Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wildlands School Personalizes Learning…

Guest Post by Liz Seubert and Paul Tweed, Directors of Wildlands School, Wisconsin

It’s time people stop underestimating the power and intelligence of students. It’s time personalized learning is about the person, the learner, and all the possibilities within.

Most teachers would agree that they go into the profession wholeheartedly believing that students come first and every student deserves personalized learning. Yes! We agree. However, few seem to have an opportunity to put that philosophy into true action for one reason or another. Content, curriculum, state averages, standardized tests, school report cards, or whatever else government officials feel is important should not be driving education. But it seems to be.

Wildlands School (introductory video) has taken a stance and said, learners are at the top of the list.

Let’s be clear. We strongly believe personalized learning is not about checking off curriculum, content, standards, or anything that comes from a template. It is about a learning journey for young people, and getting out of their way. For the last 10 years, Wildlands has been continually redefining and elevating the implementation of personalized learning.

The outdated industrial format of school, which is still reflective of the time when it was invented in the late 1800’s, presents infinite challenges to truly make learning personalized. That’s why we blew up the old mold, restructured the school day, redefined relationships, and focused on the students. As told in our story, An Improbable School, the creation of a teacher-powered, student-centered, project-based learning environment with 60 students in grades seven through twelve was born.

Beginning in 2005, we, regular teachers from Wisconsin, were given the opportunity to develop a dream school from scratch. We were given the responsibility and freedom to create a school model that centers upon teacher autonomy. From the beginning our teacher team has been 100% in the driver’s seat regarding budget, administrative services, staffing selection, curriculum, school schedule, and support services. This has created a culture of school responsibility and autonomy necessary to completely shift the design of our school to students first and build a robust personalized learning system linked with projects-based learning.


Every ounce of our new learning model, and the purposeful differences from mainstream education we’ve embraced, has been by design. We know not all schools should be the same, and we also know students and parents need options for schools. At the beginning we wanted to create a learning environment that fit the needs, learning styles, and personalities of the students that attend. The top priority has always been to maintain a place where students want to come every day, because it is their school, and they should enjoy learning.


When it comes to personalized learning, Wildlands emphasizes personal relationships with individual students. We have learned it is more important to provide opportunities for students to be heard, be involved, be connected, find relevance, and play an important role in the school, than to tell them what we (or some far away committee) think they need to know. Honest conversations build relationships. Quality relationships build supportive and open learning environments where learners feel valued, connected, and are willing to take part.

Through conversations with students, we can look at personalized learning and projects in a multitude of ways. First, shifting the roles from teacher and student, to learner and guide, with the learner always being first. Initially this maybe uncomfortable for both, but over time the progression of the learner owning their journey will feel natural and authentic.

Our personalized learning journey with students has resulted in a wide variety of projects; some simple, some complex, but each of them owned by the students involved in them. (Just a few examples)

Being asked by local government to help preserve local conservation efforts by creating a documentary film

Learning information that is typically out of reach through a Weather Balloon project.

Learning about the local environment through projects that track walleye, mammals, and wolves.

Working with local professionals to create trail maps of a nature reserve.

Creating a healthier working environment for everyone by growing the Zahrada Project.

Teaming up with a local lake association and resource agency to Map a Lake.

Sometimes projects are based more on content areas, sometimes projects take students outside of our walls, and sometimes projects have a deep connection to a community need. Regardless of the project, our goal is for every student to have learning experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and authentic. It’s more than just a project. When given the opportunity to make their own choices, build on their own talents, and own their learning students understand that it’s not an assignment, it’s a contribution.

We do not rely on standardized tests, quizzes, or exit exams for information regarding our students understanding of content. Instead, we allow students to demonstrate their skills, knowledge, and abilities through real-world situations, involve them in meaningful projects, and present to authentic audiences. The results have been nothing less than phenomenal.

We have learned in the last 10 years that personalized learning cannot be canned and planned, based on rubrics or worksheets, it is between people: the learners and their guides and advisors. Our book, An Improbable School details our rewarding journey.

Liz Seubert is an experienced project-based learning advisor and member of a teacher-powered school staff and is an innovator in the field of student-centered learning. As one of three founding staff member of Wildlands School she has led many expeditionary learning trips with students, developed community-based learning and service connections, and been a project-based teacher since 2005. She has consulted with Project Foundry to develop better PBL management strategies and tools, presented at numerous conferences, and developed and taught summer institutes for teachers in the areas of PBL, student-centered learning, and school culture. Liz also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.

