Personalizing Professional Development

Many of the schools I work with are riding the personalized learning wave. In fact, in response to a recent question in one of my districts, “Yes, this is probably the most common education trend I’m asked to work on in my districts.” In addition to working in schools and districts, some of my work includes collaborating with state education agencies that are also championing personalized learning and are trying to determine a state’s role in supporting districts and schools as they take efforts to personalize learning.

Personalized learning receives significant emphasis in the new National Educational Technology Plan. It’s the focus of the very first goal of the plan which encourages that “learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings…” (p. 7) and specifically calls out personalized learning as a means for supporting this goal. The release of the new plan was eclipsed by the signing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—on the very same day(!)—but proponents of personalized learning suggest it also plays a role in this new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Recently, personalized learning got a boost from the report Continued Progress from the Gates Foundation. Researchers found that students in the schools included in the study showed significant growth in math and reading when involved in personalized learning programs. This growth appears to be substantially larger than a national sample of students that do not participate in personalized learning, and—most promising—students that started out at lower achievement levels showed the greatest gain.

With all this positive momentum, and a growing body of research encouraging personalized learning, what’s the next step? To again quote some of the educators I work with, “If we want teachers to personalize learning for students, we also need to personalize professional development for teachers.” Great idea! How do we do that?

Personalized Learning Framework

I like to start the personalized learning conversation by trying to figure out exactly what people mean when the use the term personalized learning. Like many terms in education, it means different things to different people. And it’s not a clear dichotomy. It’s not like you do or don’t personalize learning. Many teachers personalize aspects of learning, to varying degrees. I often use these three scenarios, which are based on a review of literature and practice and perhaps a few actual teachers I know. Every time I use them, the scenarios help educators realize the variety of components that can be personalized as well as the range of ways these components can be personalized.

I don’t have similar scenarios for professional development. I guess that’s something for my New Year’s resolutions. But you can think about the components of personalized learning that undergird these scenarios for personalizing learning for students and tackle one or more as you personalize professional development for teachers. Below are just some suggestions based on my work. (By the way, the report from the Gates Foundation describes 5 components that support personalized learning if you’re interested in a different framework.)

Personalized Learning Framework Component What this can look like for educators
Learning Targets Educators work with their administration, PLC, a mentor teacher or others to develop personal learning targets for their personal and professional growth plan.
Curriculum Educators access a range of relevant artifacts and resources with guidance from teachers, coaches, or experts in the field. They may complete some anchor or foundational activities but are given flexibility in terms of accessing content and developing skills and knowledge.
Pedagogies Educators rely on PD providers, PLC members, and colleagues as learning experts who use resources, technologies, and methods that are relevant to the content areas being studied but may vary by the need of each educator.
Resources Used Educators use a range of personal and school-provided devices, accessing a range of print and digital resources from school, home, and elsewhere. Schools and districts may provide a minimum of devices and resources but allow educators choice in terms of using external resources if their relevance is justified.
Assessment Educators engage in ongoing series of pre-, formative, and post-assessment opportunities to determine their current levels of proficiency and monitor and adjust their own learning goals. Pre-assessments help educators determine appropriate learning paths and summative assessments occur on-demand at the time educators feel they have completed requisite activities or feel confident about their skills and knowledge.
Pace Educators make decisions about what is learned when, advancing through content at their own pace and spending more time on topics of interest or those in which they feel they need more practice. Educators have a contract or individual learning plan (e.g., professional growth plan) that guides their overall progress and work in concert with PD providers to ensure they’re moving at an appropriate pace and utilizing the best resources.
Place Educators access content and complete activities from any place at any time. The school is still likely a center of support where educators can schedule or contract with PD providers to guide their learning, receive explicit instruction when needed, or seek consultation about what they have (or haven’t) mastered.
Grouping Educators self-select team members to participate in learning based on the skills, expertise, and experiences of others. Grouping may be similar to workforce grouping in which teams of individuals with diverse expertise work together to address problems. Group members use a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools embedded in or connected to a learning platform to organize, conduct, and share their work.
Learner Characteristics Individuals’ abilities, prior content knowledge, and content experiences are known, monitored and leveraged in PD activities, as are their interests, emotions, life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and other unique needs and characteristics.
Voice & Choice Educators are given a good deal of choice but have to justify their selections. A learning platform links to or provides access to a variety of technologies and resources in varied formats that educators use to monitor and regulate their own learning. Educators learn at their own pace to complete discrete units and receive credit based upon completion, not time spent.
Facilitator’s Role Student learning is activated by facilitators or experts and supported by the use of a learning platform. Educators work collaboratively within and across grade levels and departments, depending on the desired outcomes. Facilitators focus on helping educators develop skills for lifelong learning and developing self-directed learning skills. Facilitators interact with educators in person and through the learning platform to provide equitable access to high-quality resources and interactions.
Interaction with Learning Platform A learning platform plays a key role in providing access to high-quality resources and professional growth opportunities. Educators access the platform independently to identify activities and resources vetted by PD providers or master teachers to help them achieve their learning goals, perhaps rating resources based on how helpful they are. They use the platform to create their own learning journeys and share their learning, such as through a dynamic e-portfolio. They use the reporting tools to monitor their progress and share their status with administrators and PD providers.

