Category Archives: Customized Learning

Customized Learning

Mexican Food Schools

I remember being in high school, and frustrated with school, and thinking, “I can do this better than it’s being done to me!”

I think that thought alone is the main reason I became a teacher.

But it is also the reason I worked on what I called “the Making Algebra Meaningful Project” (Surprisingly not an oxymoron! But it took me a long time to come to that conclusion…). And it was why I started looking at teaching and learning with technology, became a technology integrator, and later a partner in the first statewide learning with laptop initiative. And it was why I did my graduate research on motivating underachievers.

Keep in mind that when I started teaching, I didn’t really know how to teach any way other than “how it was done to me,” but it was my motivation to explore how to reach more learners.

An innovative educational program

For about five years, I had the opportunity to work with a great group that focused on creating schools designed to motivate students (well, still focuses, I just work in Auburn now). Among other projects, we helped the School District of Philadelphia write and support a Magnet School grant, and we created a successful nontraditional school that combines online curriculum with project-based learning and graduated students at a high rate. And they helped me create Projects4ME, the statewide virtual project-based program for at-risk and dropout youth in Maine, that got me connected to Auburn in the first place.

We were/are big believers in multiple pathways to graduation, and that educators will only be successful raising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates when districts offer students several different approaches to learning, so they can choose the one that works for them.

When we would talk to a superintendent about creating a school for them, we liked to say, “No one really cares if you like Chinese food and I like Mexican food and we go to different restaurants. But we tend to only have Chinese food schools and say there is something wrong with me for being a Mexican food learner.”

We were trying to make those Mexican food schools.

Now I’m in Auburn, where we’re working hard not just to make Mexican food schools for students, but Mexican food programs inside of schools, and lots of other “flavors,” as well.

What are you doing to make sure your students’ diverse tastes in how they learn well are being addressed?


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?


10 Key Components of Customized Learning

The talk in Maine schools right now, perhaps even more than Common Core, is Customized Learning. The recently established Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is made up of 27 full and associate member districts collaborating on implementing Customized Learning. And Maine’s Education Commissioner’s strategic plan, Education Evolving, is looking to clear a path through state law and policy to help any districts implement Customized Learning.

Students working on a project

But what is Customized Learning?

It really just boils down to two principles: everyone learns in different timeframes and in different ways. Customized Learning is educators being deliberate about how they organize instruction and school structures to support (and take advantage of) these two principles.

Deep down, parents and teachers know these principles well. We recognized them in our own children and in our students. And yet most schools are still organized in such a way as to try to have students learn in the same way at the same time (the power of the familiar!). You can’t help but wonder how much of our challenges with student achievement, special education and support services, student behavior, and student motivation aren’t directly linked to the number of students who have been forced to attempt to learn using someone else’s pace and style!

Customized Learning goes by a lot of different names around the country: standards-based instruction; performance-based instruction; individualized instruction. And there are good models of Customized Learning, for example: RISC (Reinventing Schools Coalition), student designed projects (such as the Minnesota New Country School and Projects4ME), the Foxfire Approach, and Integrative Curriculum.

In fact, Maine’s schools have decided to use the more generic term “Customized Learning” to indicate that we are not aligning ourselves with any one model or approach, but rather are working to identify the components of Customized Learning and explore which models and approaches have strong programs and techniques for each particular component. No one model does all the components well, and Maine can learn from all the good models.

I have grown to think that there are 10 key components to Customized Learning:

1) Shared Vision
It has been said that you can have the best sailboat, the best crew, the best navigational equipment, and the best weather, but if you aren’t in agreement about where you’re sailing, you’re going to have a horrible trip (and probably not arrive anywhere you wanted to be!). Schools that work collaboratively with their staff, students, parents, and community members to come to agreement on their vision for the school/district, are able to more productively make the changes and implement the initiatives they think will improve their schools.

2) Burning Platform
Why should the school and community change? What’s your most compelling reason? Is it some local community need? Is it that, looking at test scores, your schools are working for too few students? Is it the changing economy? This is your burning platform; that driving reason for change that educators and community can rally around.