Paul Tweed is a visionary in areas of inquiry based science, active learning, project-based learning, and community-based science research for over 30 years. He founded Wildlands School in 2005 with two colleagues and was active in the science teaching community for 20 years before Wildlands. He has presented at conferences all over the country, taught at the secondary and university level, has been on textbook authoring teams, and consulted with school districts and state education departments in the areas of science, constructive and inquiry learning, project-based learning, and school culture change. Paul has been recognized for his efforts with awards such as Wisconsin Biology Teacher of the Year, The Wisconsin Presidential Award in Science, Genentech Access Excellence Fellowship, GTE GIFT Program Fellow, Kohl Teacher Fellowship, and Wisconsin Charter School Teacher of the Year, and more. He has worked closely with Project Foundry to develop more effective means for managing and assessing project-based learning. A founding and current board member of ISN he also coaches and consults with schools to help them develop student-led project-based learning communities, teacher led (teacher-powered) schools, and relationship based learning cultures.,,

Monday, September 28, 2015

Learners NOT Technology

Are you confused about what is Personalized Learning? It means different things to different people depending on where and how it is referenced. Some believe it is about promoting software programs or apps that personalize learning for you. Our focus is on the learner first.

So we decided to shake things up with a controversial topic about focusing on learners NOT technology. Some of the conversations started shifting to adaptive software and then back to learners connecting and discovering on their own.

Some amazing educators jumped in at different times and just blew us away with their comments and questions. Here's the questions we asked:

For your information, all of us on our team are educational technologists and have taught how to use the tools. After years and years of teaching the tools, we just saw the light. Kids could figure them out and could teach us how to use them. Yet, they were losing critical thinking skills and spending too much time memorizing what was going to be on the tests. We realized that changing the focus to the learner instead of the tools would give them more responsibility for their learning. They just needed to learn how to take control, self-direct their learning so they build agency. 

We discussed that sometimes we have to put in questions that stir up the discussions. The conversations were really jumping that we had trouble keeping up. So the conversations at this #plearnchat were very exciting for us. Here's a few of the tweets that stood out:

Angelo Truglio @a_truglio
"Learners shouldn't expect prescribed steps that can lead to desired goals. In real world, they need to feel capable and self-direct."

Tom Perran @tperran
"Give learners choice of topics, ensure that questions asked require them to dig deeper and seek outside input. "

Tsisana Palmer @TechTeacherCent
"I wonder if tech can put focus on anything? Would not it depend on those who use tech? Or those who design tasks?"

Mike Peck @EdTechPeck"
If you can Google it, wh
y teach it.. take the learning deeper.. more authentic."

Here are a few resources we shared in the chat:


Congratulations to Lisa Murray @LMurray_ who won our book, Make Learning Personal

Lisa Murray (@LMurray_) is a Technology Integration Specialist at Vermillion Local Schools in Ohio who is always looking for ways to improve teaching and learning. She leads the implementation of blended learning where she trains, coaches, and supports teachers responsible for blended learning instruction.

Lisa is also a teacher at Vermillion Elementary School and lead a group to adopt intervention program for struggling readers and served on the Universal Design for Learning team to implement principles in the classrooms. She received the Martha Holden Jennings Scholar to honor outstanding classroom educators.

Lisa's tweet from plearnchat: "Model expectations, procedures, routines. Take time to build the culture of the classroom. Build on successes."

Next #plearnchat is in 2 weeks on October 12th, 7pm ET 
Topic: Connected Learners, Connected Ed


Below is the archive of #plearnchat Learners NOT Technology

Self-Efficacy: The Secret Sauce to Learning Success

by James Rickabaugh, Director, Institute for Personalized Learning

This is the second in the blog series on Learner Agency. We are collaborating with the Institute for Personalized Learning on this series and taking the lead on different posts. Jim Rickabaugh (@drrickabuagh) took the lead on this post on Self-Efficacy so we want to share with you a summary of his post with a link to the full text.

Jim shared the wisdom contained in Henry Ford’s quote in the image above. He states that Ford's statement captures the core of what we call "self-efficacy." The idea of believing in yourself if you can or cannot do something holds significant implications both for learners and for us as educators in our journey to nurture high levels of skill and knowledge. Jim eloquently explains how learners can develop a sense of confidence by developing good strategies, practice smart persistence and utilize the full range of resources available to them, they can and will succeed. Here are two of the ten strategies Jim shares on self-efficacy:
  1. Focus on learning as the goal by allowing flexibility in the pace at which learners are expected to learn. A “lock step” approach to instruction can send the message to some learners that they are not capable when all they really need is more time. 
  2. Support learners to set short-term, attainable goals for their progress. When they have developed the confidence and capacity, guide them to focus and persist for longer periods on more challenging goals. 

We highly recommend that you read Self-Efficacy: The Secret Sauce to Learning Success for the full text and learning more about all of the ten strategies to reinforce and build self-efficacy.


