Tag Archives: School Change

The (New) Evolving Face of Professional Development

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about professional development. 

We’re working on a comprehensive project to define a professional learning curriculum related to our strategic initiatives (Customized Learning, Tech for Learning, etc), build modules and professional learning playlists around those learning targets, and provide a system for certifying teachers for their accomplishments and for what they know and can do. And I have written before about how our thinking about professional development has evolved over time.

This post captures our current (Summer 2014) thinking on the topic.

Not only are we recognizing that we just don’t have enough resources and opportunities to do traditional “everyone in the same room” professional development, but we have started thinking differently about the purpose of those workshops and other whole-group PD.

Until recently, I used to think of whole-group PD as the end. Teachers attend the PD session and they would leave being proficient at the skill taught in the session, ready and able to implement it well in their classroom.

Now, I think of whole-group PD as just the beginning, an opportunity to introduce a group to a new idea and get them all “on the same page” before they begin working in their own classrooms at learning how to implement the skill well. This is especially important given that the work we’ve been doing lately around Customized Learning, including teaching with iPads, is new to teachers (they haven’t experienced this themselves as learners) and have to invent many of the pieces. 

And that idea, the idea that these new skills are complex, and need inventing and development, and later need practice, and that teachers need to be supported throughout their work to get good at them, has us thinking about workshops as just one small piece of professional development.

For us, professional development for our teachers needs to include some fluid combination of these components:

  • “Same Page” Trainings – These are introductory workshops, getting teachers on the same page about a new set of concepts, skills, or strategies they will be working to implement.
  • Lesson Invention & Tryouts – There is much to this new system that needs to be designed or invented (or at least adapted for our schools). The work teachers do to design, invent, prototype, refine, perfect, and share these systems and strategies is valuable professional learning for all of us. Embedded in this idea is the notion of continuous improvement, and the chance to try a skill in the classroom, reflect on how it went and how it could be done better, and then try it out again with the improvements (play-debrief-replay).
  • Coaching & Feedback – Keeping with the idea of continuous improvement, this includes any Technology Integrator, Instructional Coach, administrator, or peer who models lessons or strategies, co-designs or plans with the teacher, observes, and/or provides formative feedback to support the teacher’s professional growth.
  • Teacher Face-to-Face Time – Teachers need time to sit with other teachers to share experiences, ideas, and resources, as well as to ask questions and seek support. They need a chance to share things that they have tried that worked, and to seek assistance with those things they are still challenged by. And the notion of “face-to-face” can extend well beyond her school or district via the blogs and social networks the teacher builds and follows.
  • On-Demand Modules & Play Lists – Instead of having to wait for a workshop, or for the Tech Integrator or Instructional Coach to visit her classroom, these how-to articles, lessons, short courses, videos, and other digital resources are available to a teacher as she needs them.
  • Answering “But What Does It Look Like?” – Simply stated, this is models & examples: a curated collection of possible classroom visits, videos, photos, and articles, etc., to help teachers develop a sense of what an aspect of the initiative would look like in action. Teachers often have an intellectual understanding of what they are being asked to do, but not a practical understanding.  These models and examples play a critical role in helping them move to the point of being able to try this new idea in their own classroom.
Of course, now we have to figure out how to do all of these well…. 

Moving Towards Standards-Based Grading

One aspect of transitioning to Customized Learning is finding systems for tracking and monitoring student learning, as well as, ways to report learning progress, especially to parents. One piece of this is some sort of standards-based grading system.

But moving too quickly to a new system of grading (and report cards) can be problematic. For example, it takes time for parents to be ready for iconic changes like approaches to grading. They might need to see other Customized Learning changes work first (like student pacing, multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, etc.) before they believe that a new grading system is needed. In fact, we put making structural changes to school one of the last steps of transitioning to Customized Learning.

(Note: a colleague in another district believes that moving early to a new grading system forces important community dialog about the changes toward customizing learning. I think there is much to learn about doing school change work well by following the multiple approaches and how they evolve over time. I may write about how we are approaching school change, but that doesn't mean I believe it is the only effective way to do the work.)

