Leap of Faith, Now What? Marrying PBL and Personalized Learning.

October 24, 2016
Lydia Dobyns

Lydia Dobyns

President and CEO, New Tech Network

View Lydia’s blogs on the Huffington Post


Let’s start by stating the obvious—there is yet to emerge an accepted definition of “personalized learning”. Often it is used to describe both practice and pedagogy. Is it the same or different than “blended learning. At the same time, according to Getting Smart, “About one-third of American workers are now engaged in some kind of freelance or project-based work. This means students need to learn how to work effectively in the emerging “gig” economy.” With this in mind, Project Based Learning is coming into its own moment of relevancy as engaging instructional practice.

On the surface, these options look like competing strategies to innovate and improve schools. Rather than view this as a black and white choice (I hate false dichotomies), our organization decided to take a leap of faith and has embarked on a Personalized Project Based Learning approach, pursuing elements of personalization within a PBL-centric school model. We are a school design and support organization working with 200 K-12 district schools in 28 states. For more than 15 years, public school districts around the country have come to us to implement the New Tech school model. At the heart of the model are four design pillars: strong culture, inquiry-based instruction through Project Based Learning, pervasive use of technology to enhance teaching and learning, and multiple measured student learning outcomes.

We have never rested on our laurels or considered the model “finished”, rather we promise the schools in our network that by joining us in continuous learning endeavors, together we will get better. That means a closer look at data to be able to diagnose a problem, learning through inquiry and working together to improve outcomes for more students. Our schools serve over 70,000 students, and every student is important. Who wouldn’t want to offer a personalized learning experience? But what does that mean?

We see two instructional aims —Project Based Learning (our proxy for Deeper Learning) and Personalized Learning— as philosophically aligned while posing significant operational challenges in the classroom. Teachers frequently face competing initiatives, insufficient planning time, inadequate resources, and ineffective professional development. So with these daunting challenges, why have we taken a leap into this unchartered territory? Because if we’re right, and a union of these two aims is attainable, students will be far better served, and teachers will be enriched in the process. And that makes a leap worth the risk.

Next week at the iNACOL conference we are leading a session on how to kickstart personalized PBL with grade-level teams. In this session, NTN gurus Kevin Gant, Tim Presiado and Kristin Cuilla will help participants develop strategies for utilizing teacher leaders to reinvent PBL in existing schools.

Here’s the hope we have for benefits of great personalized PBL:

•Authentic tasks to create meaning and context for learning within Projects

•Instruction and assessment of critical individual student college and career skills

•High degrees of differentiation in instruction and student choice

•Detailed tracking, and reporting of, individual student progress and performance against multiple learning objectives

PBL done well, and the New Tech school model in particular, provides a powerful platform for personalization:

  • Connects student passions and interests and makes them central to their intellectual development
  • Increases the “fit” between an individual student and his/her school environment
  • Reorients our approach to data, elevating student work to be some of the most important sources of data we have
  • Empowers students as designers of their own learning

Another New Tech Network colleague, Drew Schrader, is doing a lot of thinking about personalization and PBL . “While personalized learning is a difficult term to pin down, the energy around the topic is a useful reminder that school in general does not feel well designed to support student growth or to provide deep, transformative learning to all students. Personalized learning is as much a field-wide desire to reimagine how we approach school and learning to maximize individual student potential as it is a coherent design or approach.” Read Drew’s two part blog on PBL as Platform for Personalized Learning.

We are “mid flight” in the leap of faith; excited and exhilarated at what’s possible in connecting “personalized” with “Project Based” learning. As always, we are mindful of the deep challenges teachers and school leaders face in wanting to embrace innovative thinking while faced with enormous challenges to manage their “normal” classroom loads. Being part of a network focused on learning together can make a tremendous difference in making this possible. The quest for engaging in instructional and cultural practices that aim to help each student achieve his/her potential is never-ending. Without a clear finish line in sight, we are left to create structures that connect us in the quest to learn and to know when we are progressing in our highest aim.

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