Blog Post #1 Learner Agency: The Missing Link 
Blog Post #3 Discover the Learner in Every Child"
Blog Post #4 Learner Voice Demonstrates Commitment to Build Agency


The Institute for Personalized Learning (@Institute4PL) works with school districts through a unique action network approach to create an educational ecosystem that is student-centered and personalized for each learner. For more information contact, or connect with them via Facebook or Pinterest.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Full STEAM Ahead to Personalize Learning

Traditional schools graduate people who are preparing for jobs that are no longer here. These are jobs where workers follow orders and may have one job for life. Those types of jobs are being outsourced or done by technology. Learners today are going to need critical thinking, problem-solving, and entrepreneurial skills. Most jobs today and in the future will be in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Now, employers are looking for creative and innovative people who think on their own. The new MBA (Masters of Business Administration) that businesses may be looking for could be the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts). The focus on STEM education will be STEAM. (The A is for Arts)

The #plearnchat on September 14 was about moving from STEM to STEAM. Through the research and discussions, we believed this was going to be an interesting topic for our personalized learning community. So we asked the Big Question: "Why does it make sense to apply the arts to STEM?"

We used the Q1, A1 format.

The conversations about STEM and STEAM were "steaming" in other twitter chats. So we invited educators who we believed would want to delve deeper into the arts and why it is important to promote STEAM in and outside of their schools. Here's a few of the tweets that stood out:

Andrea Kornowski @andreakornowski
Arts and creativity encourages innovation. I think of it as the spark that leads to innovation.

Staci McKee @my4ccoa
Any time the arts can be tied to curriculum it should be. I think it gives ss a "global" perspective.

Nadine Richards @naywheels
Industry operate efficiently using interdisciplinary approach, so should education.


Congratulations to Kathy Renfrew, @KRScienceLady, who won our book, Make Learning Personal.

Kathy is a former elementary teacher who now works as the K-5 Science Coordinator for the Agency of Education in Vermont. She works mostly with teacher leaders, and leadership teams. Kathy is a believer in the new science standards #NGSS and a believer that we are all learners.

"We should connect, integration of arts and #NGSS science. 
Great combination with lots of possibilities. :-)"


Next #plearnchat is in 2 weeks on 9/28 at 7pm ET - Topic is "Learners NOT Technology"


Below is the archive of #plearnchat on STEM to STEAM

Learner Agency: The Missing Link

A collaborative blog series by Personalize Learning, LLC and the Institute for Personalized Learning. This is the first post in our collaborative blog series on Learner Agency.  

Defining Learner Agency

Learner agency often gets missed in conversations on transforming the educational system. We have a sense of ‘agency’ when we feel in control of things that happen around us; when we feel that we can influence events. This is an important sense for learners to develop. Learners must understand:
  • when they need new learning and how to learn what they need
  • when they need to unlearn what will no longer serve them 
  • when they need to relearn what they need to be successful 
They must develop the capacity to engage strategically in their learning without waiting to be directed. They must take ownership of and responsibility for their learning. And, they must possess the skills to learn independently, without heavy dependence on external structures and direction.

"Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon."
E.M. Forster

Why Learner Agency is Needed

There is a significant and growing demand for learners to be able to do more than receive instruction, follow a learning path designed by educators and complete problems and assignments presented to them by an adult. Learners need to develop the capacity to shape and manage their learning without over-reliance on the direction and control of others. Too often adults treat children as though they are incapable of making decisions or holding valid opinions. As children advance through the system, they develop a form of “learned helplessness” that keeps them from advocating for themselves. The process for learning and the role learners play must be different than most adults experienced.

Harvard professor Roland Barth has observed that in the 1950’s when young people left high school they typically knew about 75% of what they would need to know to be successful in life. Today, he predicts that young people know about 2% of what they will need to know. (Barth, R.S. (1997, March 5). The leader as learner. Education Week, 16(23). 56.) This shift is not because young people are learning less than previous generations. In fact, there is good evidence that they know much more. The force behind this change is the rapid and ever-increasing pace of change, the complexity of the world in which we live and the unpredictability of what people will need to know in the coming decades - the future for which we are preparing today’s learners.

Implications of Greater Learner Agency

The current educational system was designed for teachers to control and manage the learning. This continues today because teachers are the ones held accountable and responsible for the learning instead of the learners. As educators, we must nurture, coach and build in learners more capacity to initiate, manage, and maintain their own learning. Learning will be a constant and high-priority activity throughout their lives and they will need the skills and tools to manage this process.