Saving large scale change in grading practices until late in the Customized Learning implementation process that doesn't mean in the meantime teachers shouldn't find ways to move toward standards-based grading practices. There are a couple key intermediate steps that can be pursued:

  • Trying standards-based grading-like practices within the traditional system
  • Looking for models and examples of how others are doing standards-based grading practices
  • Getting feedback from the students on how it is going (to let you know when you are on track, or what course corrections need to be made)

I recently came across Frank Noschese's blog, Action-Reaction. Clearly, he is not only working on standards-based grading in his classroom (among other things), but he is sharing what he is learning via his blog. He may not know it, but he is addressing the three intermediate steps above:


Deliberate Leadership for School Change: an Overview of the Lead4Change Model

Large-scale school change often involves both complex systems (lots of different people, schools, organizations, etc.), as well as, things that teachers have never experienced themselves.

That's why schools need a model of deliberate leadership for school change. One such model is Lead4Change.

Lead4Change grew from early learnings from the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) about what strategies successful schools were using, and were often missing at schools having less success. Working with a variety of schools designed to motivate students, it became clear that the lessons generalized nicely to all kinds of school change, not just 1to1 laptop and tablet initiatives.

This 16 minute video provides an overview of the model.

My school district is applying this model to our technology initiatives, MLTI & Advantage 2014, and several districts, including mine, is using it to help shape our work around Customized Learning.


We Had It All Backwards: The Two Types of Instruction

When I told my Curriculum Director, Shelly, about my thinking about there being two types of instruction (Instruction for Lower Level Thinking and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking), she seemed to think the idea made a lot of sense to her, especially in the context of our work around Customized Learning.

She agreed that given how curriculum is organized within Customized Learning, we couldn’t continue to emphasize lower level thinking.

And we got talking about how, since all our middle and high school students had laptops, probably the low level learning, the recall and simple application, was something that students could largely do on their own (with guidance, and coaching).

And then Shelly said, you know, we’ve had it all backwards…

She told me about when she was a high school science teacher, she did a cell unit with students. She used to spend about two weeks of direct instruction to insure that students knew all the parts of a cell. Then she would turn students loose to do an analogy project, where they would write about how a cell and it’s parts were like something else (maybe a football team, or a corporation) and its parts. Students largely worked on this project on their own.

And we reflected on the irony that we (teachers) would spend so much time on something students could probably do on their own (looking up background information). And we did so little direct teaching on something that students probably needed more modeling and assistance with, the higher order thinking.

And we reflected on how teachers should really do a unit, like the cell unit, the other way around. Turn kids loose to learn about the parts of a cell, then do a bunch of instruction and scaffolding on how to make a good analogy (or what ever kind of complex reasoning we’re asking students to apply).

Other places do it that way. Carpe Diem is a 6-12 public school in Arizona that allocates its teaching resources directed at the higher order thinking more than the lower level thinking. Students use online curriculum, supervised by educational technicians, to learn the basics within a unit. Then students spend a large block of time each day, working directly with certified teachers, doing projects and other activities that require higher order thinking (nontrivial application, complex reasoning, and creating) with the content and skills from the unit. Watch this video about Carpe Diem’s approach.


What impact would it have on your students, if we turned them loose to use technology to learn the basic information in a unit, and then we spent quality time with them, both instructing students in how to do complex reasoning, and in applying complex reasoning to the content?

School is Boring

School is boring.

We all know it.

Kids know it.

Parents know it, but don’t want to think about it.

We teachers know it, too, but defend it. In some small way, I think we don’t want to think that the subject(s) we love could possibly be boring! But we do go on to say things like: It’s preparation for life after school. We all have to do things in life that we don’t want to do. Or, I wish students would start taking responsibility for their own learning. Or, it is the students’ job to learn.

My problem with putting the onus on students is that we are all quick to forget that kids are not in school by choice. They are in school by law. Ironically, it is we, the educators, who are in school by choice. In fact, we are getting paid to help kids learn. In fact, we are the only ones getting paid – if learning were the children’s job, wouldn’t they get paid, too? To me this all shifts the moral responsibility.

And we are quick to forget that kids are kids. And that being a kid when you are a kid is appropriate. It is what you are supposed to be!

And we are the adults.

And we spend WAY too much time trying every possible crazy thing so solve the problem, EXCEPT trying to engage students. It’s enough to make you tired!

I think teachers defend school being boring because we fear we will be blamed.

But I don’t blame teachers.

(Well, if you lecture through an 80 minute block, perhaps you should be blamed…)

Edwards Demming, the father of Total Quality Management, says that 95% of our problems come from structures, not people. And Roger Schank actually makes the argument that it is school being boring that is to blame for kids not learning more, not teachers! In response to Tom Friedman’s blaming teachers, Schank writes:

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won’t need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

I’m not denying that it’s hard, or that teachers get frustrated when we are trying what we think we can and not getting any further than we do. Why wouldn’t we feel like we were treading water as fast as we can?! And maybe that even makes it (a little) understandable when we blame kids for not learning.