3) Climate of Student Voice and Choice
Having students learn at their own pace, and in their preferred way has never been about simply letting students do what ever they want. Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers. But that coaching and guidance does require a climate where students are used to sharing their ideas, thoughts, and questions, and where they are getting better at making some of their own decisions. Customized learning doesn’t work well with passive students who just wait to be told what to do next. In fact, moving a school toward customized learning also requires that the staff start to feel that they, too, work and live in a climate where they have voice and choice.

4) Instruction for Low Order Thinking
Regardless of which taxonomy you use (Bloom’s, New Bloom’s, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Marzano’s New Taxonomy), low order thinking center’s on a student’s ability to recall or remember. This is the kind of teaching most of our teachers are pretty proficient at. What are the best techniques to not just help students acquire new knowledge but also to insure that it can be remembered/recalled later?

5) Instruction for Higher Order Thinking
Higher Order Thinking focuses on a student’s ability to use knowledge and think critically. Historically, we haven’t seen much of this in our classrooms. And when we have, often we have asked students to apply these skills without doing much teaching or scaffolding on how to do these skills well. What are the best techniques both for helping students develop these higher order thinking skills and learning to apply them to content knowledge?

6) Curriculum Content and Organization
If students are to learn more closely to their own pace, and have choices about how they learn material, there needs to be great clarity about what the curriculum is. Within each discipline, standards and measurement topics must be identified. These standards need to be the concepts and skills that we will guarantee that every student learns (Our lists of curriculum will become shorter. We will give up some favorite units and lessons, but we are simply identifying that which everyone will learn. Many will learn much more.) Measurement topics need to be scaffolded and a progression identified. And all this must be organized, documented, and published in a practical way so that both educators and students can access, understand, and make use of the curriculum.

7) Formative Feedback
One of the most powerful forms of instruction a teacher can leverage is providing students feedback on their work as they are working. This formative feedback is critical to Customized Learning. What are effective strategies for providing formative feedback?

8) Learning Progress Management
With students working at different paces and awarding students “credit” based on what they can demonstrate they know and can do (rather than by seat time or courses they have completed), educators need a good way to monitor and record student progress. Further, there is a coaching element to Learning Progress Management. What is the role of individualized learning plans? How do you help use progress data to keep students moving through the measurement topics? How do you encourage and support (as well as cajole and lovingly nag) students to keep workng? Technology has made this aspect of Customized Learning much more practical and doable.

9) Multiple Pathways
Do students have access to different ways to learn material? Can some take traditional classes, while others do online courses, or design a project, or do an internship? This is multiple pathways. Many schools have a few pathways already in place, but they tend to be “all or nothing” pathways, defining the entire program for a student (the regular high school, the vocational technical center programs, an alternative school). In the context of Customized Learning, students have access to multiple pathways for each course/topic/subject area.

10) School Structures
Once a school starts implementing Customized Learning, they realize that they need to think about updating some of their long-standing structures and infrastructure. How will you group (and re-group) students? What about schedules and assigning students to class? How long will courses (or maybe seminars) last and how will they be organized? What about grades and reporting to parents? Customized learning will (eventually) drive you to change your structures.


Of course, Customized Learning probably can’t be achieved in a school or district without also exploring leadership for school change, the role technology might play, or how to create the conditions that students find motivating

Learn more about Customized Learning at the McMEL Customized Learning Page.


MLTI, Kindergarten iPads, & Customized Learning: a Keynote with Gov. King & Commissioner Bowen


Governor Angus King, who started the country’s first statewide 1to1 learning with laptop initiative, on stage with Commissioner Steve Bowen, whose strategic plan for education moves Maine away from Carnegie Units and toward Customized Learning, answering questions posed by kindergarten students who are participating in the country’s first 1to1 learning with iPads in kindergarten program.

What would they say about meeting the needs of all students?

What would they say about the role technology could play?

What would they say their favorite color was?

