Education Opinion

Personalizing Learning and Opening Doors of Opportunity

By Contributing Blogger — July 01, 2016 13 min read
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This post is by Adam Carter, Chief Academic Officer at Summit Public Schools.

In 2003, a group of five teachers and one principal sat around a table and created a MS Word document template that we titled, “The Personalized Learning Plan.” The document was meant to help students set long term-goals, break those long-term goals into year-long goals, and then help translate those year-long goals into daily actions and behaviors.

Every teacher acted as a mentor for about 25 students, and we used the Personalized Learning Plan as the guiding document for our yearly Family Meetings--meetings of about ninety minutes in length in which a student, her parents, other important people in her life, and her mentor met to set goals, make plans to accomplish those goals, and commit to supporting the student in meeting those goals.

We wanted these to be living documents--documents that reminded students, day by day and minute by minute, why they were doing what they were doing, and how their choices moved them towards, or further away from, their goals.

In reality, after these papers were printed, each member of the Family Meeting received a copy, each copy was signed by everyone present as a commitment to the student’s plan, and then these papers made their ways into backpacks, purses, recycling bins, and official-looking manila folders, which were then placed in a filing cabinet in an office at the school. Though our intentions were good, these Personalized Learning Plans were not the living documents we hoped they would be.

Flash forward to today, and we have the Personalized Learning Platform, which we have developed in partnership with Facebook engineers, designers, and product managers. Summit students, parents, teachers, and administrators are on the platform every day learning, offering feedback, completing cognitively rich projects, making choices about what to learn and how, and setting goals, making plans to accomplish those goals, and aligning their daily actions and behaviors toward meaningful, long-term goals. Not only that, but this platform will be used by over 100 Basecamp schools across the country next year in a multitude of learning contexts, all guided by teams of caring, skilled educators who deeply believe in principles such as the one that prompted our creation of the original three-paged MS Word document titled “The Personalized Learning Plan":

Personalized learning connects children’s long-term goals and aspirations to daily decisions, actions, and behaviors.

The other personalized learning principles are pictured below:

While previous blogs on this site and other discussions of Personalized Learning at Summit and beyond have focused on goal setting, deeper learning projects, and student agency (self-directed learning), it is surprising how little attention is given to the principle that inspires so many of us, and which propelled so many of us into the field of education in the first place:

Personalized learning environments nurture diverse communities of learners, where children practice and model life skills and receive feedback to individually grow and thrive.

This principle is at the heart of public education’s promise of social justice, just as it is at the heart of personalized learning.

Here’s why: personalized learning is about putting students at the center of our systems of education. I don’t mean this “students at the center” refrain to sound trite. I mean, if we actually reorient our schools around students, everything changes. We start sharing meaningful, actionable information about students and their learning, and we share this information not only among members of the school community, but with our students and their families, so that we can effectively build a community of support for every student. We start rethinking the definition of the word autonomy in the context of professional teaching--no longer does this word imply shutting the door and doing my thing; rather, it means that we have the right and the responsibility to try new things in the best interests of students, as long as we share what we’re trying, why we’re trying it, and what we’ve learned as a result. We start building schedules and budgets around what is best for students, given limited resources.

It means that we see diverse classrooms as an asset rather than as a deficit. Already, great teachers across the world see diversity as an asset in their classrooms, but to traditional systems of education, diversity is viewed as a problem to be solved. Why else do we track students? This practice is not only racist (New York Times article from 1988 here); according to the National Education Policy Center and many others, it’s ineffective.

Personalized learning offers a clear path toward unlocking the treasure trove of opportunity within heterogeneous classrooms: offering all students access to important, rigorous conversations. We already know that “diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” In personalized classrooms, students are empowered to speak up, are given the opportunity to have rich conversations and to solve real-world problems, and are ensured access to discourse and activities that require a diversity of perspectives in order to reach the best collective decisions.