But, the the solution to ALL this is teachers doing more to engage students.

Not be because it is our fault.

Because it is what we have control over.

And if we want teachers to engage students, then we sure better support the heck out of teachers!

And even though its true, we can’t simply say to teachers, you just have to focus on these five things: inviting schools, higher order thinking, learning by doing, real world connections, and student voice and choice.

We need to get teachers training. And into classrooms with teachers who do a good job engaging students. And we all better remove the barriers that are keeping us from creating the conditions that students find engaging (even if it means changing our curriculum, or how we schedule students, or how we group and regroup students, or how we connect with the community and the potential classrooms outside the building).

And the good news is that when kids aren’t bored, they don’t only learn more (making teachers/us look good), they behave better (making teachers/us happier!).

We need to get beyond the (irrelevant) question of who is to blame, or the (senseless) debate of whether we should or not, and just do it! Just work to engage students!

Engaging students is a win-win! It’s good for kids and it’s good for teachers. Just do it!


How will you help make school less boring?


Positive Pressure & Support Part 2: Supervision

So, you’re waist deep in your school’s initiative. Maybe it’s improving learning by taking advantage of 1to1 tablets or laptops, or through Mass Customized Learning, or with a focus on student motivation and engagement.

And you are providing teachers with training and resources. And you are working to leverage Positive Pressure and Support to drive your initiative to a high level of implementation. You’ve taken the first step and set expectations with your staff. In general, your staff are working to put those into action.

And you’re ready to move your implementation to the next level. It’s time to focus on supervision.

Most educators really do work hard at trying to do a good job in all aspects, not just for the initiative, and that means that they are busy and have lots of (sometimes contradictory) priorities they are trying to address. Knowing what school leaders are keeping an eye on can help focus their efforts. Frankly, even the best teachers are more likely to address priorities that they know are being supervised. An expectation that is simply stated is not as likely to be implemented as one that is both stated and monitored. Think of the old assessment adage, “What gets measured gets done.”

Several strategies help leaders supervise for the implementation of their initiative.

Supervise: Check With Teachers
Periodically checking in with teachers can go a long way toward increasing implementation. Check their lesson plans. Are they clearly planning to use desired strategies as often as you’d like? You don’t necessarily have to have everyone turn in their plans weekly. Random spot checks can be powerful and not a time-sink for you. You can always increase the frequency of checks with teachers who need a little extra encouragement.

Alternately, give teachers a weekly survey. In Advantage 2014, our iPads in kindergarten initiative, we used a Google form to survey the teachers each week. They simply had to select drop down choices for each item, such as how many times this week did you use iPads in literacy centers? Or how often this week did you use iPads for individual student interventions? These survey questions came directly from our expectations for the program. We also included “what have been your successes?” and “what have been your challenges?” as open response questions in the survey. This has been an added bonus, because it provides invaluable information on when a teacher might be a resource to others and where teachers need additional (and timely!) support.

Supervise: Talk About Implementation at Staff Meetings
Take a little time at every staff meeting (or grade level meeting, or department meeting, etc.) to talk about the initiative. I like to make sure there is time for teachers to share what specific things they have done and what has gone well or what has been challenging. Sometimes I’ll use information I’ve gotten from the surveys to either offer a tip that might be a quick fix to a challenge, or to ask a teacher who has had a success to take 5-10 minutes to describe what they did, or to model a lesson.

It doesn’t hurt to review the specific expectations and even have a conversation about any of them that teachers want to talk about. Of course, people are people, so such open conversations about expectations, expectations that some might be struggling with, takes good facilitation skills (e.g. have you collaboratively set norms with your staff for discussions in staff meetings?).

(Note: if you want to be a leader for school change, one of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to learn effective strategies for facilitating difficult conversations. No one really enjoys conflict or when emotions are running high, but, in the end, your colleagues will appreciate you’re working to deal with those situations is a respectful, safe way, rather than avoid them and brush them under the rug – or worse! Deal with them ineffectively to increase conflict and make emotions higher…)

It is clear that taking the time to talk about their strategies for implementing the initiative (and meeting expectations) will reinforce the expectations. And this strategy will tell the staff that this is important and we want to keep moving toward our vision.

