Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Why is Change and Transforming Education so Complex?

by Barbara Bray with Kathleen McClaskey using graphic from Sylvia Duckworth 

Changing or transforming any system especially in education is not an easy thing to do. If you are part of a system that most of us grew up in and are used to, it doesn't take much to keep your school or district from moving to a successful Personalized Learning System. The change process is so complex that even if you agree and are working on transforming the system, there may be one piece of the puzzle that is missing that keeps change from happening. 

This visual from Sylvia Duckworth makes it easy for us to interpret and evaluate the change process that is referred to at the bottom of this post. These images visualize the reactions people have during the change process. If the leadership team and others working on transforming their system, they can monitor and consider what needs to be done to get a derailed changed strategy back on track. 

What if your vision is only your vision and others don't believe in it?  If all stakeholders are not on board or don't understand what Personalized Learning means, then there is confusion and, possibly, resistance. The idea around "Personalized Learning" IS confusing because multiple organizations and groups have different definitions of what it means

We believe that Personalized Learning means starting with the learner. It is not about technology, curriculum, or instruction. It is about each learner, how they learn best, and providing a learning environment that supports their learning goals. For change to happen, there needs to be a vision with a shared belief system around the learner. 

It is much easier for people to continue with the status quo which some refer to as "what we do here." Change requires people to move out of their comfort zone and try something new. Teachers keep getting more on their plate and some push back when they hear they need to do something on top of all the other things they are doing. They may not feel they have the skills which causes anxiety.

Learners may be concerned about what skills they will need to do to make learning personal for themselves and how they will be the ones responsible for their learning after they change. 

There has to be an incentive to change. That means that people need to see the value of Personalized Learning and what's in it for them. If there are no reasons or incentives, they are bound to be resistant to any change. Incentives are how you can build consensus around the vision.

The idea of changing a system can get everyone excited to move it forward. Resources are the necessary things that people feel they will need to carry out the change needed to personalize learning. These resources could be physical resources like technology or funding and emotional resources like coaching and time. 

Without these resources, teachers and learners become frustrated and have a feeling of hopelessness. The change cannot happen without these resources so why even attempt to make this change. 

"If you don't know where you are going, you will never get there." Without a clear action plan, people will experience false starts – a sense of being on a treadmill, not really being able to get any traction or going any where. This is when you invite stakeholders to include their voice so they have a feeling of ownership. Ask for their feedback. 

All of us are learners and to create and sustain a Personalized Learning System, you need measurable and achievable goals to meet the action plan. 

-------- The chart above by Sylvia Duckworth (@sylviaduckworth) was adapted from A Framework for Thinking About Systems Change by Timothy P. Knoster, Richard A. Villa, and Jacqueline S. Thousand, that appeared in Restructuring for Caring and Effective Education: Piecing the Puzzle Together. It was adapted from the work of Ambrose in Managing Complex Change.  Sylvia graciously gave us permission to share this chart that she created using a process called Sketchnoting. Check out her Sketchnotes at 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Competency-based Systems: Meeting the Needs of Today’s Learners

We want to thank everyone for the great conversations in our #plearnchat about Competency-based Systems. This is Trend #2 in the 10 Trends to Personalize Learning in 2015

Competency-based pathways (sometimes referred to as "proficiency-based" or "performance-based") are a re-engineering of our education system around learning where failure is no longer an option. Learners may move at their own pace, reading at one level and working on a math digital badge at another level. 

Competency education is rooted in the notion that education is about mastering a set of skills and knowledge, not just moving through a curriculum. Currently, 42 states have adopted policies that give schools different ways to award credit to learners including waivers from time-based requirements. You will see in 2015 and beyond, schools will be held accountable to demonstrate how their learners progress in a competency-based system where time is variable. The conversations in #plearnchat focused around the big question: 

Is our traditional system of learning meeting our
kids needs and relevant for today's learners?

The format we used was the Q1, A1 format. 

We would like to congratulate Jill Thomas who won our book, Make Learning Personal.

Jill is the Personalized Learning Program Manager at Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, NC. She serves as the President and CEO of Edulum, an education consulting company and co-hosts #21stedchat.  
Jill is also an ASCD emerging leader whose background includes teaching fifth grade, was a facilitator/coach and an Instructional Technology Specialist.  
Make sure you follow Jill on Twitter: @Edu_Thompson
Check out her website:
Personalized Learning at Charlotte Mecklenburg:

A few resources we shared:

Archive of #plearnchat of Competency-Based Systems on April 20, 2015

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Convos about Shared Belief Systems

We want to thank everyone for actively participating in our chat on Shared Belief Systems on 4/6/15 #plearnchat. 

