Thursday, April 24, 2014

Personalizing PD: It's About Empowerment; Not Tools

I’ve Got the Power by C.P.Storm, on Flickr

This was crossposted at Edsurge.

Personalized learning and professional development - these buzzwords are humming on everyone’s lips in education these days. Given the national realization that our students need new skills and competencies to be “college and career ready” after they leave our schools, substantial shifts are happening in the areas of teacher practice and educational standards. Personalization seems to be one of the best ways to meet the rising demands of the global economy.

And, while I firmly believe that personalized learning models have the ability to transform the educational experience for kids and adults alike, we’ve reached a critical moment in the conversation.

Right now, school leaders, policy makers, and companies are all jumping into the fray, investing their time and resources in tools such as software-based curricula to adaptive assessment tools. To ensure we invest wisely, we must revisit the core principles of personalized learning, its implications, and it’s intentions.

Recently, I’ve discovered many organizations who provide personalized professional development “solutions” by merely assessing educators and delivering targeted videos, articles, and content. But, if you’re defining personalized learning as targeted content delivery, you’re missing the mark.

According to Barbara Bray, one of the leading voices in the personalized learning movement, the process must “begin with the learner.” This means that the learner is integral to creating the goals, tasks, and methods by which learning actually happens.

The magic ingredient for personalized learning isn’t prescriptive content; it’s empowerment. When people decide what they want to learn, individualized ownership creates the magic. To cite the words of researcher and author Dan Pink, “While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it's a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.”

Consider what’s happened with the Edcamp movement. In less than 4 years, hundreds of thousands of educators in dozens of countries have volunteered their Saturdays to explore topics they choose with passionate colleagues. The model isn’t fueled by grants or policies or mandates. Instead, it’s fueled by the excitement and passion that comes from collaborative, learner-selected, learner-driven conversations.

And, Edcamps aren’t the only personalized professional development experiences out there, either. Teachers have taken to Twitter and social media in droves to initiate educational chats during weekends and evenings. Topics such as #sbgchat (standards based grading chat) and #edchat (educational chat) attract hundreds of participants. Teachers are blogging (and reading blogs) more than ever before. Even ASCD, the premier curriculum and leadership organization in the country, titled their recent annual conference “@ Every Learner” to reflect the shift that’s underway.

If we equate these types of organic experiences with a long list of video clips based on a teacher’s profile, then we won’t ever realize the change we want to see in our classrooms. When a teacher passively sits back and watches prescribed content, they’re simply absorbing. When a teacher builds and synthesizes ideas via a personalized experience such as a Twitter chat or Edcamp, they’re actively engaging in the right mix of content sharing and socialization.

To simplify this distinction, consider the following chart:

Personalized PD does…
Generate motivation via empowerment
Encourage the learner to find their own content
Necessitate time
Require metacognition from the learner
Require descriptive feedback from lots of sources
Embrace low-stakes coaching and on-going development

Personalized PD does NOT…
Generate motivation via requirements or credit mandates
Prescribe specific, static readings or video clips
Increase efficiency
Have a clear end or finish
Emphasize “right and wrong” answers
Emphasize extrinsic rewards or singular evaluations

Personalized professional development is driven by teacher empowerment. Teachers choose the topics, the formats, and the outcomes. Learning isn’t metered out or required, it’s grown.

As we select the tools that will help us grow the capacity of educators, personalized learning should be considered. But rather than pick tools that prescribe the type of learning that should take place, perhaps we should use our resources to truly answer the following question for every teacher: What do you want to learn?

Photo credit:  by  C.P.Storm 
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License


  1. This post has me excited about the potential teachers have when they are empowered to direct their own professional development! I know that I have benefitted so much from my own pursuit of learning and my PLN. Living in a reality with district mandated initiatives and professional development creates a challenge for systemic change, but doesn't diminish the creative thinking it will take on my part to help my teachers embrace their own professional development outside the bounds of scheduled "PD time". Thank you for your reflection on personalized learning as it applies to teachers!

  2. Kristen - Teachers are learners too. Especially if they are learning something new and it is supposed to change how they teach. Our current system expects teachers to be accountable for learners learning. When you personalize learning, learners take responsibility for their learning. Teachers roles change. The only way this can be sustainable and successful, is by creating job-embedded PD with coaching, collaborative planning time, and allowing environments that encourage taking risks. Creativity and innovation means that teachers need to be allowed to fail and learn from failure instead of being punished for trying something new. The best situations are when teachers co-teach so they can bounce ideas off a colleague when something happens as it happens. It is about opening doors and making learning visible. Thanks for the mention and enjoyed your post!

  3. Thanks so much for reading and checking out the post! I couldn't agree more that teachers need job-embedded PD that is ongoing and innovative. Co-teaching and informal sharing are the best routes to this! Thanks so much for reading!

  4. Ann S. MichaelsenApril 27, 2014 at 5:19 AM

    I loved your post. It is something I have been thinking about for a long time now. I might borrow some of your thoughts for a new article on my blog. I particularly liked this: But, if you’re defining personalized learning as targeted content delivery, you’re missing the mark. And I agree with you, I think that is where many are right now!

  5. Hi Ann - Thanks for reading and relating this work to your own ideas. I think your reflections are spot on. Let's stay connected as we both continue to figure out the world of personalized PD!

  6. Great post Kristen, teachers really need to be a part of the decision making process for the future of their schools. Being at the forefront of PD--deciding what they want to learn, and discovering opportunities for the school is certainly empowering and motivating.

  7. Thanks for reading and sharing here, Vincent. ;-)

  8. Alexander MacDougallApril 30, 2014 at 7:53 AM

    Thanks for this Kristen! We moved in this direction in our district this year with a cohort of grade 7 teachers. We didn't do it because we had done research or even really knew much about Personalized Learning... we did it for practical reasons (many different interests/needs among the ~90 teachers involved and not enough of us to facilitate traditional PD in all areas), and because it "felt" like what was needed. The model worked very well according to what we've seen and the qualitative feedback we've received from participants. It's great to read articles like this one and the one at which confirm our "direction" and model.

  9. Hmm... I posted a reply here, but it seems to have disappeared. Now I wonder if it got here in the first place.

  10. Hi Alex - I'm sorry - I didn't see your reply but would love to read it!

  11. Let's try this again...

    I read this post and the one at within a couple of days of each other. It was great to read the thoughts included in both because it reaffirms what we did in our District this year. Because of the volume of PD that needed to be delivered and the number of Technology Integration Specialists available we needed to change our model of delivery. We "felt" that teachers needed more time to pursue their own areas of interest (within the parameters of 21st Century teaching/learning) so we created a model that would speak to that need. We brought the teachers in for centralized common content as a foundation on which they could build and between those sessions we provided them with time to work on their own. As we suspected, this worked very well. Teachers worked individually, in small groups that had common needs/interests, and in larger groups when it was felt that was most efficient. In several cases we observed a secondary benefit of individuals spontaneously taking on leadership roles. We are planning a first ever (in our district) unConference as a final wrap up to the year's PD activity for this group.



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