Many people talk about student-centered learning but taking it seriously requires big changes–new tools, new approaches, and a new mindset.  A Next Generation Learning Challenge judge said last week, “Personalized learning starts with re-imagining the student experience not current system constraints.”

Borrowing lessons from other sectors and the promising practices of the best operators in education, personalized learning requires:

  • Blended learning environment;
  • Lean operations; and
  • Iterative development.

Blending Environment. New tools–particularly inexpensive Internet devices and adaptive game-based learning systems–have created new design opportunities. Combining the best features of digital and face-to-face learning, blended learning incorporates “some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.”

Blended classrooms can provide a boost to a group of students, but blended schools create a new world of opportunity for how a team of teachers interact with hundreds of students and how students experience learning.  Blended schools create an Opportunity Culture, using job redesign and technology to extend the reach of excellent teachers and the teams they lead.

Adaptive learning is a particularly important blended tool because it combines continuous assessment with targeted tutoring. DreamBox math incorporated into a class rotation model was a critical part of turning around Cleveland Elementary in Santa Barbara.

Lean Operations. “Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources,” according to Lean Enterprise Institute.  A lean organization understands value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase and improve it. Lean thinking changes the focus of ‘management’ from optimizing separate technologies, assets, and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of ‘products and services’ through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to users. Lean is not a program or short term cost reduction program, but a paradigm for entity operation.

Lean schools allocate a high percentage of their budget to classrooms and the invest in productivity producing tools and initiatives. They use design thinking to reconsider everything in their quest to optimize learning. For examples, see 10 ways students could co-create customized learning pathways.

Reynoldsburg City Schools in Columbus, Ohio is a great example of a district that has rethought strategy, structures, and systems to transform its schools and create new student learning pathways.

Iterative Development. The lean startup methodology has transformed how new products are built and launched.  While common among education technology startups, iterative development strategies are also being used by some school networks. Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority are simultaneously iterating on school models and learning platforms. Summit opens at least one new school each year and each school reflects a new version of the school model and platform. Combine organizational design with technology design is yielding promising results in both cases.

Following is a summary of all three dimensions–a reflection of new tools, new approaches, and a new mindset.

TraditionalLean, Blended, Iterative
StrategyImplementation orientedHypothesis-driven experimentation
ExperienceStep by step planTest, hypothesis, iterate
DesignPrescribedFlexible, 90 day cycles of innovation
CommunicationTop downFrequent shared reflection
OrganizationDepartments, individualsProblem solving teams
DevelopmentPD to support planContinuously developing mindset/skills
EvaluationYear end resultsReal time data informs decisions
FailureAvoidedExpected: fix it, iterate
SpeedMeasured: compliance dataRapd: hacks on good enough data

Adapted from Reynoldsburg City Schools.

For more, see 10 Trends in Blended Learning from DreamBox.


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  1. Couldn’t agree more with the importance of iterative development and Dreambox is a great example. Another that I would recommend highly is Headsprout ( Headsprout focuses on early reading and reading comprehension and has an extensive iterative design and evaluation process. Perhaps you’re familiar with them already? They are also in Seattle.


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