It’s not Just About Multiple Pathways

In a discussion about personalized learning recently, a colleague (who is a high school principal) said, “personalized learning is not just about multiple pathways”. And she’s right!

However, offering multiple pathways to demonstrate proficiency is one critical feature of a personalized learning environment. As student populations shrink in many areas, the prospect of losing students to college courses or internships has some administrators concerned about how multiple pathways might lead to the need to cut valued faculty positions. Here are some thoughts on this:

  • Offering multiple pathways is a student centered decision and (at least in Vermont) the law since the enactment of Act 77 in June of 2013. We know allowing students different learning environments can help prepare them for both college and the workplace. We also know that when offering choice, students are more invested. It is much easier for Bobby to say, “Senior math sucks!” when he feels he’s forced to take it. When he makes a choice to take a course, he is less likely to berate the experience as something forced on him. In fact, if he’s using trigonometry for construction or science for a lab internship at a hospital, he is going to be much more interested because it will be more relevant.
  • Disenchanted students are more likely to stay in school if they know they can look forward to learning in a different way in their junior and senior years. If a student dislikes school within the four walls, attending for four years can seem like an eternity to adolescent. But with the promise of taking courses at the tech center, at a college, online, or as an internship, the four-year drudgery becomes two years with a big incentive when you arrive at junior year. Personally, I have had advisees that were convinced they were only going to stay in school until they were sixteen, but they stayed in school and graduated because they were able to try learning in a different way.
  • Participating in multiple pathways may or may not mean you are taking fewer courses at your host high school. I’ve had students that wanted to stay in Advanced Spanish, Bio-Chem, Calculus II, Honors English and electives. But they also chose to take physiology online or a world geography course through virtual high school so they could maintain their “senior experience” while also preparing for their goal of pre-med or attending a competitive college.
  • Offering multiple pathways alone isn’t personalized learning. If you are just offering random “other opportunities to learn”, you are missing the point of a personalized learning environment. This is not just about choice, but also about a student looking at what their future goals are, and thinking about how they do their best learning, and developing a path for them that will maximize their potential. This kind of reflection, goal setting, guidance and proficiency-based learning does not just happen because you allow students to take college courses or participate in internships.

So true, if your school’s vision for personalized learning stops with multiple pathways, there is little fidelity in delivering a truly personalized learning experience. However, if you combine multiple pathways with a clear articulation of graduate expectations, a personalized learning plan that focuses on goal setting, reflection and long-term planning (that is created with fidelity between the student, parent and advisor) and you allow students to learn and demonstrate their learning in ways that best meet their needs, then yes, you will have a personalized learning environment.


5 Reasons We Are Afraid of PLPs (but Shouldn’t Be)

personalized 2The cornerstone of personalized learning is developing (and following) a Personal Learning Plan (PLP). These are not the Individual Educational Plans (IEP) that are federally mandated in special education law. These are documents that students create during their middle and high school years to develop and follow their educational and personal progress. The Personal Learning Plan is crafted between students, their advisors and their parents or guardians, and it is aligned with the school’s graduate expectations. But a personalized plan also allows students to have a voice in their education by articulating their learning styles and preferences, setting academic and personal goals that reflect their needs, and reflecting on their learning. The plan also archives student work and progress, which allows them to discuss their learning in authentic student-led conferences.

So why are we so afraid of them?

  1. Perception of extra workload. Many teachers and advisors feel that adding a PLP is one more thing to add to an educational plate that is already brimming for both students and teachers. Approaching the PLP as one more thing to do as opposed to being at the heart of everything we do is what creates the perception of added work. When you view the PLP at the heart of a student’s education, you begin to peel off the unnecessary elements of education. When you have already established a relationship between the student and their families around personalized learning goals, conversations about progress grow naturally from an organic process. Having 10-14 student-led conferences with advisees is actually less work than having 40 formulaic traditional parent conferences. Most students are already setting goals for their education, but since goal setting happens in individual disciplines they are often disassociated from overall learning goals.
  2. Perception that students will opt out of courses. Having a personalized learning plan does not mean that a student can “opt out” of math. It means they need to demonstrate all the content standards, but may not do it in the same way as every other student. This does not mean that each teacher must teach math in a different way, but if a student can meet the standard by taking a long distance learning course, or by interning at a local business, then they should have the opportunity to create a plan that allows them to do so. Think about learning to knit. Some people take formalized classes, some read an illustrated book, some watch internet videos and some use the old trial and error method. As longs as a hat is well made and fits, does it matter how the knitter figured it out? Students need to meet the content standards that your school has articulated for graduation, but how they meet those standards may look differently for all students.
  3. Perception that PLPs are superfluous. This is not another fad that will wash away. Having a personal plan is at the heart of success for adults making progress in their lives. We should have been doing this all along. In Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens (1998), he advocates that teens “begin with an end in mind” by developing goals and a mission. I reiterate what I said in bullet #1: Developing a plan should be at the heart of what we do. It is not superfluous and is not going to go away.
  4. Perception that taking time for reflection takes away from learning content. Yes, that is true, however taking time to reflect and become a cognitive learner allows students to become independent and life long learners. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire reminds us that “Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed — even in part — the other immediately suffers . . .” Without reflection, learning is merely a series of unconnected actions. However when students reflect on their learning, it propels them toward future learning.
  5. Perception that documenting success is too time consuming. Documenting success in the form of a portfolio does take time, but it is time well spent. I have been using portfolios in my classes since the early nineties. Students do often lament the time they spend organizing and editing work so that it is presentation ready. However, when their work is ready for presentation almost all students are proud of their work and feel the skills they learned in organizing and reflecting on their work was time well spent…and overwhelmingly their parents do to.