But it is also a supervisory move. Who is sharing and who isn’t? What does what each teacher shares tell you about how they are doing with the initiative? Are they just “yes ma’am”-ing you, or are they really trying strategies (even if they aren’t being entirely successful yet)? Do their comments show depth (like they’re really trying and thinking about what they are trying), or are comments kind of superficial (like they want you to think they are trying)?

Supervise: Conduct Walk Throughs
“Walk throughs” can mean different things to different people, or in different contexts. Here, I mean frequent, brief classroom visits. It is helpful to use some short of checklist or form to collect a little data on observable instructional characteristics connected to your initiative and to your explicit expectations. So, in the context of Positive Pressure and Support, walk throughs are when you quietly drop into the room, watch, make a few marks on a form, smile at the teacher, and leave.

And I especially do not mean the classroom observations that are used for evaluation. Walk throughs work best when they are used as formative assessment (information to guide and inform your efforts to increase the level of implementation), rather than as evaluative data. Teachers will behave differently when they believe they are being evaluated, not simply observed or supported. The best walk through data (data that will help you increase the level of implementation of your initiative) comes when teachers feel safe when being observed.

In fact, if you are the one doing teacher appraisals and evaluations, you may not be the right person to do the walk throughs. If you are going to do these walk throughs, you may have to do some groundwork with your staff to help them understand the difference between this data and appraisal data, and reassure staff that this data will be used to help the school get better at the initiative, not for their evaluations. (Of course, it goes without saying that the quickest way to undermine your own initiative is to violate staff trust by using this walk through data for evaluations.)

Alternately, having teachers do walk throughs on each other can be a powerful strategy that produces added benefits. You can free staff to take a period every couple of weeks to do drop-in walk throughs of their peers. Not only do teachers often feel safer being observed by their peers, but teachers are often isolated from each other, and seeing other teachers teach can give the visiting teacher ideas for their own practice.

Observations forms should match your initiative’s goals and your expectatons. A quick google search will help you find samples, or you can create your own. For Advantage 2014, we created this walk through form for principals, connected directly to our expectations. When working with schools on using Meaningful Engaged Learning, I have used this walk through form that looks for low-impact and high-impact motivators. There is a wonderful online walk through service called iWalkThrough. It allows you to use a laptop, tablet, or smart phone to record your observable data using one of their pre-established observation forms.

Supervise: Talk About Walk Through and Level of Implementation Data
Clearly there is little “positive pressure” unless you use the data you have collected. How do you leverage that data, if you aren’t going to use it for evaluation? How can it be used to increase the level of implementation?

Start with tabulating data so that you can get a quick picture of where the staff is as a whole. One advantage of iWalkThrough is that it automatically does this for you (in fact, because everyone using iWalkThrough is using the same observation forms, you can even see how your school is doing against the agregate performance of all iWalkThrough users). Sharing this data at a staff meeting gives you the opportunity to have the staff comment on the school’s progress (including praise, and recognizing effort and progress), and even brainstorm how they might move to the next level. This is especially helpful as data is collected over time and the school can track its progress month to month, or term to term.

Tools like iWalkThrough will even allow you to use the data in interesting ways. In one staff meeting at a school I was working with, we called up the data and created a graph mapping “level of student engagement” onto “level of Blooms.” Wasn’t that telling! You can do similar kinds of investigations if you put your own data into a spreadsheet, but that’s a little more involved.

Tabulating individual teacher data will let you know where each staff member is, and provides the opportunity to have conversations with each teacher about their own progress and about setting individual goals (but I don’t recommend this unless you have been using the school data alone for a while and are starting to see progress). Having teachers examine their own level of implementation against the school’s agregate data can be a reality check. Sometimes, teachers who are struggling think everyone else is, too, and they believe they are doing just fine. But seeing that the school as a whole is ahead of them can lead them to ask what others are doing that they are not (if they feel safe and supported). Conversely, teachers who are way ahead of the school as a whole can shift from being frustrated that others aren’t further, to thinking about how they might support their colleagues.


Supervising is where you create the “positive pressure” to move your initiative to a higher level of implementation. Supervising helps provide your staff the feedback and evidence they need to continue to move toward the school’s vision. But keep in mind that it is “positive” pressure you’re looking for. Negative pressure is likely to take you in the other direction, toward a lower level of implementaiton. You need the pressure to help drive your initiative, but you need to be mindful of whether you are creating positive or negative pressure.

Other than the strategies described here, how else might you create positive pressure?


