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failing forward ILP

How one district improved its personalized learning by failing forward


After failing to create usable Individualized Learning Plans, teachers refined it until it worked. Isn't that what we want from our students?

In the MSD of Wayne Township, there are several blended and online opportunities available for students. Perhaps the same is true in your district, but how many of those same opportunities are available to teachers as well?

Recently, the teachers in one particular program in the district inspired a personalized approach to professional development. The Ben Davis Extended Day (BDED) blended learning program is an extension of one of the district’s high schools, Ben Davis High School. The program operates in the evenings and serves students who, for one reason or another, are not able to attend during the day.  The students move through their courses online and at their own pace, while physically attending school in the evenings in a lab setting. There are four teachers that work in the evening that teach the courses for English, math, science, and social studies.

As part of the professional development for BDED, the teachers went through a design thinking process to develop strategies to overcome one of the teachers’ main perceived issues and provide more personalized learning for students. While moving through the process to find a way to improve student engagement and consistency in effort, the group explored various strategies that could be implemented to solve the identified problem.

Each strategy was evaluated and ranked based on several characteristics (ease, training necessary, cost, predicted success, etc.). Ultimately, the teachers decided as a group to research and implement Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs) with their students. The teachers wanted to create learner profiles for each student that would be used to personalize and individualize instruction for the students.

At the time, there was no tool in the district necessarily built for this work, so the teachers at BDED did some online research to find other schools and programs implementing something similar with their students. The group studied ideas from Providence Public High School in Rhode Island, the work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey, Maureen Devlin at Wayland Public Schools, the Open College at Kaplan University, and various other templates. Borrowing from these templates and ideas, the teachers developed their own template using the only collaborative tool they had — Google Docs.

Next page: Why it didn’t work. And what we did next

After collaboratively creating a template to use with their students, the next step was to sit down with each student and work with them to fill out the initial plan, with the intent that the ILP would not be a static document, but rather a plan the student could continue to use as they learned how to advocate for their own learning. These conversations were so beneficial. It was a great opportunity to build relationships with students and learn about their aspirations, strengths, and constraints.

Unfortunately, the success of the project went downhill after that point. The ILPs were difficult to manage for a large group. The students were not as invested in the process after the initial meeting, and most of the ILPs remained untouched in their respective Google Drive folders. With the typical teacher workload already on their shoulders, managing all of those documents and drawing students to them on a consistent basis when their students were working remotely or at different paces, became too much of a burden. After the first year of implementation, the teachers were unsuccessful in using the ILPs in a way that would increase student engagement and consistency of effort.

As the group came together to reflect on the year and their goals in regards to the Individualized Learning Plans, it would have been easy for this idea to be dismissed as a failure or waste of time. That meeting went in a different direction, though. Instead of hearing “So much for that,” the teachers asked, “What can we do differently?”

This fail forward mentality is what so many teachers want of their students — to not let mistakes discourage us, but to learn and grow from them. Their students-first attitudes gave me the confidence as a professional developer to take a risk too.

At about this time, the district adopted a new learning management system (LMS). Within the platform, there is an ILP feature that can be used with staff and students.  This could immediately solve one of the problems the teachers experienced. The ILP could be on the homepage of the digital environment where the students navigated to daily for the classwork.

The ability to tie it to coursework smoothly and efficiently was also appealing. As a professional invested in personalized learning, I believed that using the ILPs could have a dramatically positive effect on our students’ growth. However, it was important to me that I not ask the teachers to implement something that I would not be willing to do for them. Upon further reflection, I also believed that the teachers deserved a personalized approach to learning, too.

This summer, all of our Achieve Virtual online teachers (included the BDED teachers) got together and learned more about personalization. They each constructed their own learner profiles and used those to create ILPs for their professional development for the year.

We had some common goals as a group, but the teachers ultimately decided what they would learn, how they would learn it, and when they would learn it. They were even given control over how much professional development they received this year. The principal and I knew that we worked with a group of dedicated professionals that did not need us to mandate a certain number of seat hours or tell them how they would best learn something.

I am currently working hard at managing about 60-70 Individualized Learning Plans for our teachers. We are all collaboratively contributing resources, discussions, and links to webinars and Twitter chats. I will still host face-to-face meetings for those that prefer that format and online mini-courses for anyone that is interested.

After two months of implementation, we are seeing a lot of success with the level of voluntary engagement in the professional development.  At the end of the year, we will all get together and reflect. We will reflect on our successes, what isn’t working, and how we can use our enriched understanding to make this work successfully for students.

While there will be failures along the way, I am confident that we can use them to learn, grow, and ultimately fail forward.

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