That was the opening keynote, “Learning – Past, Present, and Future,” at the 2011 Leveraging Learning – iPads in Primary Grades Institute in Auburn, ME.

If you missed the institute, you can still watch the keynote (link to YouTube).

Hope folks can join us for the 2012 Leveraging Learning Institute next November. Registration opens in mid-August.


Correct Answers vs. Building Understanding: What Do Learners Need?

My step-son, Sam, is one of those otherwise bright students who struggles with math. Back when he was in high school, his mom asked me to help him. He had gotten a question wrong on a Geometry quiz and didn’t understand the correct answer. My wife hoped that since I was a former high school math teacher that I could help him out.

The question was, “What is the intersection of two planes?”

He told me that he had answered that the intersection was a point, since only lines intersect. Sam went on, “I went in to ask my teacher about the question, but she just kept giving me the right answer. I really don’t understand it at all.”

“So, you’ve only talked about lines intersecting?”

Sam nodded.

“And you haven’t really talked at all about planes and how they intersect?”

Sam shook his head.

“Then I could see why you thought it was a point,” I told him. “But look at this.” His notebook was on the kitchen counter where we were talking and I said, “Let’s say this is one of the planes,” while tapping his notebook. I grabbed a magazine, saying it was the other plane. I held the spine of the magazine at an angle against the face of Sam’s notebook.

“How do these two planes come together? What kind of geometric shape?” I asked.

Sam got one of those “Oh, my gosh! Is it that simple?!” looks on his face and said it was a line.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the teacher asking the plane intersection question without first modeling it for students. It is a great way to have students apply the concept of intersection of geometric shapes and see if they really understand it. And the teacher was a kind and knowledgeable math teacher.

But students who struggle with a subject need more than just someone who is sensitive and kind and knowledgeable. Sam needed more than the correct answer. I think teachers who are intuitive mathematicians (or social scientists, or literacy specialists, or scientists) know their subjects in an intuitive way that makes it hard for them to explain ideas to students who do not understand their subject intuitively.

When students get an incorrect answer, it is too easy for teachers who understands their content intuitively to assume that the student simply made a mistake (perhaps in calculating), or didn’t study hard enough, or is simply a slow student in their subject.

What they don’t understand is that more often than not, a student’s wrong answer is actually a correct answer within the student’s current (but incorrect) schema for the topic – the student’s internal model that tells him how things work.

If the teacher’s goal is to have the student understand the material correctly, then simply offering the correct answer is less productive than trying to understand the student’s misconception and then think of an example or a way to model the material that will create a bridge between the student’s misunderstanding and the correct understanding.

Sam’s schema said only lines intersect and he knew that lines intersect in a point. We could either stop with proving that Sam was wrong by giving him the correct answer, or we could work to understand his thinking so we could lead him in the right direction.

I don’t blame the teacher. She simply did what I did when I was a math teacher. It wasn’t until long after I stopped teaching math and became of student of learning that I grew to understand this principle.

How much more effective would our teaching be if we approached our students’ incorrect answers as misconceptions rather than missing information?


Are Parents Leaving Their Good Kids at Home? Easy to Teach and Hard to Teach

I’ve worked with teachers, who refer to their students as “quick learners” and “slow learners,” or “bright students” and “dumb students.” Other teachers approach me sounding as if they believe that kids either have motivation or they don’t, and that teachers can’t do anything about that. And some teachers act as if parents are keeping their good kids at home!

But this isn’t the right way to think about our underachieving students. It certainly isn’t borne out by research. In Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith (1986, p. 18) explains:

We underrate our brains and our intelligence. Formal education has become such a complicated, self-conscious and over-regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult that the brain would rather not do…. But reluctance to learn cannot be attributed to the brain. Learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done. We’re all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.

And these students are certainly intelligent (in fact, sometimes you wish they weren’t so darned clever!).

It is important to remember that when we say a student won’t learn, what we really mean is that he won’t learn what we want him to!