Driving Your Initiative: Positive Pressure & Support (Part 1: Expectations)

So you’re working on your school initiative, and you really believe in it, and you really want it to make a difference.

And you are trying to pay attention to leadership for school change, and have certainly provided training to your staff and have made resources available.

Unfortunately, simply participating in training and having the resources available does not mean that students will do better or that your initiative will have it’s desired impact. The degree to which teachers implement your initiative and related strategies matters. Level of implementation matters.

So, how do you get your level of implemention up?

Providing Positive Pressure and Support is how school leaders affect the level of implementation. Positive Pressure and Support is made up of three easy pieces:

  • Expect
  • Supervise
  • Support

This is the first in a series of three posts on Positive Pressure and Support, each on one of the three pieces, and this first focusing on setting expectations.

Expect – Start Simple
When MLTI, the country’s first statewide learning with laptop initiative, first got started in 2001, there were still an awful lot of teachers who had not used technology much themselves, let alone used it in the classroom with students. The goal, of course, was to impact learning, but more than a few teachers were a little intimidated by either having to teach differently (especially with a device they weren’t that familiar with), or by having every middle schooler sitting in front of them having a laptop (that the student was probably a lot more comfortable with it than they were!).

But we started seeing good progress in schools where the principal made a simple expectation: Do one unit, between now and Christmas, that involves students using the laptops.

That seemed to take the pressure off of teachers who may have assumed that since laptops were everywhere, they needed to be used all the time. In fact, many of those teachers then did their single unit (perhaps to get it out of the way) and discovered that it wasn’t so bad and started using the laptops pretty regularly.

But without the expectation, reluctant teachers may have continued to put off using all the technology in their classrooms.

Similarly, setting initial expectations for Meaningful Engaged Learning can be as simple as letting teachers know you expect to see greater implementation of the Focus Five strategies. Setting expectations for an iPad initiative can be as simple as letting staff know you’d like to see the iPads used in centers. Expectations for getting started in another initiative might be the following: participate in the offered training; increase the use of higher order thinking strategies in daily lessons and activities; do at least one engaging task with students each week; and do one project in a unit in one class before the end of the next grading period.

But setting expectations (even starting with simple ones) can help overcome the (often understandable) inertia that some teachers may feel at the start of a new initiative.

Expect – Participate Yourself
Another way to set expectations is to participate yourself. Busy leaders sometimes find it hard to take the time to attend trainings. But doing so sends the vital message that you value the training and think it’s important. Participating in the training also means that you know what you can expect your staff to be able to do in their classrooms and can better supervise and support the implementation of those strategies.

I once worked with a school where the principal would announce the professional development then leave. We had a hard time getting staff to an adequate level of implementation, I’m sure in no small part because many staff felt that if the initiative wasn’t important enough for the prinicpal’s time, why should it be important enough for theirs…

Meaningful Engaged Learning goal setting form

Expect – Have Teachers Set Goals
Teachers seem to do better with expectations when they have a voice in setting them. One way to do that is to have teachers set goals. When I have worked with schools using Meaningful Engaged Learning as their School Improvement Program, I have had teachers think about the five components of Meaningful Engaged Learning, and asked them to rate themselves on where they think they are in implementing each component (I have used this form).

I then ask them to think about where they would like to be on implementing each component at the end of some timeframe (the end of the semester, for example). When that time frame is up, we can reflect again on what progress has been made.

This approach sets the expectation that we will get better at each component, while both validating that the teacher may already be good at some of those components (is already meeting that expectation), and giving the teacher a voice in deciding how much energy to put into each component, and which they will focus on the most.

iPad expectations

Expect – Collaboratively Set Expectations
Another way to give teachers voice is to collaborate with them on setting those expectations. That’s what we did in Auburn, as we started Advantage 2014, our math and literacy initiative that includes iPads in Kindergarten. We simply had a conversation. What should our expectations be? In what kinds of activities should we expect to see the iPads used? How often?

The consensus that grew from those discussions became our expectations for the program. This included general guidelines, like apps should correlate to our curriculum, and that iPads are part of of balanced educational program that includes traditional approaches, and included minimum expectations for use, such as using iPads daily in literacy stations, or using iPads for interventions with students.

When collaboratively planning expectations related to implementing new initiatives and strategies, it should be a goal to set specific expectations on those strategies:

  • How many?
  • How often?
  • By when?
  • By whom?


These four strategies for setting expecations should help you get started with Positive Pressure and Support. How will you set expectations with your staff? What will those expectations focus on?


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.