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Radical Overhaul, One Step at a Time

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Radical Overhaul, One Step at a Time

Learn how this Pennsylvania district is ushering in personalized learning for each and every student. By Michael Snell

In their book Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning, Charles Schwahn and Beatrice McGarvey argue that creating a customized learning model for every learner is possible right now. By establishing higher expectations for students, shifting the roles of educators, and utilizing modern technologies, you can build a custom-fit school model that is effective and efficient, the authors argue.

Others take this a step further. Will Richardson contends in his book Why School? that we need to think deeply about the value of school now that opportunities for learning are exploding all around us. With the ubiquity of information, schools must fundamentally change to rethink how students are taught and address the new skills students need to succeed in the digital age.

At Central York School District in Pennsylvania, we use these concepts as the foundation and inspiration for providing our students with educational options tailored to their needs. Our vision—one in which students are empowered with voice and choice in their education—drives all of our decision-making. We provide a variety of instructional approaches, from classroom settings to blended learning to online courses. But the learning goals ultimately drive the instructional approach used for each student.

How does this work in reality? If a third-grade student needs fourth-grade math, fifth-grade reading, and second-grade science, they can receive those lessons through online or traditional methods, while remaining with their peers in third grade. Students move through the curriculum at their own pace rather than waiting for the next school year or being “left behind” in the traditional model.

Successfully transitioning from traditional schooling to an innovative approach requires a cultural transformation. We are encouraging our district’s leaders, teachers, parents, and students to overturn long-held beliefs about what school “should” look like and embrace a vision for a customized school that meets each of our learners at his or her readiness level.

Our journey to mass customized learning is far from over, but we have taken several steps—inspired by other educators or the authors referenced earlier in this article—that have brought us closer to realizing our vision. They include the following.

Establish a clear vision. It is critical that your stakeholders understand and can articulate your district’s vision for customization. Within our district, we engaged our staff, school board, and community members in book reads so that we could develop a shared understanding of the concepts behind mass customized learning. This helped us develop a common language for discussing changes ahead, and enabled us to craft a shared vision our stakeholders at all levels could articulate.

Reinvent the teacher’s role. We have replaced the term teacher with learning facilitator as a verbal cue that emphasizes the changing role of teachers in today’s public schools. Learning facilitators guide our students in their own learning, based on the student’s abilities and interests. The facilitator is also responsible for identifying learning needs and guiding students and parents in determining the best way to meet those needs. If an eighth grader is ready for high-school-level work, the student has the option of transitioning to high school by staying in eighth grade and pursuing advanced courses online or enrolling in a full-time virtual school. This allows the student to stay where they are socially and emotionally, while advancing intellectually. 

Invite parents to be a part of the process. We made concerted efforts to talk with parents at every opportunity—PTO meetings, eighth- and ninth-grade parent meetings, community meetings—to share the district’s vision. To get parent buy-in, we conveyed the vision in relatable terms, describing what the new model would look like and its benefits for their kids. For example, our principals spoke to parents about the college credits that would be available to their children and the opportunity for students to advance based on mastery rather than on age and grade level.

Our efforts to date have been very well-received by parents, and we continue to engage them in conversations about what mass customized learning will look like in our schools, and how it will benefit their child’s education.

Establish a practical plan. With a 42-person steering committee comprised of a cross-section of our district community, we laid out a detailed plan for curriculum, advancement, professional development, and more. However, the plan hinges on a phased approach, carefully engineering the introduction and expansion of customization across the district.

A key part of our district’s vision is to provide customized opportunities to explore interests that develop critical thinking and foster curiosity. One way we’ve applied this is to create a flex period at the end of the day for high schoolers to give them voice and choice on a daily basis. Students can decide what to do with that time, such as clubs or one-on-one time with a learning facilitator, but the district can also assign remediation if needed. We’ve started with a 33-minute flex period that we will expand next year.

Ensure a sustainable infrastructure is in place. We selected a flexible, customizable online curriculum provider to enable us to easily modify our programs based on students’ needs. Through Odysseyware, the district can offer blended learning programs, online courses, and a virtual school, as well as support our facilitators in adapting the online curriculum materials they use in their classrooms to localize lessons and address school and district learning goals.

Lead by example. All of us—administrators and learning facilitators—must show students how to learn by being learners ourselves. Our leadership team’s annual goals, including mine, shifted to include a focus on how we were taking action in support of our district-wide vision for mass customized learning. Together, we are learning new technologies and new approaches, and we are supporting one another through the process as facilitators and as learners.

Ongoing support and evolution is paramount. While a vision and a plan can be well intentioned, challenges pop up along the way that can derail the initial excitement and energy, particularly when confronting hundreds of years of traditional thinking. Districts must provide ongoing, job-embedded professional development to teachers to maintain enthusiasm, foster new ideas, and improve learning facilitation skills. We redefined our professional development approach to offer learning facilitators more voice and choice during in-service trainings, which enabled them to experience the value of customization that their learners will receive from their own classroom-based efforts.

There’s no “completion” date to this initiative. Technology has been a game-changer in transforming 120 years of the traditional education system and it will continue to evolve. We must be determined to adapt as information, technology, and the economy changes. But the need for customized learning and our dedication to ensuring every student succeeds will never change.

Michael Snell has been superintendent of Pennsylvania’s Central York School District since 2009. He blogs at www.cysdecosystem.com.

Image: Jim Craigmyle/Corbis/Media Bakery

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