This is Trend #1 in the 10 Trends to Personalize Learning in 2015We put this as Trend #1 because culture in a school and our understanding of teaching and learning does not change unless we have a shared belief system. 

All stakeholders have a set of beliefs around teaching and learning yet they may not come together around a belief system they all agree with. Schools have to start off with a shared belief system to create the change.

Most of us only know about teaching and learning from when we went through the system as a student where we learned to be compliant and follow the rules. It’s easier to keep the status quo going and doing what we are used to be doing than changing how we teach. Change is hard, but change is necessary now for our kids and their future. 

The focus of the conversations in #plearnchat was around the big question: "Why is it important to have a shared belief system based on a common language of personalized learning?"

The format we used was the Q1, A1 format.  

We would like to congratulate Kellie Konrad who won our book, Make Learning Personal.

Kellie Konrad is a third grade teacher at EPiC Elementary in Liberty, MO. Kellie is part of a 3rd grade team with Kimberly Bennett where they encourage project-based learning and blogging.

Make sure you follow Kellie on Twitter: @KellieKonrad
Check out the 3rd grade team's website: 
Example video from Kellie's class: 

Archive of #plearnchat of Shared Belief System on April 6, 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Learning can and should be Natural and Engaging

Guest Post by Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D. adapted from several posts from her blog: 

During my school years, I noticed there was a problem with how I was being asked to learn. Cramming and memorizing information, being tested for mastery prior to having enough practice time, having units of study with supposedly beginnings and endings, and learning facts with no context were counterproductive and at times, very painful to me. I would raise my hand to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” I needed a purpose and a context. None was given. I was told to stop being a smart a---.

I know I am not alone in the pain I felt with these instructional methods. The unintended consequences of these artificial and unnatural ways of learning include believing that learning is or should be difficult, painful, disciplined, and not fun. This, too often, results in learners believing that they cannot or do not want to learn new things especially in those areas where and when learning was painful. I believe learning can or should be natural, fun, and engaging.

First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful. (Alfie Kohn)

If I ask you or your students, "How do you learn," how many of you could clearly articulate this process? If you can, are the strategies you're using the best ones for learning? Furthermore, if the research on the process of learning is compared to the practices being implemented in school, does this research influence school practices?

Benedict Carey informs us that “most of our instincts about learning are misplaced, incomplete, or flat wrong” and “rooted more in superstition than in science.” That’s a disconcerting message, and hard to believe at first. But it’s also unexpectedly liberating, because Carey further explains that many things we think of as detractors from learning — like forgetting, distractions, interruptions or sleeping rather than hitting the books — aren’t necessarily bad after all. They can actually work in your favor, according to a body of research that offers surprising insights and simple, doable strategies for learning more effectively. (

Instead of making assumptions about the best and most natural learning strategies, it is best to research and study this process. "Unfortunately, most people, educators included, are unaware of the lessons from the science of learning" (

What follows are some of those strategies that research has indicated are some of the better ones. It obviously is not extensive nor inclusive of all possible learning strategies, but it is a good start to reflect on how educators ask students to learn.
Productive Failure 
We’ve heard a lot lately about the benefits of experiencing and overcoming failure. One way to get these benefits is to set things up so that you’re sure to fail—by tackling a difficult problem without any instruction or assistance. Manu Kapur, a researcher at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has reported that people who try solving math problems in this way don’t come up with the right answer—but they do generate a lot of ideas about the nature of the problems and about what potential solutions would look like, leading them to perform better on such problems in the future. Kapur calls this “productive failure,” and you can implement it in your own learning by allowing yourself to struggle with a problem for a while before seeking help or information. (
Spaced-Out Practice 
When we're picking up a new skill or learning something entirely new, it's easy to binge-learn and obsessively work on it over time. However, that's not always the best idea. In fact, spreading out learning, also known as distributed practice, is thought to be a better way to learn. A review of studies in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that spreading out learning is far more effective than cramming. Distributed practice is an old technique, but it actually works really well for the busy lives most of us lead. Instead of sitting down for hours on end to learn a skill, distributed practice is all about shorter, smaller sessions where you're stimulating the link between the neurons more often throughout time. (