An asset-based approach to diversity within a school system doesn’t happen by accident, and teachers needn’t be superheroes to offer all students access to engaging, rigorous social learning opportunities.

Because the educational experience is built around the student:

  • Students have a cohesive learning experience across courses and across grade levels. Teachers are speaking the same language. Classes emphasize cross-cutting skills and approach students as agents of their own learning. In such a way, systems of personalized learning recognize and actively combat what Martin Haberman calls a “pedagogy of poverty.” We ensure that all students have access to cognitively rich work that forces “productive struggle.”
  • Each student is deeply known. Every student has a mentor--a caring, knowledgeable educator--who supports the students across courses and acts as a bridge between home and school. This mentor meets weekly in a 1:1 setting with each mentee.
  • Students receive explicit feedback and mentoring on their Habits of Success, or “non-cognitive skills.” These habits are what Zaretta Hammond, in her Ready for Rigor framework, refers to as “Learning Partnerships.” Structured into the personalized learning environment are opportunities for all students to:

    • Receive both care and push from teachers and mentors
    • Cultivate a positive mindset and sense of self-efficacy
    • Take greater ownership of learning
    • Talk through their learning moves in common language
  • We create safe and supportive spaces for learning. Through student perception surveys and parent surveys, we hold ourselves accountable for creating physically and emotionally safe environments for students to take risks, to encounter and learn from struggle, and to work collaboratively with peers.
  • Resources are deployed where they are most needed. In data-rich personalized learning environments, we have a day-to-day and moment-to-moment look at where students are succeeding, where they are trying, and where they are encountering challenges. Thus, we have the ability to support individuals and groups not through after-the-fact interventions or measures that simply capture more of struggling students’ time after regular school hours, but by intervening in the moment, in the process of learning.

At this point you may be wondering how teachers do it. Do they work 20hours per day?

While teachers at Summit--and personalized learning educators across the country--are amazing, they don’t have to be superheroes to be successful. Dr. Larry Cuban of Stanford recently wrote a series of blog posts after spending days in Summit classrooms, and what you’ll read is an objective blow-by-blow of personalized learning in action during the time of day we refer to as “project time,” when students are engaged in cognitively demanding project-based learning. What is captured in the blog posts is solid project-based instruction. What you won’t see is how these exceptional teachers, many of whom are in their first five years of teaching practice, have reoriented their time to focus on student needs rather than on traditional teaching tasks that take tremendous time without significant student learning gains.

Where personalized learning teachers spend their time:

  • Collaboration with colleagues to support student growth. Collaboration takes time, but strong collaboration means more and better ideas.
  • Examining student learning data. Learning information is central to personalized learning because it allows us to intervene appropriately without guessing or taking significant time sussing out the actual problem. Teachers can quickly tell who turned in what, when, and with what level of quality. They can tell who attempted an assessment, who has not, and how successful those attempts have been. These data, always accessible, center teachers on the core experiences of students, and allow them to meet students where they are.
  • Offering students’ feedback. With actionable learning information comes rapid feedback. Honest, actionable, timely feedback is central to learning.
  • Mentoring. Teachers act as mentors, engaged not only in facilitating learning experiences, but also in 1:1 and group mentoring.
  • Learning. Strong personalized learning environments mirror the principles of personalized learning that we use to structure and support student learning in educator development. Learning with planning partners and engaging with coaches and colleagues to work towards professional goals, not to mention structured and self-directed learning opportunities, ensures that we’re building the learning organizations that our educators deserve, and that our students deserve to see modeled.
  • Facilitating rich, social learning experiences with classes of students. Socratic seminars, complex instruction, peer feedback, reading circles, structured academic controversies: the heart of a teacher’s day is time spent facilitating project-based learning with students.

