6 tips from personalized learning innovators leading change

By Julia Freeland Fisher
August 29th, 2016

The change management strategies driving today's new education models

blended learning cci

Earlier this year, the Rhode Island-based Highlander Institute and the Clayton Christensen Institute teamed up to bring together a conference on blended and personalized learning in Providence, R.I.  The goal of the event was to focus on the practical elements of blended and personalized learning by surfacing the tactics that practitioners were deploying in the trenches. More than 100 teachers and leaders from around the country were invited to share their approaches to piloting and scaling blended learning in classrooms and schools, which we summarized in our latest report, From the Frontlines, out this week.

Although our many presenters hailed from a variety of geographies and contexts, one refrain echoed loudly throughout the Providence Convention Center: implementing blended and personalized learning is about managing change. Innovators stressed that without effective change management, the best technology tools and the most elegant personalized learning models will come up short.  Here are six change management strategies that practitioners stressed as vital to driving new models of learning across traditional systems:

1. Embrace not knowing

One tension in managing change across a classroom or an entire district is making the unknown an opportunity rather than a threat. This framing depends on leaders who are willing to make the unknown safe. As Amanda Murphy, a Highlander Institute Fuse Rhode Island Fellow from Westerly Public Schools, put it, managing change across a system is about “supporting the eager, but non-expert.” In part, this requires giving people room to express concerns. “We had faculty volunteers who were interested but didn’t have expertise,” she said. “They talked about why they were nervous, and this helped people understand that there were many others in the same boat. It set the tone that it’s okay not to know. And now they’re asking for help.”

2. Co-design

All too often, new approaches to instruction are designed in isolation from the teachers who will be implementing those approaches. Participants stressed that limiting the number of seats around a blended and personalized learning design table, in turn, limits the level of teacher buy-in to new classroom models. “Leaders have ideas for teachers, but it doesn’t work top-down,” said Julia Rafal-Baer of Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit network of state and district education leaders. “Teachers need to be part of the strategic conversation.” Leaders noted that the more teachers are involved in the design process upfront, the more likely they will be to persist and adapt when challenges to implementation inevitably arise.

3. Cultivate early adopters

Many initiatives that participants discussed came from a few early innovators trying new approaches within their systems. Early adopters of blended and personalized can also provide a powerful antidote to top-down directives. For example, Donna Vallese, a former principal at Nowell Leadership Academy, a public charter school in Rhode Island, said she never told teachers they had to use certain tools like Google Classroom. “Instead, it was seeded with early adopters,” she said. “It spread organically from the ground up, and then everyone was doing it.”

4. Open doors

Classrooms can be infamously siloed environments where teachers operate in isolation. Participants noted that for educators pursuing innovative classroom models, breaking down those silos was critical. Tracey Nangle, a teacher in North Smithfield School District in Rhode Island, said that an open-door policy at her middle school helped to shift schoolwide attitudes and culture in favor of collaborative learning. “Teachers are given release time to work as teams and observe classrooms together. It builds respect between colleagues and exposes all of the great work that is happening,” Nangle said.

5. Rethink roles

As schools manage change across their instructional models, the traditional roles that adults play may shift. David Richards of Fraser Public Schools described how his districts’ move to competency-based learning prompted a rethinking not just of teachers’ roles, but also of roles across the schools and ecosystem. “We looked at the positions we had and then abandoned them for the positions we needed,” he said. Similarly, Eric Tucker of Brooklyn Lab Charter School in New York recommended using personalized learning models to move teachers away from the one-size-fits-all role they’ve traditionally played. “Embrace that educators have different skills and strengths,” he said.

6. Make time

Practitioners looking to adopt blended and personalized learning practices stressed that the learning curve is steep and time scarce. Yet, some school leaders are finding creative ways to give teachers and themselves more time for year-round professional growth and for adapting to new tools and techniques. For example, Scott Frauenheim shared how Distinctive Schools created an unprecedented chunk of time for peer-to-peer learning during the school day by working with a scheduling expert to update where time gets allocated each day. “We found 105 minutes of planning and collaboration time by minimizing transitions between classes. This time is helping to prevent burnout and helping teachers learn to let go of what they’ve always done,” he said.

Read the full report: From the Frontlines: Takeaways from the 2016 Blended and Personalized Learning Conference.

Ed note: Are you a teacher or leader spearheading blended and personalized learning in your school system? Learn more about next year’s conference in Providence.

About the Author:

Julia Freeland Fisher is Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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