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Aurora Institute

Four Pitfalls to Implementing Personalized Mastery: The Culture

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Copper Stoll and Gene Giddings

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

cultureThe journey to a personalized learning system is fraught with pitfalls and hurdles. Can you get your Board on board? Will teachers embrace new practice to replace current practice? Can you create a communication plan for all stakeholders that really communicates? Will a system that has been in place for one hundred years surrender to one that prepares learners for the next one hundred years? We have found that on this journey there are some key practices that must be built to help answer “yes” to these questions. These practices fall into two categories:

  • Common Moral Purpose
  • Culture of Continuous Improvement
    • Readiness for Change
    • Trust to Doubt
    • Learner-centered Collective Efficacy

This article will focus on these two categories, which help to create a culture for personalized mastery. The Learner Improvement Cycle will be explored in a subsequent article.

Creating a Common Moral Purpose for the Schools our Students Deserve:

Our current educational system does not insist that all of our students achieve to proficiency. As a matter of practice, we give students Ds, and we accept perfunctory efforts as a result. Many schools have grading practices that confuse the issue of success against standards with point acquisition on an arbitrary 100-point scale. These practices are evidence that the public school system has not embraced the moral purpose of “proficiency for all” our students. Being trapped in a time-based system with an agrarian calendar has put a stress on teachers to “cover” material instead of insisting on learners’ demonstrating an understanding of key concepts that will allow them to be successful in future learning. The schools in our nation must examine their common moral purpose and conclude that our current system does not serve all learners well. We must change to a system that allows time to be the variable. The constant must be mastery against the standards by providing learners the resources they need.

Embracing a Culture of Continuous Improvement:

Many teachers will affirm that teaching is not what is used to be. They are overworked, underpaid, and burned out. We would suggest that these stressors are attributable to teachers operating in a system that does not allow them opportunities to reflect on the outcomes of their efforts, engage in professional dialogue, and challenge current practice. To get to a system that allows for reflection and challenging current practice, we must replace our thinking about the nature of change. Many of our colleagues fear change and will fight it tooth-and-nail. That does not serve us or our learners well. Three shifts in attitude must occur to embrace a culture of continuous improvement. These are: Readiness for Change, Trust-to-Doubt, and Learner-Centered Collective Efficacy.

Readiness for change is the idea that in order to create the schools our learners deserve, we must have teachers who will accept and embrace change. Change is hard, but first, the people in the system have to want to change. Teachers must feel that they have permission to act, are willing to challenge the status quo and have leaders who encourage an innovation culture. A prototype or innovation culture encourages risk-taking, celebrates attempts as well as the successes, and instead of throwing away practices that don’t quite work the first time, looks at the root causes and improves them. Without this attitudinal adjustment, change is seen as daunting and too hard to accomplish.

Each person must determine his/her own reaction to personalized mastery. Colleagues must support each person and their response to this change.  For those who see it as a first-order change, they will feel comfortable that personalized mastery is the next natural step to take and they have the skills and knowledge to accomplish it in their school or classroom. They have been flexibly grouping students based on assessments, using technology to individualize learning and using centers to create relevant learning for students. For those who see personalized mastery as a second-order change, they will need to be supported with a new set of skills. Because staff will not feel they have the skills and knowledge to begin to implement a personalized mastery system, leaders will need to focus on motivating, communicating, innovating and taking risks.

Trust-to-doubt is a resurrection of the classic practice of challenging strategies with a pragmatic eye focused on results. Results in this case are the levels of student proficiency and engagement of our learners in the classroom. New practices cannot be heaped on top of all the old practices currently in play. School staffs must examine current practices and determine if they are needed in a personalized mastery system or can be discarded as a vestige of the past. The conditions for change can happen in many ways but must include time for reflection and a method for checking and adjusting practice based on desired results. Many of our schools’ staff places such a high premium on adult relationships that there is an innate fear of insulting our friends if achievement results or sacred cow practices are challenged. This leads us to the question, “Can we like each other and make certain we have practices in place so all our learners are proficient?”

Learner-centered collective efficacy is the shared perception that the effort expended by the learners and staff of a school will result in increased proficiency. In our current system, many teachers often feel helpless and may be quick to blame outsiders, parents, or students themselves for poor academic progress. This attitude is symptomatic of a lack of collective efficacy. If you are hearing these kinds of comments from your staff, be assured that they feel a lack of power to make a difference. This defeated attitude will not get our students to a proficiency level that they must have to be competitive internationally.

The reader will note that learners are included in this conversation. As a matter of fact, learners are included in all aspects of a personalized mastery system with specific intent. That intent is that our learners must be fortified with skills to be lifelong learners so they can face the challenges of their future, not our past. The strategy of the gradual release of responsibility reinforces this efficacy for learners.

The good news is that collective efficacy can be acculturated. Research indicates that efficacy flourishes when challenges are met head-on together with success, when staff sees other colleagues being successful with new practices, and staff members support one another through the challenge. These wins must be celebrated and made very transparent so learners and staff know precisely how challenges were met and overcome. This will allow them to replicate their effort when faced with the next challenge.

Imagine a district where all stakeholders have a common moral purpose, are ready to change, trust one another to adjust practices, and truly believe what they do makes a difference in childrens’ lives. Once the culture is in place, you are ready to take on the challenge of personalized mastery. In our next article, we will discuss how a school involves students in all aspects of the Learner Improvement Cycle. This involvement is necessary to allow students to be active, knowledgeable, and engaged in their learning.

Copper Stoll and Gene Giddings are career educators with more than 78 years of combined experience in teaching, leadership and consulting across the United States. In 2007, Stoll and Giddings co-founded Don’t Ever Stop! LLC, an educational and leadership consulting and partnering company that focuses on the transformation of districts to systems of personalized mastery. Based in Colorado, their mission is to build capacity in educational systems for Personalized Mastery. They have worked, since from retiring from public education, tirelessly to support districts in focusing on results of the adult actions on the learning. They have written a book, Reawakening the Learner: Creating Learner-centered and Standards-driven Schools in 2012 and are about to release a companion toolkit for implementation. You can contact Stoll and Giddings at [email protected].