Guest Blog: 6 Risks to Avoid When Implementing Personalized Learning: Part 1

Posted by Janice Vargo on February 15, 2016


The Education Elements team has the great privilege of working with districts across the country to plan, design, and implement personalized learning. Without fail, one of the first questions district leadership teams ask us is, "What have other districts done that we should avoid?"

Through our work over the past five years, we've identified six key risks for districts:

  • Risk #1: Lack of Clear Vision, Narrative, and Rationale
  • Risk #2: Curricular and Instructional Misalignment
  • Risk #3: Failure to Build Capacity at District and School Level
  • Risk #4: Starting with the Wrong Schools
  • Risk #5: Under Communication with Stakeholders
  • Risk #6: Selecting the Wrong Devices

We'll talk about the first three risks here, then move on to the second three risks in our next blog post. Risk #1: Lack of Clear Vision, Narrative, and Rationale

 Many districts struggle to paint a clear picture of how personalized learning looks different from what happens in classrooms today. Instead they turn to educational jargon and say things like, "we want to see 21st century skills and higher-order thinking skills."

Sounds great right? But if I'm a teacher, I don't know what I should be doing differently. If I'm a parent, I don't know how my child's experience will be different—much less improved—than before. 

And where school leaders and teachers may understand that they are being asked to focus on different instructional strategies, like more small group instruction or flipped teaching, they may not be able to articulate why they are taking these approaches. 

Without a clear vision and narrative, district leaders have trouble identifying early wins or proof points of success that would help them increase buy-in and offer exemplars of good practice.

To avoid this risk, districts should:

  • Create a district vision statement and explain why personalized learning supports that vision.
  • Connect personalized learning to the instructional language and priorities of the district.
  • Identify measures of success early in the process—what's the expected path to this success and key indicators of success along the way. 
  • Agree on a process to check if schools are on/off track from expected path, and identify immediate supports to course correct.

Risk #2: Curricular and Instructional Misalignment

Many districts do not spend the appropriate time sufficiently early in the process making sure that new instructional models and content align with the district's current curriculum or instructional frameworks. Often, district curriculum coaches and school-based instructional coaches are missing form initial conversations around planning, design, and professional development. As a result, school leaders and teachers are unclear on expectations and how the new instructional model "fits in" with what they were already doing—for example, what a differentiation look like in a personalized system? The lack of clarity can often lead to a compliance mindset among school leaders and teachers. Schools that adopt a compliance mindset often put a new label on current practices—"we're already doing this, we just need to call it something different"—rather than embracing the opportunity to go beyond current practices. Schools that adopt a compliance mindset often miss the opportunity to increase student choice, to offer additional pathways for student learning based on need, or to rethink how to personalize their professional development for teachers.

To avoid the risk, districts should:

  • Ensure any changes proposed are aligned with current pedagogy, or if there is departure from current pedagogy, to explain explain the shifts and how to do them. 
  • Involve curricular leads at the district and school level early in the process in order to identify gaps, either real or perceived.
  • Acknowledge realistic timeline for changes, e.g. revamping curriculum.
  • Articulate what teachers should be doing less as well as more. 
  • Create process to continuously check on instructional alignment in the classroom (e.g. walkthroughs). 

To read the entirety of this article, please click here. Be sure to check out Part 2 of this article for more enlightening advice for risks in personalized learning. 

Education Elements partners with districts to design and implement personalized learning through our consulting services and Highlight, our personalized learning platform. Our work helps districts to articulate their vision, build their capacity, design and implement new instructional models, and most importantly, important student outcomes. Visit for more information.