Take Breaks to Allow for Incubation 
There's a whole bunch of science looking at problem-solving. In problem-solving, when you get stuck, you've run out of ideas, distraction is really your best friend. You need to stand up, let it go — walk around the block, go to the cafe, drink a beer, whatever it is — and that is really your best shot at loosening the gears a little bit and allowing yourself to take a different and more creative approach to the problem. (
Try Alternate and More Fun Ways of Learning Before Giving Up on Something NewWhen trying to learn something new, you can easily get burned out and feel defeated if the subject is taught by rote. The problem was the way the books "dragged [him] through a series of structured principles" lifelessly. This is not to say that learning through books is bad (not all books are terrible) or that all classes are like this. If you find yourself, though, thinking of giving up on a subject you really want to learn because you're struggling with it, consider how you're learning or being taught. Try to find a way to learn through play (
Apply New Learning Often and in Meaningful Contexts 
The more you can apply what you're learning to your every day, the more it'll stick in your head. The reason is simple. When you're learning by doing, you're implementing everything that makes our memory work. When you're able to connect what you're learning with a real world task, that forms the bonds in your brain, and subsequently the skills you're learning will stick around. 
We learn best when we have context, and that applies to new skills as much as it does random facts in school. That's why something like the transfer of learning is helpful when you’re learning a new skill. This means you're applying your new skills in your day to day life in a context that matters. (
When I think about learning without a context, I get a visual image of all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner's brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts.

Learning facts and knowledge about a content area topic is an important prerequisite to understanding that topic and then developing expertise. The key to this understanding is providing a context for the facts. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts. This is especially true for abstract concepts. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.
Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning should not be viewed as simply the transmission of abstract and decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another, but a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed; they suggest that such learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment. (Situated Learning)
The following are some suggestions for establishing context (the list is just a start). Ironically, they are practices that are often recommended are best practices in teaching but they aren't implement as often as they should be:

Questions to Help Guide Learning

I believe it is each and every educator’s responsibility to ensure that their teaching strategies match both best practices in education and the learning needs of their students. What follows are some general evaluation questions to begin the process of this congruence:
  • Is failure viewed as normal and as a productive part of the learning process?
  • Is learning spaced out over time rather than crammed into a short time period?
  • Are distractions during learning normalized?
  • Is the learning practiced often and in a variety of contexts?
  • Is learning playful and fun? This is especially important when 0ne gets "stuck" at an impasse.


Dr. Jackie Gerstein's byline is, "I don't do teaching for a living. I live teaching as my doing . . . and technology has amplified my passion for doing so." Gerstein has been teaching in-person and online for several decades. Currently she teaches master's-level online courses in educational technology for Boise State, American Intercontinental, and Western's Governors' Universities. 

She believes that one of the roles and responsibilities of the 21st century educator is to share resources, ideas, and instructional strategies with other educators. 

As such, she actively blogs at and tweets at

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Transforming Schools with Personalized Learning Experiences

Guest Post by Bob Lenz, co-founder and Chief of Innovation for Envision Education

KQED interview about experiences at Envisions

Over ten years ago, after earning acclaim for his leadership of an innovative academy within a comprehensive high school, Bob Lenz founded the first Envision school, dedicated to the ideas of performance assessment and project-based learning. More than a decade later, Envision has grown into three Bay Area high schools, a small charter management organization, and an educational consulting division. In this post, Bob describes how Envision Education delivers personalized learning experiences that prepare students well for college and career success.
It's twenty-seven days until Kaleb Lawson's high school graduation ceremony. He is standing alone at the head of the room, and he has just been told that he is not ready to graduate. 
He faces a small audience, fronted by long table, behind which sit two adults and a fellow student who have been asking questions and taking notes. Obvious to anyone who has ever seen an episode of American Idol, this is a panel of judges.
“Your reflections on your leadership skills don't show the depth that we are looking for,” says one of the panelists. “Plus, we don't see evidence that you have practiced this presentation enough. You relied way too heavily on your notes. You didn't make enough eye contact with your audience.”
Staring at the floor, Kaleb nods slowly to acknowledge what he has heard. He is taking this hard. Preparation for this presentation was not a matter of days, weeks, or even months. This was years in the making. For the last forty-five minutes, he gave a presentation that told his entire high school story. He showed examples of his best academic work, reflected on his successes and failures, tried to make the case that he was ready to graduate.
“You're not ready, Kaleb,” another panelist says. “You can do better than this. Work with your advisor to revise your reflections. Polish your delivery. In ten days, you need to try again.”
In order to graduate, every Envision Education high school student must go through the same public presentation Kaleb attempted above (which he did indeed pass with flying colors on his second attempt).  Each Envision student needs to stand before a panel and make a sustained, evidence-based claim that he or she is ready to move on from high school. It is the culminating moment of what we call the Envision Defense Model, and it is what defines an Envision education.