All students learn well when they are learning what they are interested in or see as valuable – even if that only seems to happen outside of school. The challenge, of course, is motivating students to learn the content that we see as important and valuable to them – or perhaps it is more accurate to say the challenge is to create the conditions so students will be self motivated to learn what we want them to…

So, I’ve moved away from thinking of students as quick or slow, or bright or dumb, but rather as “easy to teach” and “hard to teach.” Not only do I feel that these terms are more accurate, but they aren’t disrespectful to our underachievers, who bristle at being called slow or dumb. Students I’ve spoken with don’t mind the labels easy to teach and hard to teach. They know how they are in the classroom.

But there is no doubt that some students learn almost regardless of what we do (of course! – by definition, they are easy to teach!), and other students challenge us, no matter what we try. But maybe we’ll get current with helping all students achieve if we have more productive terminology for referring to our students.



Smith, F. (1986). Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. Heinemann.

18 Reasons We Need More Psychology (And Less Logic) In Our Education Thinking

Few systems are as complex as education.

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately, I’m in the school change business, especially as it relates to creating schools that work for all children. Over the last years, my work has focused on designing schools that work for all students, programs for hard to teach students, and on technology-rich learning environments, especially 1to1 learning with laptop and ipad initiatives (these all usually overlap considerably when each is done well). And I especially wonder how it is that competent educators (good people) make decisions and policies that seem to not work very well.

From my perspective, a decision or policy works if it supports the working of the system. You can tell if it doesn’t work if the system is still upset or in some level of tourmoil.

I’m not sure I can explain this like I want to, but I guess I should say here that when I say “system,” I don’t mean the “education system” or “school system” (the policies that govern a district, school, classroom or other jurisdiction), but rather the system of learning. By my definition, if kids generally do their work, follow the rules, learn, and are engaged, then the system “works.” If kids are breaking rules, not learning, refusing to do their work, then the system doesn’t work. If a school has a high breakage rate on devices or they go missing, the the system isn’t working. When breakage and missing rates are negligible, then the system works.

So why do seemingly good policies not work?

I’ve come to the conclusion that problem lies with logic.

Good people use logic to make decisions. But education is a complex system based on people, not things. Therefore, we need to use psychology, not logic. By definition, logic makes sense in systems that focus on things or stuff. But it is psychology that makes sense in people systems.

So, from two decades of working with schools, including my own, around customized learning, or student motivation, or technology-rich learning environments, or leadership for school change (or, more often, all of these combined!), I’ve started to discern some of the “Logic vs. Psychology” problems schools have. In each case, the “logical” solution is certainly logical, but seems to have perpetuated (or even exasperated) the kinds of disruption or disequilibrium that the solution was trying to solve (it “didn’t work”), whereas the “psychological” solution seems to have had the desired effect.

So here are 18 reasons we should use more psychology and less logic:

  1. Logic says 1to1 is a technology initiative. Psychology says it is a learning initiative.
  2. Logic says students should learn (it is for their own good). Psychology says we must ask ourselves why students would want to learn.
  3. Logic says do workshops on how to use the various software on the laptops. Psychology says do workshops on how the software can be used to help students learn academic content.
  4. Logic says that a teacher must cover content. Psychology says that a teacher must connect with students personally.
  5. Logic says schools should ban disruptive technology (cell phones, mp3 players, blogs, chat, social networks, etc.). Psychology says if a tool is part of the child’s culture, then we should find academic uses for it.
  6. Logic says filter the Internet heavily. Psychology says filter some, but mostly educate students.
  7. Logic says use technology to do what teachers have always done, but more effectively. Psychology says use technology in new ways to engage students and help them learn.
  8. Logic says supplying the tools is enough. Psychology says apply some positive pressure and support to get teachers to use the technology effectively for academic purposes.
  9. Logic says breakage and theft is about the technology and the kids. Psychology says breakage and theft is about how the technology is being used for academics and the leadership around the technology initiative.
  10. Logic says tech folks need to protect the stuff. Psychology says tech folks need to enable engagement and the learning.
  11. Logic says a school is doing well if the easy to teach students are doing well. Psychology says that a school is doing well if the hard to teach students are doing well.
  12. Logic says give students information. Psychology says help students make meaning of information.
  13. Logic asks, did the teacher cover the material? Psychology asks, did the students learn it?
  14. Logic says that technology is a separate line item. Psychology says that all the expenses related to technology are integrated throughout the budget (infrastructure, instruction, staff, etc.).
  15. Logic asks, how smart are you? Psychology asks, how are you smart?
  16. Logic says teachers should speak to students with authority. Psychology says teachers should speak to students as people.
  17. Logic says a teacher can select which teaching styles they choose to employ. Psychology says that there are high-impact and low-impact pedagogies, and teachers should choose wisely.
  18. Logic says pass out laptops to teachers as soon as the school gets them. Psychology says pass out the laptops at an inservice where school leaders can set the tone on how they will be used in the classroom.