As we move toward implementing comprehensive personalized learning plans supported by student-led conferences, there will be angst and there will no doubt be push back. PLPs represent doing things differently and change can be anxiety producing. But if we are truly preparing our students for an effective and productive life, as opposed to producing students that are “caught up in the busy-ness of life” (Covey, 1989) we need to embrace personal learning plans as the heart of what we do as educators.

Beth Brodie


Things Every Teacher Should Document


My dad gave me loads of advice when I was growing up, but maybe the most useful was “document it”. (I sort of wish he had advised me to invest in Apple, but this might be just as valuable.) As an educator this advice has been exceptionally useful. Here are five things I really recommend educators document:

Parent Contact

Any time you have a conversation with a parent be sure to document it. Using email is effective because it is an automatic archive of a conversation, but there are many times when email is not appropriate or the parent has indicated they prefer a non- electronic notification method. Either way, be sure to document the context and content of the contact. It isn’t necessary to write the conversation verbatim, but be sure to write down the time, date and duration of the conversation, with whom you spoke and the gist of the context and content. For example:

March 12, 2013, Mr. Adams (12 minutes) Discussed his son’s lack of success on the most recent quiz on school vocab and how he might improve. I suggested the class quizlet. He agreed. Will check back with Mr. Adams in two weeks.

If you can, send them a summary of the discussion. I can’t stress how critical having this kind of documentation is when Mrs. Adams calls up the principal later on to find out why her son currently isn’t passing. Any seasoned educator will agree that whether it is for encouragement or to suggest strategies for improvement, having the documentation about the call is well worth the time.

Discussions with Your Administration or Other Colleagues

Most discussions with either colleagues or your administration are friendly and collegial, but it never hurts to take notes. I’m not suggesting that every time you pass by a colleague in the hallway you jot down a note, but if you meet to discuss curriculum, student matters or anything to do with your performance, I suggest jotting a quick note in a log either while you are meeting or shortly thereafter. If there is even a chance the content of your meeting might be contentious, I highly recommend having a union representative with you. Still, be sure to take notes, and send a quick follow-up email to the colleague or administrator summarizing the meeting. I’m always willing to take notes at meetings because it is how I process and it beats having to rely on my middle-aged memory. The reality is when you need the documentation most might be when you are emotionally invested in a conversation and having that feedback loop will clarify both party’s perspectives.

Student Work

We all keep grade books (either electronic or the old school paper kind) and educators try to maintain them as current as time allows. But what happens when 7th graade Sally Pierce passes in her quiz on the three branches of government and, although you graded it, the phone rang and you never logged it before passing it back….Oooops. Teachers often log over a hundred grades a day. It’s not surprising that some might get accidentally “not logged” or logged under Bobby Paulson’s name, the next guy down on the list…who, BTW, didn’t turn in his quiz. This is a great opportunity to teach students about documentation. I always insist that students hold onto work that is passed back either until the end of the quarter once they have seen their report cards, or until they see the electronically logged grade. This year, since my students will all use electronic portfolios, I will ask them to take a picture of their hard copy quizzes and tests when they get them back, so they can add them as evidence when reflecting on their learning. That way, if their grade doesn’t seem to reflect their success in class, they will have evidence they need to demonstrate their success. Phew! Grade changed, tears and anger averted, and I wear just a bit of egg on my face. I’m okay with that.