Photo © Envision Education (
The Defense concept is nothing revolutionary, an idea as old as the trial of the hero's journey and as traditional to education as the relationship between apprentice and master. It is the PhD defense, the bar exam, the IPO presentation, and the playoff game. Many learning journeys culminate with a challenge that draws on everything that you have learned to meet it, proving to all that you are ready to move on.
But how do we know when a high school student is ready to move on? 
In most high schools in America, the de facto answer to that question seems both arbitrary and abstract. Four years of seat time, 120-something “credits.” Perhaps a certain number on a standardized test. We count the inputs with one abstraction (course credits) and diffusely assess them with another abstraction (letter grades). After decades of this approach, our high schools have lost touch with any concrete or personal sense of what their students know and are able to do at the end of four years.

It's not OK. Every institution of learning should know its purpose and design itself accordingly. 
  • What do we want for our students? 
  • What are we preparing them for? 
  • What do we want them to know and be able to do by the time they move on? 
  • What kind of people do we want them be?
Photo © Envision Education

Designing effective personalized learning must start with thoughtful answers to these big-picture, purpose-driven, goal-oriented questions. Although there are different ways to answer these questions legitimately, there are kinds of answers that we should not accept.

For one, the answers must come in the form of words, not numbers or symbols. Test scores, numerical school ratings, and statistics on grades are abstractions of reality, not descriptions of concrete, personal learning experiences.

And a school's overarching goal must be framed around its students, not reflect circularly back upon the school. Each student's success is its own end; students are not in school to make the school successful, which is effectively what happens when a school defines its goals in terms of test score rankings.

The mission of Envision Education, our particular answer to the question of purpose, is to prepare all students, especially those whose parents did not go to college, to succeed in college, career, and life.  For each student, this is a transformational—and above all personal—endeavor. 

Watch the academics, the skills, and the critical attitudes 

Defining Success: Know, Do, and Reflect

Before designing a way to measure our graduates, we had to determine what to measure. As stated above, the goal for our students is college success. We are not content with getting students into college; we want them to navigate the university with confidence in their knowledge and skills and with perseverance in the face of inevitable adversity.

We wrote about Envision Schools and college success in a new book with co-authors Justin Wells and Sally Kingston, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, published this past January by Wiley.  Research by such thinkers as David Conley (2005) helped us take inventory of what's needed for success in college. When Conley surveyed professors on this question, they responded with a refrain: intellectual skills and habits of mind; 

“these were considered by many faculty to be more important than specific content knowledge.” (Lenz et al. Transforming Schools. p. 173)

The professors emphasized some of the general skills we would expect: critical thinking, analytical thinking, problem solving, reading and writing skills. But they were equally adamant about the importance of certain attitudes:

“an inquisitive nature and interest in taking advantage of what a research university has to offer; willingness to accept critical feedback and to adjust based on such feedback; openness to possible failures from time to time; and ability and desire to cope with frustrating and ambiguous learning tasks." (Lenz et al. Transforming Schools. p. 173)

The implications of Conley's study are clear as day: high schools must do more than teach content to students; they must develop intellectual skills, habits of mind, and those critical academic attitudes.

So how do we wrestle this complex picture of what it takes to be a successful student in college into a measurable and manageable set of outcomes for our high school students? At Envision, our next step was to create was our own graduate profile, a community-accepted statement describing what a learner should know and be able to do in order to graduate from our schools.

After a great deal of thinking, discussing, reflecting and collaborating, we came down to three simple verbs – KNOW, DO, REFLECT – and we structured and balanced our graduate profile around them. The prepared graduate knows the content and the discrete skills of her academic subjects. She can do what typical college courses demand (research, analyze, inquire, and create) using her intellectual, interpersonal, and executive skills to make things happen. And she has the ability to reflect, a habit of self-awareness and revision that sets her on the path of continued growth.

Envision’s graduate profile has led to the development of a four-year program, bolstered by high-quality assessments, calibrated rubrics, and excellent daily instruction, that culminates in our Graduation Defense.  Preparing for the defense, and for every exhibition and project along the way, defines each student’s personal educational journey, a story they get to tell in their Defense presentation.  This is personalized learning at its best, when students can articulate what graduation means to them, why and how they are ready, what they are prepared for, and where they want to go next.  

Bio and Contact information

Bob Lenz is the Co-Founder & Chief of Innovation for Envision Education. He is a nationally recognized leader in high school redesign, deeper learning, project-based learning, 21st century skills education, and performance assessment.

As Envision’s Chief of Innovation, Bob works to bring the Envision model to schools across the country, and to guide the national conversation on school reform and student success.

Previously, Bob founded Academy X, an award-winning leadership and humanities program at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. In 1999, Drake High was named one of thirteen New American High Schools by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. In 2000, the school was featured on the cover of U.S. News & World Report as an example of successful high school reform. Bob was the first in his family to receive a college degree, obtaining a BA degree from St. Mary’s College and an MA degree in education from San Francisco State University

Twitter: @envisionschools