Personalized Learning – A Powerful Movement in Education!

On a recent rainy, windy May evening myself, and colleagues from the MassCUE BLENDinMass SIG group; Judy Miller, Joanne Najarian and Ann Koufman-Frederick took a field trip into Cambridge where we had the opportunity to attend a forum moderated by Chris Dede, professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education titled, Engineering Personalized Learning: The Story of Facebook and Summit Public Schools. The featured speakers, Mike Sego, Director of Engineering at Facebook, and Diane Tavenner, Co-Founder and CEO of Summit Schools, provided an inspiring discussion on how Summit School educators partnered with Facebook engineers to develop an online personalized learning platform (PLP). Tavenner and Sego shared the experiences of 29 schools, 4800 students, and 270 teachers who are part of the Summit Basecamp partnership program that is working to make Personalized Learning a reality in schools all across the country.

Chris Dede began the program by noting that Personalized Learning is a powerful movement in education that is about tapping into the passions and strengths of the unique person or learner. Meeting learners where they are, engaging them by understanding their intrinsic motivations and interests, and helping them to drive their own learning are core to the Summit Schools model.  This transformative shift in education is affecting school instructional objectives and processes.  Dede cited, “The Dimensions of Advanced Knowledge and Skills” that recognizes the importance for learners to acquire a balance of cognitive skills, interpersonal skills and intrapersonal skills for 21st century life success.


The Summit Schools and Facebook partnership was established to fully develop and expand a Personalized Learning model for K-12 education using the Summit School’s pioneering model and advanced technologies to help educators see each student as a unique individual and to be able to provide the necessary interventions and supports when students need them to meet their individual learning goals.  Together they have created the Personalized Learning Platform (PLP). Part of the relationship challenge between the Summit School educators and the Facebook engineers in creating the PLP has been to understand how the tools can help teachers to best serve their students in the most effective way possible.  Dede comments, “Seldom do we see technology help with habits of success.”  While the Summit model has a focus on supporting student’s habits of success as well as their cognitive knowledge and skills, it is important to note that it is not the technology that is personalizing the learning but it is the effective use of the technology that helps to free teachers up to focus more on personalizing teaching and learning, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration.  Tavenner and Sego agree that, “educator input at every level in the development of the platform is critical.”  

High quality Personalized Learning requires a commitment to equity and excellence and this requires teachers to understand each student as an individual and as a learner. Teachers need the support and freedom to take the time to understand students and personalize their learning.  Many teachers, however, feel overwhelmed by capacity, policies, bureaucracy, limited time, and limited resources. These educators are unclear about how to have an impact that reaches each student. The conventional system of education holds back what teachers can reasonably achieve. In a Personalized Learning environment, teachers learn to give up control to the students and become coaches and guides. They focus on students’ habits of success and they have the ability to dig deep into the students’ needs because the technology supports teachers in changing their practice. Learning becomes meaningful and joyous and this motivates and pushes the student forward.

Learning for students is connected to their long-range goals.  Students work with their mentors to answer big questions like:

  • What college do I want to go to?
  • What career do I want to have?
  • What courses do I need to take?
  • What content do I need to master?

Answering these questions makes learning every day, relevant and motivating, as students understand why they are in school and why they are learning.

The last part of the forum allowed us the opportunity to hear from a principal, a teacher and a student from the Rhode Island Summit Public Schools.  When asked about  the “Secret Sauce” to the Summit Public School’s model of Personalized Learning, the teacher commented that bringing joy back into the classroom is so important! He also added the ability of teachers to have the opportunity to reflect and act on each of their student’s learning every day ensures students progress toward proficiency and beyond.  “Being able to control my own learning” was what a sophomore high school student shared. Students have the control to go at their own pace with the online content. When the guest principal, Gara Field from Pleasant View Elementary School in Providence, RI was asked for her advice to other principals looking to move to a Personalized Learning Model  Gara responded, “Take the risks and iterate, iterate, iterate. Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Find a professional learning community. Remember it never stops! The learning never stops!”

For more information about the Summit Public Schools model go to: is a special interest group (SIG) of MassCUE. Our members are K-12 educators who promote Blended and Digital Learning in Massachusetts by connecting educators with the people, resources and opportunities needed to lead  high-quality digital learning Initiatives in schools around the Commonwealth. For more information about MassCUE SIG groups go to the MassCUE Special Interest Groups website.

Here is a video link to the Askwith Forum: Engineering Personalized Learning: The Story of Facebook and Summit Public Schools.

Here is an EdCast from Harvard with Adam Seldow, head of education partnerships at Facebook. “Done right, personalized learning empowers teachers with the tools to create strong connection with their students.”

“Table 1. Dimensions of Advanced Knowledge and Skills” graphic is from EducauseReview September/October 2013

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