. They were asking how they could work with 100 students all in different places in their learning? How did they just let students work at what ever pace they wanted? And how did teachers create a 100 different lesson plans a day to customized the learning? And did teachers just let unmotivated students do nothing? And how could students learn things if there was no direct instruction?

These are all understandable and appropriate questions of teachers early in the Awareness Phase of implementation. But they largely represented enormously false assumptions about Customized Learning. But these were false assumptions that many teachers brand new to Customized Learning seemed to have. And these false assumptions generated an enormous amount of anxiety in the teachers (largely, of course, because the teachers didn't yet know that the assumptions were false).

And it dawned on me that there was actually a fairly simple heuristic that teachers could apply that would help tame their assumptions and lower their anxiety.

So I shared it with the staff at this meeting: There are lots of schools that are very successfully implementing Customized Learning. So if an idea about how it might work seems totally crazy or undoable to you, then that's probably not how they're doing it!

It was so simple!

Does doing 100 lesson plans a night seem crazy to you? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

Does letting unmotivated students do nothing seem unproductive? Then that's probably not how successful schools are doing it!

Does letting students do what they want seem untenable? Then that's probably not how they're doing it!

So next time you begin to wonder about a specific way you think folks are implementing Customized Learning, apply the Crazy Test. If it doesn't pass, then that's probably not how successful teachers are doing it!


Overview of The Phases of Implementing Customized Learning

Implementing Customized Learning can certainly seem like a daunting task! I have written previously about the need to find a way to think of approaching implementation in a manageable way.

In reviewing the work of other schools and organizations further along in the process of implementing Customized Learning than we are, there are lessons for school leaders about effective and less effective approaches to implementation. By looking at the contrasts between the implementation efforts of an initiative that works and those that do not, educators can learn something about what the successful schools have done and what the less successful schools might not have done.

One of the major lessons for leaders has been “not all at once!”

There are many components to the school reform effort, and following a certain sequence seems to lead to successful implementation more often than other processes. Although there is flexibility in how districts implement each phase, successful implementation of Customized Learning moves through these five phases:

  • Awareness Phase
  • Classroom Culture Phase
  • Instructional Design Phase
  • Instructional Implementation Phase
  • School Structures Phase

Each phase focuses on building the capacity of teachers to implement a system of Customized Learning, but by making the transition manageable by breaking it down into doable steps. Below is an overview (the “deliverables,” if you will) for each phase:

Awareness Phase (In the Current System)

  • Overall Goals for this Phase: Examine our collective beliefs about learning and school; Start to build a mental picture of Customized Learning
  • Own the Learning Training (Customized Learning Awareness)
  • Shared Vision, Burning Platform, Beliefs of Learning Documents Established
  • Able to Articulate Beliefs of Learning, Vision, Mission
  • Explore How Beliefs Match Practice
  • Familiarity with Curriculum Organization
  • Start to Make Learning Transparent to Students
  • Able to Articulate Basic Information about Customized Learning and a Student Centered Environment


Classroom Culture Phase (In the Current System)

  • Overall Goals for this Phase: More consistently create a learner-centered classroom culture, including procedural efficiencies; Make the curriculum more transparent and navigable to students
  • Classroom Design & Delivery Training
  • Create a Learner Centered Culture that Honors Student Voice and Choice
  • Create Procedural Efficiency in a Learner Centered Classroom (e.g. Rules, Student Input, Standard Operating Procedures)
  • Tracks Student Progress on Specific Learning Goals/Targets vs Activities/Assignments
  • Learning is Transparent so Students Can Navigate Their Own Learning (e.g. Student Goal Setting, Use of Curriculum Organization)
  • Initial Use of Mission, Vision, etc., as Decision-Making Screen
  • Recognize It Is Not About the Tools, But Rather About How the Tools Are Used (Parking Lot, SOPs, PDCAs, Code of Cooperation, Affinity Charts, etc.)