Many of these components make sense and are indeed being employed by PD departments in districts across the country. For example, many teachers create their own learning goals for their personal professional development plan and there are many opportunities for educators to access professional learning from any place on their own time. There are a few key ideas, however, that I believe make this framework unique—especially compared to the type of professional learning I participated in as a teacher. I suggest the following should occur to move to the most mature levels of personalized professional development. Let me know what you think.

  1. Device neutrality. Educators should be able to access professional learning using whatever device they feel comfortable with and have access to. They shouldn’t be limited to accessing professional learning only at school within a restricted online environment; although, those educators who want to access PD at school (and many do) should be supported through the provision of resources and the opportunity to collaborate with others.
  2. Increased reliance on pre-assessments. Just as students are increasingly encountering pre-assessments that help place them within a relevant learning path and giving them credit for skills and knowledge they already possess, personalized PD incorporates pre-assessments that honor educators’ existing skills and puts them within a path that is appropriately relevant and challenging.
  3. Technology supports personalization. In our current place in time, there’s almost no way to manage personalization for a range of teachers, whether a school faculty of a dozen teachers or a district with thousands, without using technology. For the most part, this is done through a learning management system (LMS) that can automate many processes, like enrollment; pre-, post- and ongoing assessment; generating and managing portfolios and other artifacts; recording completion and certification; as well as the ongoing interactions between educators and PD providers. The LMS can also provide access to content resources and activities that educators can explore independently or in groups. There are a lot of LMS out there, the trick is finding the right one for you. That’s a topic for another post.

We know that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning doesn’t work, yet it’s still a common approach to professional development. There’s no reason to continue that ineffective process and leverage what we know about personalized learning with students to generate high-quality PD for teachers. Let me know how you’re doing this in your own schools and districts. I’d also be interested in any questions you may have or examples you can share.

Note: I’d like to thank one of my former principals, Dr. Barry Beers, for originally suggesting this topic, which has come up over and over recently in the schools in which I’m working. To learn more about Barry’s work check out his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.


“We have an opportunity…to change education.”

That’s a paraphrase of a statement made by Diane Lewis, Director of Instructional Technology at Seminole County Public Schools. Her full statement was, “We have an opportunity in education to do something that hasn’t happened in one hundred years…(insert dramatic pause here)…and that is change it.” Powerful words. While the theme from the opening ceremony was looking back, several of the sessions I attended seemed more like looking at the future, but looking at it from a vantage point so close that if we just had enough momentum we could tip over into it. If we could do that, I’m sure Diane Lewis would be willing to be our captain.

It was clear Diane has a clear vision for professional development in her district, and while Seminole county does have a professional development department, it quickly became apparent why the instructional technology department offers the most professional development opportunities.

Diane really won my respect when she emphasized that it’s not about the technology, the instruction is the important part. Seminole County has adopted Understanding by Design, and Diane bases her discussions with teachers on that framework. As she reported, teachers will come to her and say, “Oh, I saw a wiki, I want to do a wiki.” Or “I heard about blogs, I want to do a blog.” And Diane’s response? “Why? Why this technology?” (I can’t tell you how often I have to ask this same question, Diane!) She asks teachers what they want to accomplish, the topics they have to teach, the goals of their instruction. Then she helps them find technologies that can help them get there. And what technologies she uses to get there!