Your “WOW” Moments

Whether you are looking to become certified for the first time, re-certify, become nationally certified, are applying for a new job or just want to share your expertise with others, having examples of your “wow” moments is very useful. These are the moments when you really see evidence of student learning and student connection. Most all of us now have our plans and our activities online, so it’s not a stretch to keep our wow moments at our finger tips, but make sure you keep student work and student feedback to support those wow moments. This is especially important if you need to put together any kind of portfolio. It is not enough to say you have evidence of your expertise because you created a unit on great American writers if there’s no student evidence of learning. You must show evaluated student work to really demonstrate your ability to create and evaluate student proficiency. When a pre-service teacher passes in a portfolio piece that doesn’t have student evidence, I send it right back to them. Gather evidence from your wow moments, reflect on why they were wow moments and file that evidence somewhere. But be sure to include the final form of documentation…

Parental Signatures

Any time you request a parental signature… for a field trip, in order to use student work, to share a picture, or even to respond they have read a report or letter, document it. Document when the request for parent signature went out, document if the signature came back in and keep either a hard copy or electronic copy of the signature until you are certain you will never need it. There have been innumerable times when having the signature of a parent on a mdi-term report has made the end of the term much more reasonable. With the Google Drive App it is now simple to take a picture of the parent signature right on the document and store it into a particular file such as “parent letters 2015”. Once we get to September of 2016, I’ll delete the 2015 file…it’s just that easy.

I do not make these recommendations just because we live in a litigious society (which we do), but they are really meant to make your life easier. Email does document most things automatically for us, so if you can hold onto emails, that’s the easiest way to document your life as an educator. But if email isn’t an option, be sure to document the phone calls, meetings, student work and parental signatures and you will sleep better at night.

How Did You Learn Best?


Think about when you learned the best. Was it in a class? Was it measured by a test? Or was it when you learned something on your own, or you created something for your classmates, school or family? I know I learned to read because I loved horses and read a myriad of books about horses. I learned about anatomy, (what’s a fetlock?), and I learned a different number base system by measuring things in hands, not feet. I learned about history (Justin Morgan Had a Horse) and about geography. I have never forgotten where Chincoteague is…

The point is I learned this well and deeply as a fourth and fifth grader because I was passionate about learning. Personalized learning doesn’t mean not learning things, but rather, it’s about learning things in a context that is important to you. One of the greatest fears about personalized learning is that kids will “opt out” of math or learning a second language. It is important for us as educators to frame our standards so that they are applicable across a wide range of uses making them truly applicable to our students’ future lives. It is our nature as humans to want to learn, let’s not stifle learning by trying to dictate our students’ passions. How did you learn best? Leave a comment!


Person is at the core of Personalization

untitledAt the heart of personalization is the “person”. John Clarke will be the first to tell you that the reason Pathways works well down at Mount Abe is because they start with the student advisor relationship. In that relationship there is trust, encouragement and a deep understanding of what the student’s goals are. In a high school model such as with the Big Picture Schools, Pathways or the Coalition model, at the heart of the model is the relationship between the teacher, student, parent and community. “Knowing a student well” is often cited as a cornerstone for developing student voice, choice and ultimate success.

So the question our institutions need to consider is how do we “know our students well”? Ted Sizer repeatedly notes that knowing students well, a core tenet of the Coalition Schools, revolves around teachers having no more than a student load of 80. Elementary schools are often the most successful at  this model because it is somewhat built into  the contained classroom model. With a contained classroom, elementary teachers often are responsible for a group of 20-25 students. In some cases they loop two consecutive years so they may know those students quite well at the end of 2 years.  Middle school has teaming, but depending on the configuration of the teams that can mean a load of anywhere between 25 and 95 students for either anywhere from one to four years. High school content teachers and unified arts teachers (AKA specials, exploratories etc.) can have a student load of anywhere from 80 to 150 students or more. So how do we personalize given these numbers?

Some high schools are beginning to return to a personalized model where graduate expectations and content area standards are part of a personalized learning plan that may or may not involve a traditional classroom settings. These plans are developed (almost exclusively) between the student, their teacher advisor and their parent(s) or guardian(s). Teacher advisors generally advise between 10 and 14 students. This allows them to know those students well. Clearly the number of students a teacher has can highly impact their ability to know students well. When considering personalizing education on a macro level of experience, structures must first be designed so that someone in the building really does know the student well. It is unlikely that a faculty member will know 140 students well by December, but as long as every student is known by one teacher and they are able to support the student in developing goals, voice and scholarship, the school will be on its way to providing a more personalized experience. How does your school handle knowing students well? Leave a comment!


What does Personalize Mean to You, Your School and Your Community?

It is tempting to race off and create a personalized learning plan (PLP) document because it will be mandated by the state of Vermont for all 7th and 9th graders by November of 2015. But before implementing a PLP and stamping your learning environment “personalized”, it is critical to develop a vision as to what personalized means for you, your school and your community. Be sure to include input from all stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, counselors, community members and administrators.