Instructional Design Phase (In the Current System)

  • Overall Goal for this Phase: Designing lessons and units for Customized Learning that reflect instruction for both lower-level and higher-level thinking
  • Instructional Design & Delivery Training
  • Balanced Instructional Model
  • Unpacking Learning Targets with Students
  • Instruction Organized Around Measurement Topics (Curriculum Model)
  • Student Self Pacing & Acceleration
  • Instruction for Lower Taxonomy Levels (e.g. identifies online resources for Level 2 Goals)
  • Instruction for Upper Taxonomy Levels (e.g. Seminars, Projects, etc.)
  • Consistent Use of Mission, Vision, etc., as Decision-Making Screen
  • Separates Academic Feedback from Non-Academic Feedback


Instructional Implementation Phase (In an Evolving System)

  • Overall Goal for this Phase: Become skilled at consistently implementing the practices (motivation, interventions, grading and assessment, etc.) to carry out the lessons and units.
  • Has and Uses an Explicit Model/Language of Instruction (e.g. The Art & Science of Teaching)
  • Uses a System of Recording and Reporting Student Progress
  • Use of Individualized Learning Plans
  • Applies Assessment for Learning (Formative Feedback)
  • Uses Formative Approach to Calculate Progress and Rubrics, Instead of Points and Percentages
  • Applies Effective Practices in Student Motivation & Engagement
  • Demonstrating Proficiency on Learning Targets Through Different Approaches (Multiple Pathways)


Structure Phase (The New System)

  • Overall Goal for this Phase: Design and implement the schools systems and structures to support pedagogical practices developed and implemented over the previous phases.
  • Grading and Reporting System
  • “Rank & Advancement” (Grade Levels)
  • Scheduling Students
  • Grouping and Regrouping of Students
  • Course Organization (Seminars, “Merit Badges,” etc.)
  • Understands and Embraces Invention Reasoning


We are quick to point out that staff are alway free to “dabble” a phase or two ahead of where they are now. In fact, their explorations often help us figure out how to better implement the coming phases. Using the term “dabble” also helps make clear that, although their explorations are welcome, their task is to get good at the deliverables for the phase they are currently in.

Here is a phases chart you can share with your staff.


Modeling of Customized Learning (Paradigm Shifting)

Although teachers can often apply familiar best practices to unfamiliar contexts, the integration of Customized Learning is often a paradigm shift for teachers, involving practices they are not familiar with. Rarely have teachers experienced Customized Learning themselves, and, collectively, Maine Cohort for Customized Learning districts are early enough in their implementation that many teachers have still received very little training.

Educators who effectively help teachers shift paradigms recognize that it requires more than sharing information and formal workshops.

Schema theory sheds the best light on how to structure professional development for large-scale change: provide models and experiences. Or as some school change experts say, “Teachers can’t do what they haven’t experienced.” Teachers are more often stumped with implementing an initiative by that lack of knowing what it looks like, feels like, tastes like – that not having a mental model of what it is like in action – than by any lack of technical information.

We are using a couple approaches to provide modeling to let teachers experience Customized Learning:

Visiting Classrooms: When teachers don’t have a lot of experience with an innovation, one way to get them that experience is by having them visit other teachers who are successfully doing similar work. Cohort districts are working to make sure that other teachers can come to visit classrooms so they can begin to expand their experience (although school leaders are trying to be careful how they schedule and manage such visits as not to distract too much from the learning that is supposed to be their first order of business!).

Vicarious Classroom Visits: Getting out to other classrooms, especially those in other districts, isn't always practical. Alternately, teachers can visit classrooms vicariously through videos or stories. Teachers can set up a Skype (or some other video conference) during their class so other teachers can see what is happening. Various videos are online. And teachers can read articles about Customized Learning classrooms – but not descriptive articles, so much as those that tell the story and paint a picture for the reader (remember, this is not about information, it is about experience).

Connecting with other Educators: A different approach to helping teachers and program leaders build models is to provide them opportunities to communicate with educators who are doing similar work. Networking is a powerful way for teachers to develop their own practice while helping colleagues (often in different states or countries!) to develop theirs. School leaders encourage teachers to consider tweeting or blogging about their experiences, since it can help build a diverse professional learning network for the teachers who do (although few teachers have taken on these options to date – Cohort teachers seem more eager to connect with teachers in more traditional ways: on the phone or via email).

These strategies are not limited to Customized Learning. These are Professional Development for Paradigm Shift strategies that schools can apply to any large-scale school change, any change that most teachers have not yet experienced themselves.