Let’s try to use a little less logic and a little more psychology.


Some Students Need More Than Direct Instruction

Direct instruction

An old friend provided me with a wonderful opportunity. She’s the Middle Level Director for a city in the South. I’ve been doing workshops for her schools and teachers for about 14 years. A couple summers ago, I worked with the teachers at two schools that have high populations of at-risk and hard to teach students. I introduced the teachers to several strategies for reaching these students. The following winter, I returned to the district and got to spend a day at each of the schools. I was able to conduct classroom observations and focus groups at the schools.

Surprisingly (at least it was an “aha” for me!), I didn’t see out of control classrooms or bad teaching. What I did see was order and a lot of competent (and in some cases outstanding) direct instruction.

Even so, I often only saw about half of each class “engaged” (showing signs of being on task) and, in conversations and focus groups, teachers indicated that many students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home.

One teacher called this “lazy disease.”

But maybe it wasn’t just laziness or home support. Maybe, for some kids, how we teach doesn’t work for them. Any parent with more than one child knows that they learn in different ways. Why do we expect our students to all learn the same way?

This helped me realize that some students need more than direct instruction.

The teachers also unknowingly provided me with the answer to the question, “When do you know that you need to do more than direct instruction?” The answer: “When the students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home. When they have hard to teach students.” Simple, right?

I think that maybe direct instruction isn’t enough for these students because it focuses more on the content than on how students might learn it. We are often quick to get frustrated with hard to teach students exactly because we covered the material and they didn’t learn it.

And yet shipping companies, such as UPS, would never think to say that they “delivered” a package if a customer did not receive it. It might be accurate to say they left the package on the porch, but it isn’t “delivered” until the resident actually gets the package. Dewey puts it a little differently:

Teaching may be compared to selling commodities. No one can sell unless someone buys. We should ridicule a merchant who said that he had sold a great many goods although no one had bought any. But perhaps there are teachers who think they have done a good day’s teaching irrespective of what people have learned. There is the same exact equation between teaching and learning that there is between selling and buying. (Dewey, 1933, p. 35-36)

Underserved populations, including underachieving students from all learning styles, career aspirations, cultures, and socioeconomic levels deserve a quality education.

It is not surprising that improved instruction, which involves students in meaningful, engaged learning, is viewed as a remedy to the growing concern over the high social and economic cost of large numbers of disengaged and at-risk youth. Identifying practices which help these diverse populations learn well is a step toward creating an educational system intent on serving all students. Finding out what motivates our underachieving and hard to teach students will help inform and equip teachers in the struggle to lead all students to academic achievement.



Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Chicago: Henry Regnery.



Customized Learning in Auburn and Across Maine

Are you interested in knowing more about customized learning?

There is some great information from an unexpected source: the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) Principals Webinar series. Right now, this webinar series is focusing on Bea McGarvey’s and Chuck Schwahn’s book Inevitable.

On February 28, Mt. Ararat Middle School principal, Bill Zima, and I were featured on the webinar to highlight what our schools/districts are doing around customized learning.