Whether it is through a series of  learning conversations in the schools, neighborhoods and community centers, a multi-stakeholder committee, or a survey that seeks to reach all constituents gathering data is a critical first step. By understanding what the needs and concerns of all stake holders are, the vision you create for your school will truly be personalized for your community.

Here are two methods you can use to gather data: Design Thinking and Visualization Data


Using Design Thinking Principles to Mold the Vision

In the design thinking process, quite simply, participants are asked to 1) consider a problem, 2) brainstorm solutions to the problem, 3) refine the brainstorm list, and 4) prioritize the list choosing a solution or set of solutions. This is a simplification of the process, to be sure, but these are the basic steps that many organizations have been using for years to solve problems. In this scenario, I will walk you through the design thinking process based on developing a vision statement for personalization.

Step 1 – Define the problem. Implementing a more personalized program must be in response to a need. To understand that need ask 2-3 open-ended questions. Here are some examples:

  • What does a personalized education look like?
  • How will a personalized learning environment improve education?
  • What are your concerns about offering personalized educational opportunities for all students?

Your school may have previous research, public actions or identified needs that have already defined the problem, but step one in design thinking is being clear about the problem that you are trying to solve.

Step 2 – Brainstorm solutions to the problem. It is critical to make sure that the brainstorming process is allowed to occur without evaluation. Nothing shuts down a brainstorming process faster than someone saying, “We could never afford that”. There are several ways to approach brainstorming, but most include having some time to personally reflect and write down ideas first. For years, I participated in the format where everyone was able to add one idea to the group brainstorm list before anyone had an opportunity to add a second idea. In that format the facilitator scribed the ideas until the group had exhausted all their ideas. A more modern take on that format involves using post-it notes and individually writing the ideas and saying them aloud as you post them on a wall. With either format it is important that all participants have an opportunity to express all their ideas and that everyone feels equally supported and encouraged to think outside the box during this part of the process.


Step 3 – Refine the brainstorm list. This part of the process contains several steps in most protocols.

1) The first task in step three is that ensure participants have an opportunity to see everyone’s ideas and ask for clarifications for any specific ideas. This part of the process must be genuinely encouraged. Imagine a post-it note that said “PLPs must include provisions for IEP, 504, EST & DC for all students.” We know that educators’ use of acronyms often makes their world inaccessible to the average parent or community member. A sincere request at the beginning of the process that the educators be as clear as possible will go a long way to promote accessibility for the parents, students and community members.

            2) Once clarification questions have been answered there is a second step, which allows for deep probing questions such as, “Can you explain what it means that all students will have the opportunity to learn outside the classroom?” This is when stakeholders can extrapolate meaning from the abbreviated notes on the post-its. Still, during this part of the process there is no evaluation. The purpose here is to understand the meaning of the notes.

3) The third step in the refining process is often to order or organize the ideas. If you are using post-it notes it often means the group members physically move post-it notes to similar ideas. In the following figure you will notice that in the example from the Partnership for Change’s Community Learning Conversation event in November of 2013, when asked how to create a personalized learning program for students, several participants had ideas related to allowing students to earn credit beyond the classroom were grouped. Step three may be an iterative process that then goes back and further defines the organized categories depending on your data and your time constraints. A good rule of thumb is to ask the group if they feel they are ready to move to the fourth step or if they need more refinement.


Step 4 – Prioritize your list. Using sticky dots or hash marks from markers participants then prioritize their ideas. In many focus forum groups where we have used sticky dots, participants are able to take their five dots and apply them wherever they would like. That means they may either put one or all five on a particular idea. In some cases people are asked to use hash marks in the same manner or to put a “1”, “2” or “3” next to the list of ideas. As you can see in the figure above in some instances the dots are placed directly on the post-it note and in some cases they are placed in the realm of that idea. In the end, whether by numbers, sticky dots or hash marks, your list will indicate clearly what the salient ideas from the group are to solve the problem from step one. Using these ideas, the group will then create a vision statement that was truly developed through a horizontal leadership process that values the voices of all stakeholders.

Visualization Data – Unfortunately not all school systems are able to provide the time to have a series of face to face design thinking workshops. A less time intensive more convenient method is to survey students, teachers, parents and community members about the three questions:

  • What does a personalized education look like?
  • How will a personalized learning environment improve education?
  • What are your concerns about offering personalized educational opportunities for all students?

and place the data into a word cloud program (wordle, tagxedo, etc) to elicit central themes.

personalized 2

There are some inherent dangers in this methodology in that important stakeholders, such as families without internet access or busy single parent families, might not be represented in your data. It is also critical in this type of data analysis that you keep your questions separate.

Overall, gathering data either through face to face meetings or surveys with a wide range of stakeholders will help your school understand how to create a more personalized learning that will meet the needs of your community. How has your school defined personalization? What steps have you taken? Leave a comment!