A Vision of Customized Learning

It is the vision of my district (and the others who are members of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning) to expertly prepare every child for a future yet to be imagined. We look to achieve this by restructuring our schools for Customized Learning.

At the root of Customized Learning are two core principles: that students learn in different timeframes and that students learn in different ways.

We believe that many of our challenges with student achievement are based on the fact that our current school structure does not widely support these two principles. Through our reform work, we will strive to make learning the constant and time the variable, instead of trying to struggle for student academic success in our current school structures where time is the constant, resulting in learning being the variable.

Our vision has students working their way through a well-defined continuum of learning, using their passions to create a path and choose how they will demonstrate their understanding of the learning.

While teachers will still do targeted direct instruction and plan rich, interesting (standards-based) units of study, these are delivered when students need them (and we have the tools, so teachers will know!). Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis also on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, monitoring progress, identifying learning resources and multiple pathways to demonstrating mastery, as well as timely direct instruction.

Teachers and students will work together to match student interests, strengths, and learning preferences to opportunities to learn. Ultimately, all students will be successful with our career- and college- ready curriculum, and teachers will be successful in creating learners who are well prepared to go wherever they want with their futures.

As educators, we work in a vocation that, for over a hundred years, has been geared toward the preparation of youth for the Industrial Age. Yet, today, we are acutely aware that we need to prepare students for the Information Age. Where in the Industrial Age, school appropriately developed the talents of a few and the compliance of the many, school today needs to apply a different tact for the Information Age. We need to develop everyone's talent.


Are We Ready to Trust Teachers with School Change?

It won't surprise any of you that once you really start digging into how to systemically implement Customized Learning, it doesn't take long to figure out that you need shared leadership, and that teachers need to be an active part of that shared leadership.

In Auburn, we're even working with teachers and the Association to see how we might re-envision the contract, so that it is both fair and flexible. Fair to teachers in terms of working conditions, compensation, training and support, and benefits. But flexible enough to the the new system to allow us to redefine professional development (and adjusting teacher roles), grouping (and regrouping) students, “courses” and other ways to organize “delivery” or “coverage” of the curriculum. (We've reached some interesting philosophical agreements about what a “from scratch” contract might look like, but, to help everyone bridge between that vision and what we have now, we'll probably focus on simply tweaking sections of the existing contract this round.)

But one of the issues that has come up several times, is an expanded role for teachers as decision makers: in allocating resources and creating budgets; in supervising and evaluating teachers, and working with those who need extra support; etc.

It's an interesting question. School leaders are asking teachers to trust them to change schools to a system that we may philosophically believe will be better for more students (including, perhaps some innovative, but unprecedented, changes to their contract!). But are school leaders ready to trust teachers to help design and lead that work, to help us all successfully implement customized learning?

Recently, I came across Trusting Teachers with School Success, a book that looks at 11 schools that have done exactly that, and relates their successes and challenges. You can learn more at their website:


The Curriculum and Customized Learning Series

When you start changing how you organize school for performance-based learning and recognizing that people learn in different ways and in different time frames, you quickly realize that the center of school shifts from courses to the curriculum and where students are within the curriculum.

How you organize the curriculum and then make it transparent to students becomes critically important.

Here is the whole recent series of posts related to curriculum organization and learning progress management within customized learning:


Keeping Track of Student Learning in Customized Learning – Part 2

In the previous post, I discussed how keeping track of student mastery of learning targets is both a critical and a non-trivial component of personalized, standards-based, competency-based education, such as within Customized Learning schools.

Online systems can make the task much easier to implement. Already, there are a growing number of options for schools, including PowerSchool, Jump Rope, Project Foundry, and Educate (I have used the last two).

But not all of the available options do the same thing, nor do it the same way. Some simply make it easier to connect standards to courses, some are standards-based grading systems, and some are true learning progress management systems, a frequently updated individual student data system that tracks student progress and attainment of learning standards (not courses), help students select or propose learning activities as they progress through a learning pathway, and help communicate individual student progress to teachers, students, and parents.

So, what do you look for in a learning progress management system?

