The Role of Admins in Personalized Learning
Regardless of the theory of leadership to which you personally subscribe - the power of an individual leader to move mountains, for example, or a more modern approach that views leadership as part of social identity theory - one thing is certain: Leadership still matters. And although great strides have been made with a view toward empowering staff at all levels, administrative leadership remains critically important to bringing about systemic change. If a 21st century vision of personalized learning is to be realized, central office directors, building principals, and other administrators must play a key role in bringing it about.
Much energy is wasted when a school district finds itself engaged in an unproductive argument about the best way to pursue a new strategic initiative - either from the top leadership of the district or building down, or growing a grassroots movement that spreads upward from the rank and file. It’s a waste of energy because a purely top-down strategy often yields lack of buy-in or outright resistance, and a purely bottom-up approach can be haphazard and directionless, never reaching the critical mass of people necessary to achieve meaningful implementation.
The good news? The two seemingly standalone approaches are not mutually exclusive. Professional Learning Community (PLC) guru Rick DuFour spoke of “loose-tight” leadership as a solution to this persistent quandary. Instead of having to choose between a completely “tight” or autocratic approach, or a purely “loose” or laissez-faire approach, a school or district can use the best elements of both: the strong, focused, top-down direction and the organic, inspiring bottom-up energy that are so critical for strategic success.
In the case of a personalized learning initiative, effective loose-tight leadership means that district and school leadership will establish a “tight” framework: We will personalize our approach to the learning process, and we will collaborate internally and externally to realize our goals. Then, the initiative will be turned over to stakeholders: What personalized learning looks like in the district will be a shared endeavor; how we will collaborate will be determined at the classroom and team levels. From that point, “tight” accountability is an essential follow-up step. Leadership must ensure that collaborative decisions are implemented in good faith by all. Leadership is necessary to ensure that an admittedly sprawling initiative does not devolve into chaos, as is all too common with educational programming.
A Shared Internal Understanding
You hear it in every discussion about the mission and vision of a school or district: “If a group wants to move forward, it needs to develop an understood, agreed-upon purpose.” Theoretically this could happen organically at the grassroots level, but more than likely - especially in larger organizations - the situation will cry out for coordinated administrative leadership.
Administrators must first work with staff to create and adhere to an effective working definition of what personalized learning is, as definitions of personalized learning vary widely and some may confuse personalized learning with differentiated instruction (one aspect of personalized learning, to be sure, but certainly not the whole package). Armed with a shared definition, planning and implementation may progress, with staff able to vocalize what a personalized education looks like across the curriculum and how best the district might support it. Administrators are in the perfect position to lead those conversations.
Communicating with External Stakeholders
Administrators are also in the perfect position to serve as a bridge between internal and external stakeholders. While developing a shared internal understanding, administrators should also be soliciting information and advice from parents, community members, and community organizations as to what personalized learning should ideally look like in the school district.
After the internal team has developed a shared vision of what personalized learning will look like, administrators are critical to the process of sharing that vision and helping the larger community live it every day. As an admin, you can share the overall vision and strategy with parents and the community in a number of ways both informal (coffee and conversation-style events) and formal (e-mail blasts, informational sessions offered during parent-teacher conferences). You can also share personalized learning success stories through your communications director or hired firm, or directly on social media. The enthusiasm will be contagious.
Schools continue to shift administrative mindsets from command-and-control, “I know best” style systems to ones where students are seen as responsible partners in the decision-making process. A major factor in personalized learning is that learning is no longer something done to students but rather a journey whose path is determined in part by students. Student voice and choice is key.
Administrators should welcome students into the process of defining personalized learning and determining what it should look like in classrooms. Students should be involved as the program is rolled out throughout the district. Students should also be periodically surveyed to ascertain the relevance and effectiveness of a personalized learning program. Be bold - see students as your greatest ally in building a personalized learning system for all.
Setting the Example
Staff and students can sense hypocrisy a mile away. To ensure that personalized learning doesn’t become just another passing fad at your school, you must set the example. Administrators should personalize the professional development program, allowing staff voice and choice related to new skills they would like to master and existing skills upon which they would like to improve. Administrators should also “flip” the traditional faculty meeting, using the time for personalized professional learning and celebrations of success, not just boilerplate housekeeping items. These are just a few examples of how school leaders can set the example and create a personalized learning environment for all, not just students.
Using EdTech Tools with Fidelity
In creating a personalized learning environment for all learners, the old tools and methods just won’t do. One set of paper-based class materials, such as textbooks and worksheets, issued at teacher direction with little regard for student choice, violates that environment’s bedrock principles. In the personalized learning environment, educational technology (edtech) tools aren’t necessarily the focus, but become a powerful choice for students to access the curriculum in ways that are personalized and meaningful for them, such as through the availability of curated content, discussion tools, and more via the school’s learning management system (LMS).
However, if school and district administrators don’t provide relevant, ongoing, job-embedded professional development, an LMS can end up just sitting around like the proverbial “binder on a shelf” that has represented the death of many a strategic planning process down through the educational ages. Administrators must not only make the learning management system software available and show educators powerful examples of how a good LMS makes it possible to personalize learning for all students, they must also ensure follow through and staff accountability. Edtech tools are generally worthless if people don’t use them at all, use them only in teacher-directed ways, or use them only to replace traditional analog tools. Administrators and learning leaders of all stripes must ensure that they are used with fidelity for the right purposes.
Leadership Still Matters
Much has been made of teaming structures and so-called “horizontal leadership.” Teaming is fine and building a more horizontally-empowered organization can bring great benefits in terms of speed and innovation. However, reports of the death of top-down leadership are greatly exaggerated, especially in education. Administrative leadership, when it both focuses and empowers organizational energy, is a catalyst for school improvement. To bring your personalized learning initiative to fruition, embrace the mindset that administrative leadership is necessary and welcome.
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