Seminole uses a variety of methods and tools to support its professional development. Diane used the metaphor of an artist’s palette of opportunities. Of course they have face-to-face training, but its training focused on…instruction. Or perhaps more appropriately, it is training focused on technologies that enhance instruction. They use Blackboard, the popular learning management system, for what she calls, “those things they don’t want to do face-to-face.” At least not any more. That just means they’ve developed short asynchronous training opportunities, often with videos or screen captures, to address basic software functionality and commonly requested tasks so they can focus their limited available time on using technology to improve instruction. The ISTE NETS have moved forward, and so has Seminole County. Teachers can go in, learn what they need, then go on. It’s just-in-time training at its best.

If you’re my single reader from yesterday, you know that Seminole also has space in Second Life, which they launched with a guest appearance by digital learning guru Bernajean Porter and who continues to provide ongoing learning opportunities for Seminole’s teachers. The critical lesson I learned from their use of Second Life was that Diane admitted it addressed a common shortcoming, and that was that while there are often professional development opportunities for teachers and even for school leaders, at the district level, it is difficult for instructional leaders to find professional development. She noted that the global education community that she interacts with on Second Life has given her that opportunity, musing that perhaps she has had more and better professional development since joining Second Life than throughout the rest of her career. I can empathize. If you’re the only person in your school or your district who does your job, it’s hard to find professional development. I found that to be true 10 years ago with Pine e-mail and discussion boards. Diane has taken that simple interaction into the future.

Despite all these interesting technology-based opportunities, Diane noted there still seemed to be a gap in their current offerings. Working with outside developers, Diane and her team are informing the development of a new media-based, collaborative environment that allows for high levels of interaction. It’s like YouTube and Facebook got together and had a child, and then fed it steroids and bought it a gym membership. There are so many potential uses, from creating how-tos, refreshers from other trainings, and most exciting to me, support for eCoaching.

What? You haven’t heard about eCoaching? That was the topic of my session! O.K., if you weren’t able to be there, Diane has given me a push. I can see so many opportunities for supporting one-to-one and group collaboration. See, I’m right there on that apex. I’m ready to go into the future. Thanks to the many things I’ve learned at FETC, I’m ready to take that step. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice that Diane’s palette had one more empty spot. She’s looking towards the future, whatever that may bring.

I gotta get a Second Life

I’ve been putting it off, mostly because my first life seems to be so hectic. You know, my Facebook friends take up a lot of time, and I’m trying to boost my LinkedIn score. There’s cat boxes that need cleaning, plants that need watering, the groceries don’t seem to cook themselves, and I’ve got to write this blog that I’m the only one that reads. In between all of that I’ve got this pesky job to go to.

But today, I was convinced I should give Second Life a try. I admit I had it on my ToDo list for a while, but just couldn’t commit. “Its’ new, “ I told myself, “let someone else work out the kinks.” “It’ll just crash my computer,” I had convinced myself. I didn’t want to get motion sickness from trying to fly. Besides, what if my Avatar made me look fat?

If, like me, you were holding off on Second Life, I was encouraged to give it, well, a Second Thought (can I trademark that?) after a presentation by Lauren Thurman and Lori Weedo from Escambia County at FETC today. Lauren and Lori were Second Life enthusiasts who were dabbling in the environment until a few extra dollars, and really just a few, became available.  Escambia County purchased its own island in Second Life last June. Just slightly over 6 months later, they’ve done an amazing job of making it homey and establishing quite a comfy virtual pad.

The presenters noted that most of the interaction on their island up to this point has been collegial information sharing, but they have an exciting professional development scheduled for their teachers who will meet face-to-face once and then will spend in-depth time in Second Life exploring the new National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers. They will model technology to learn about integrating technology. What a great idea! We even got to chat with the teacher who will run the professional development, through her avatar, during the session. (My apologies for not recording her name.)

Lauren and Lori had some helpful information if you really want to take the plunge. They recommended that you join Second Life in an educator-specific area. Second Life has an education area and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has an island that is educator friendly. There are several plug-and-play education-specific features you can use or even import into your own island when you get around to dominion building, or you can visit some of those already run by school systems and education providers. Seminole County has been using Second Life, as well, and I look forward to Diane Lewis’s session tomorrow where she will briefly mention their work.

There was a more helpful information, but I don’t need to tell it all to you. You can find it at Escambia’s Second Life blog at Second Life Educators of Escambia County (SLEEC) at If, like me, you’ve been putting off getting your Second Life, get takeout one night and follow the Getting Started link on their blog. I may meet you there. Just don’t tell me if my Avatar makes me look fat.