Where they don’t:

  • Re-planning every unit. Instead, teachers work collaboratively to plan and to internalize big-picture planning.
  • Grading everything. We’ve done our best to attend to the Buck Institute’s framing of great projects as “the main course, not dessert,” so teachers offer students targeted feedback throughout the learning process, and thus don’t encounter big, hairy student work products that require extensive feedback.
  • Making rubrics. All of our projects are built off of a single rubric, which we developed with partners at the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), and they are assessed on that same rubric.
  • Curating, delivering, and assessing content knowledge. The Personalized Learning Platform offers students organized, multi-modal resources with frequent opportunities for formative and summative assessment. Teachers can access students’ progress at any time, can intervene, and are accessible to support students in their content knowledge development, but they don’t need to curate, deliver, or take time assessing students’ content knowledge acquisition.

Personalized learning educators work hard--just as hard as all excellent educators--but their work is organized on the highest leverage activities to support all students. This is no indictment of any great teacher; rather, it’s a virtue of working in a system that takes seriously two values that are often pitted one against the other: the sustainability of the teaching profession, and the power of unlocking the potential in heterogeneous classrooms.

Follow up on “Habits of Success: Seeking the Invisible Thread”

In October, I posted “Habits of Success: Seeking the Invisible Thread.” The blog outlined a theory of action to assess what we value in the realm of Habits of Success. I’m pleased to share that we conducted much more research, brought a proposal to our faculty, and gained consensus on a framework for assessing Habits of Success with our students.

This consensus has since been translated into features in the Personalized Learning Platform. Below, I’ll offer some screen shots and very briefly walk you through a few of these features, which we will be piloting at Summit this year, and which will be available, in a refined form, to all PLP users in future years.


A teacher can already see student data in a moment-to-moment basis for the purposes of instructional moves:

The teacher can request that students self-assess on dimensions of Emotional Intelligence, or social-emotional learning competencies:

The student can then self-assess, using statements (like the one you’ll see, though we still need to convert the language into something more student friendly). Note that students can contextualize their answers in comment and reflection:

The teacher can also provide their assessment of the student in the same format. Note that the teacher assesses “blind":

The system produces a graph to track the responses of students and teachers/mentors over time. Note the tiny box that the teacher/mentor will ultimately check that reads “Allow Samantha to see most recent session.” The purpose of this user experience is to present the opportunity for a conversation about Samantha’s self-awareness, and thus the conversation happens before the student sees any graphs or written feedback:


Students can see a small set of four learning strategies that we will be explicitly teaching and assessing this year. Check out the box on the student’s reflection page labeled “Learning Badges":

The student can jump into the badges (like this note-taking badge) and see what it takes to earn the badge. All badges require students to demonstrate that they can effectively use a learning strategy, or a nested set of important learning strategies:

After demonstrating effective use of a strategy, the possibly more important component of learning occurs: the self-assessment and reflection. Students not only need to be able to effectively take notes, but explain why they take notes, when they would use one note-taking strategy and when another, and when note-taking isn’t the right strategy to use:

The teacher assesses the quality of the student’s work and reflection, and is able to award badges. These badges are not graded, but are meant to offer logical consequences for students and to help mentors and teachers have the right conversations. Instead of asking a student who has earned a note taking badge, “do you know how to take notes?” the conversation would begin with, “which form of notes would be most effective given this material?":


The tricky thing about academic mindsets is that you are in a mindset; you don’t possess a mindset. So, it’s a state of being. This makes assessment challenging. Here’s how we’re starting: a student is taking a content assessment, like the one you see below:

After the student answers a question, a single “pop-up” question emerges. We got this particular question, “How certain are you of this answer,” from Angela Duckworth and Donald Kamentz at the Character Lab, who recommended it as a good starting place for mining information about student mindset:

Students will not be bothered by long surveys or constant pop-ups; we’re limiting these pop-ups to a maximum of one per day, and two per week. Although this particular form of assessment will likely raise more questions than it will answer, we’re looking forward to continued learning in the hopes that we can better serve all of our students, and that we can target our interventions and our curricula and assessments with greater precision.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.