In the webinar, I discussed how Auburn is approaching customized learning across the grade levels: Advantage 2014, the iPads for literacy and math initiative in the primary grades; Expeditionary Learning and project-based learning at Auburn Middle School; and RISC, Multiple Pathways, and Projects4ME at Edward Little High School. Additionally, I talk about the four pillars we’re using to organize out work.

Watch the Webinar here. (Sorry, iPad users – this is a Flash-based stream. You”ll have to pull out your laptop for this one.) You can explore the entire archive of MLTI webinars here.


Will the iPad Save Schools? – The 4 Pillars of The Schools We Need

Student using an iPad

I’ve been interviewed a couple times over the last few weeks, mostly about our iPad research results.

One journalist asked me if I now thought that the iPad would be the secret to helping more students succeed in school.

I don’t think it is any secret that I am a big iPad fan, both personally and professionally. But I don’t think any piece of technology, by itself, will be responsible for creating the kinds of schools we need, if we are really going to develop the talent of every child. Technology can and should be a critical piece of that, and the iPad is a wonderful piece of technology for learning. But my experience working with schools that are striving to be successful with all students is that there are several key components to consider.

I told the journalist that I thought there were four pillars to the formula for successful schools.

Pillar 1: Customized Learning
Customized learning are the structures and practices that are built around two principles: people learn in different ways and in different timeframes. It might be called individualized/personalized learning, standards-based learning, or performance-based learning, and includes approaches such as RISC or Mass Customized Learning.

Pillar 2: Motivation
Motivation could be thought of as the conditions educators put into place that make it easier for learns to be self-motivated. These include strategies such as creating real world connections to the learning, providing students with voice and choice, insuring that our schools and classrooms are inviting places for students, emphasizing activities that focus on upper level Blooms and involve learning by doing.

Pillar 3: Technology for Learning
Computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones are the world’s modern tools for work, but they also have the potentinal to be our modern learning tools. But technology has to be looked at, not through the lens of the stuff, but rather through the lens of leveraging the stuff for learning. We need to look at how we use technology for various kinds of learning, as well as our leadership and policies around technology, and how we manage it.

Pillar 4: Leadership for School Change
Large-scale school change has a lot of moving parts that school leaders need to pay attention to and nurture if they wish the transition to be successful. How do we keep “the main thing the main thing”? What are the critical components and what are the supporting components that are still necessary to pay attention to? This is what is at the core of leadership for school change.


You won’t spend too much time thinking about each individual pillar before you realize that they overlap enormously and you can’t really think about one without thinking about aspects of the others. And you’ll realize that some pillars share components (or very similar components). In order to be successful, however, schools need to work on attending to all of four pillars simultaneously, so the fact that there is overlap is not a problem.

What I Did About It

That journalist interview and that question provided me with an aha! moment. Those of you who know me, know that I’ve been working on motivation, leadership, technology and other issues lated to student learning for a long time. But it was that conversation that helped me pull together and synthesize things that had been running around the back of my head.

So I just made a bunch of changes to both my website and my blog leveraging this new aha.

I spent the weekend rebuilding the McMEL (Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning) website so that it was organized around these four pillars. There is also a Projects & Programs menu with links to various exemplars of the kinds of educational programs we need and projects that are a direct result of the kinds of thinking that went into McMEL.

I also went through this blog, reorganizing the categories. There are now categories, not just for each of these four pillars but for each major component of each pillar. I also went through all the old posts and made sure that they were linked to the appropriate categories.

And I have made sure that each page on the McMEL site has links to the appropriate blog posts (at least by category) so that the blog can help populate the information at McMEL.

This might be a rather complicated way of simply saying that I want to help insure that educators have access to good information on these topics both from the McMEL site and the Multiple Pathways blog, and to make it easier as they are looking for guidance on their own initiatives.

iPad may be one of my favorite tools in the Technology for Learning category, but I think it is only one component of the answer to the question, what will help schools be more successful with students. For me, the answer is Meaningful Engaged Learning, including not only Technology for Learning, but Customized Learning, Motivation, and Leadership.