At it's most basic, a good learning progress management system would do several things:

  • It would maintain a database of the curriculum (standards-based measurement topics and the progression of learning targets).
  • It would contain assessment information for each level of mastery of each measurement topic and learning target (think rubrics).
  • It would maintain a database of each student's level of mastery for each measurement topic and learning target.
  • The learning progress management system would be used to set goals, and create and monitor each student's Individualized Learning Plan, or Pathways (a personalized sequence of instructional content and skill development designed to enable the student to achieve his or her individual learning goals), and Individualized Graduation Plan (to ensure he or she can “graduate on time”).
  • It would facilitate the creation of individualized, data-driven transcripts and progress reports.
  • Teachers, students, and parents could access the learning progress management system readily to monitor where the student is in his or her learning progression 24/7.

A well-designed learning progress management system would also utilize a database of educational resources (including links to digital content and references to common resources, such as texts) and learning activities correlating to each learning target. These resources and activities allow students multiple pathways to demonstrating mastery of the learning target and would facilitate teachers and students selecting activities that appeal to their learning styles and interests, thus motivating students and deepening individual student learning. Further, the system would allow for the uploading of artifacts and evidence of learning correlated to specific learning targets or steps on a learning progression. (These would be the “proof” of mastery for each student.)

A superior learning progress management system would “intelligently” provide students suggestions on what activities he or she might try next, matching both the next learning target in their progression and their learning preferences. Imagine, as a student completes a measurement topic, getting a recommendation from the system of an activity for the next learning target, which is an approach the system thinks the student will like. (Think Amazon book recommendations, but for learning activities.)

Maine Cohort for Customized Learning districts are partnering with Scott Bacon of 3Shapes to create and develop such a learning progress management system: Educate. Through that partnership (including piloting the system in some Cohort districts), Educate already has many of the features described above. Further, Scott Bacon solicits feedback from our schools to keep Educate under continuous development, both to better implement existing features, as well as to add new features we would find helpful. Many of the Maine schools using it report that Educate seems especially well suited for Customized Learning, our version of personalized, performance-based learning.


Keeping Track of Student Learning in Customized Learning – Part 1

One of the reasons you put so much care into how you organize and articulate the student curriculum in Customized Learning, is because instead of tracking which courses a student has taken, schools track which learning targets and measurement topics students have mastered. The challenge, of course, with tracking courses, instead of mastery of content, is that the same curriculum may or may not be addressed in any two courses with the same name. Further, there is no guarantee that any two students in the same course (perhaps even the same section) have learned the same material. At best, tracking courses tracks what teachers “cover,” not what students learn.

But tracking courses taken and passed is much simpler than tracking student learning! Tracking what all your students have learned (and evidence of that mastery!) for all those learning targets is no trivial endeavor! With students working at different paces and awarding students “credit” based on what they demonstrate they know and can do (rather than by seat time or courses they have completed), educators need an efficient way to monitor and record student progress.

Schools that have been focused on personalized, standards-based, competency-based learning for a decade or longer started with paper-based systems of keeping track of student learning.

The Chugach School District in Alaska, won the Baldridge Award for their continuous improvement and Total Quality Management approach to improving learning in their district. They accomplished this by becoming a standards-based, rather than course-based system. At one point, they used (among other paper-based tools) a Student Assessment Binder (SAB), a tool the student and teacher used to monitor progress, store past assessments, and keep sample work. These were maintained on a weekly basis and were never out of the student's sight. I remember seeing pictures of students carrying around a 5″ binder as their evidence of learning!

The Minnesota New Country School is a public charter school where students earn credit by designing and implementing (with teacher support and guidance) standards-based projects. MNCS was recognized by the US Department of Education in 2006 for their work with parents and the community, and success with students who, in other contexts, tend to fall through the cracks. A 2003 profile of the school included links to some of the forms they used at the time (sorry, some of the links are no longer active), and a video of the work at the school included glimpses of those project proposal and learning tracking forms.

But online tools have made tracking student learning much easier. (I cannot imagine doing this work without a computer-based management system!!) The Chugach schools changed to an online system in 2002. The Minnesota New Country School now uses Project Foundry.

Part 2 of this post will focus what kinds of functions and features educators should look for in a learning progress management system.