Adults need to shift their thinking -- away from youth as student to youth as learner and partner and resource for their own learning and others. We must make the crucial shift from preparing proficient students to developing skilled learners. The result will be learners who are capable of playing an active role in personalizing their learning and building their capacity to be successful productive citizens regardless of what their futures hold.

In a series of upcoming blogs we will examine a number of key shifts and strategies necessary to transform the educational experiences we have presented to learners in the past and align the focus, strategies and approaches we employ to build the capacity of learners to be continuous, life-long, successful leaders of their learning. We will present shifts and strategies on:
  • understanding the connection between good strategy, effort and use of resources to develop learner efficacy
  • helping learners understand how they learn best and how they can support their learning
  • the role and importance of learner voice and choice
  • building learner ownership of their learning
Second Post is on “Self-Efficacy: The Secret Sauce of Learner Success”
Third Post is "Discover the Learner in Every Child"
Fourth Post is "Learner Voice Demonstrates Commitment to Build Agency"
Fifth Post is "Ownership and Independence: The Key to Agency"


The Institute for Personalized Learning (@Institute4PL) collaborated with us on this post so they have also posted it on their blog here.

The Institute for Personalized Learning works with school districts through a unique action network approach to create an educational ecosystem that is student-centered and personalized for each learner. For more information contact, or connect with them via Facebook or Pinterest

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Back to School with Four O’Clock Faculty

Guest Post by Rich Czyz, Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Stafford Township School District, NJ and Co-Founder of

This year, I had the opportunity to create the Four O’Clock Faculty blog with my good friend Trevor Bryan. While we searched for the perfect name for the website, Trevor recounted a story about his father who was also in the education field. The story became the inspiration for our website:

In 1959, Joel Barlow High School opened in Redding, Connecticut. Roy Briggs was the first Principal. Mr. Briggs recognized his situation as unique opportunity because not many Principals have the chance to hand pick each member of their faculty. Briggs’ aim was not only to hire the best teachers that he could find, but also to hire a faculty that would help establish Joel Barlow HS as the best high school in the state. Larry Bryan was hired as a teacher in 1960. During his interview, Briggs informed Larry that school ended at 2:15pm. When Larry asked, “What time can teachers leave?” Briggs simply responded, “We are a Four O’Clock Faculty.”

In this spirit, the Four O’Clock Faculty blog has been established as a site for those educators looking to improve schools and learning for themselves and their students – to make schools the best that they can be.

Recently, we embarked on our most ambitious posts to date, 7 days (with an added 8th day for good measure) dedicated to resources and features for those teachers headed Back to School. The Back to School series featured a variety of advice for teachers, practical strategies for setting up classrooms, opening day activities to use with students, and ideas to motivate teachers as they prepared to welcome students back.

Below you will find a brief description of each of the resources shared throughout the eight days. As you start (or continue) your school year, remember to bring your passion every day!

On Opening Day helps introduce the importance of the Opening Day of school. Every student and teacher deserves a new opportunity to achieve. Just like the Opening Day of baseball season, you can bring your hope and passion to students to have them excited to return to your classroom every day.

In Advice for the 1st Day of School, a variety of educators who inspire us every day share their best advice. Listen to these words of wisdom to make your first day a memorable one.


Purposeful Learning Spaces are so important to helping students and teachers meet their learning goals and objectives. Learn how purposeful design of your classroom can help you and students to accomplish more.


In Viewing Art to Start Students Reading, Trevor Bryan describes how the  viewing of photographs, illustrations, and artwork early in the year can lead to students becoming successful readers later in the year.


In Advice for New Teachers, educators provide their best tips, strategies and words of encouragement for those teachers who will be entering their own classrooms for the first time.

Activities for the 1st Day of School introduces 10 activities that you can use with students on the first day to ensure that they will want to come back every day with their passion for learning. Activities, such as Blackout Poetry, STEM Challenges and others, can help students to collaborate and think critically while also learning about their classmates.

In Become the CEO of Your Classroom V2.0, I explore the customer service principles of Disney, and how they can be applied to education to make you the Chief Education Officer of your classroom.

Finally, More Advice for New Teachers brings more motivational ideas and encouraging words to those teachers who are starting their careers and could use some help as they prepare for their first group of students.


The first days of school can be the most important time of the year in motivating your students, and establishing a connection that will have them returning to your classroom each day with a passion to learn. We hope that the Back to School series provides you with several resources to utilize as you start school. We hope that Four O’Clock Faculty helps you to improve instruction and learning for you and your students.



Rich Czyz is a Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Stafford Township School District (Pre-K through 6th Grade) in New Jersey. He is the co-founder of the Four O’Clock Faculty blog, which can be found at Rich has a passion for modeling and implementing innovative strategies to help learners and teachers improve every day. Rich is active on Twitter (@RACzyz) and can be reached via email at