Public Advocacy: Personalized Learning Plan

Learning Plan

How to communicate to your community about using 'student-centered learning'

Daniel Kaufman

When launching the latest grand reform du jour, education leaders and advocates have frequently made the mistake of overselling the benefits and ease of adoption to teachers, parents, community members, and other stakeholders. At the same time, they often have failed to reach out early and often to gather their input, make clear how the change will benefit students and educators, and secure their buy-in.

So it’s no wonder that when obstacles to implementation arise or the initial results don’t live up to the hype, there’s disappointment and pushback. Then the next time a high-level initiative is launched, eye rolling and skepticism ensue. This is especially true for frontline educators, who feel they’ve seen this movie before and worry about the additional workload it will add to their already overflowing plates.

Keep these communications traps in mind if and when your district decides to embrace one of the hottest ideas popping up around the education world—“personalized” or “student-centered” learning. Already, some proponents have equated personalized learning with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs touting cutting-edge technologies that will radically “disrupt” the traditional top-down instructional and brick-and-mortar education model, aligning the classroom and school experience to how today’s young people interact and learn and the workforce needs of tomorrow.

Describing the personalized learning movement this way can be both inaccurate and dangerous from a messaging perspective. While technology can indeed play an important role, the changes occurring on the ground in a number of schools and districts experimenting with these approaches are more basic—yet potentially more transformative. The way one describes what personalized learning means and what this approach is trying to accomplish should reflect that. For example:

Teachers, principals, and other adults focus on developing caring and trusting relationships with students that help them gain a deep understanding of each child’s unique strengths and needs.

Based on these deep relationships, they then work collaboratively to tailor instructional approaches and classroom learning environments designed to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities that will prepare them for college, career, and life.

Teachers still may conduct whole classroom lectures, but more often they are facilitators. They allow students to help define their own learning path and measure their progress; link the curriculum to students’ interests, passions, and aspirations through engaging and challenging academic content and real-world learning experiences; and provide each student with targeted instruction, practice and support in areas where they are struggling.

In Practice

I toured a few of these schools in Riverside, California, a district that is gradually rolling out personalized learning. What struck me most was not the use of technology, but rather the feel of the classrooms and school buildings and the attitude of everyone there.

Teachers and school staff had volunteered to lead implementation in their schools, and had chosen the classroom arrangements and teaching methods that they believed worked best for their students. Classrooms hummed with student voice and activity as kids designed and tackled assignments and projects independently, in small groups, or directly with the teacher if they needed additional assistance.

When I asked teachers, principals, and program coordinators to describe the impact, they took care to emphasize that they were still experimenting and learning from their mistakes, while pointing to early indicators such as increased student attendance, greater student and parent engagement, and less teacher turnover.

Another common refrain I heard here and from other districts was dispelling the myth that personalized learning only works with gifted students. It’s for all students, they said, especially for those who have been traditionally underserved by our school system.

What Messaging Works Best

A national survey that my firm conducted last fall on behalf of the Alliance for Excellent Education confirms the strong receptivity among parents and teachers to personalized learning approaches and showed what messages work best in communicating about what it is, how it works, and its value.

Some key findings included:

  • Large majorities of teachers and parents are receptive to the overall concept and specific components of personalized learning.
  • Parents are most convinced by arguments for personalized learning that, by tapping into students’ interests and passions, it gets students more engaged and sparks their love of learning, and that it is tailored to students’ unique strengths and needs.
  • Teachers were similarly persuaded most by the engagement/love of learning argument above, as well as by the idea that real-world projects help students see greater relevance and purpose in their learning.
  • The top concern about personalized learning of both teachers and parents was that not all students are mature enough to develop their own academic path to success. However, when these concerns were matched up against the pro-personalized learning arguments mentioned above, the latter won overwhelmingly.

Based on our survey and other recent research on the topic, the bottom line is this: Teachers and parents are very favorably predisposed to efforts to personalize learning, but the devil is in the details. They want to know more about exactly what it means, how it differs from other widespread practices, how it will specifically play out in their schools, and how they will be included in the process. Your job is to help them understand how this will benefit students, and in the case of teachers, how it will make their job more exciting and fulfilling rather than impose an additional burden on them.

Communications Tips

Whether your district is in the exploratory stage or already deep into implementation of personalized learning, here are some tips for communicating with teachers, parents, students, and other internal and external stakeholders:

  • Be clear. Use understandable, specific language. Make it clear how personalized learning is different from traditional instructional methods and school designs and how it benefits ALL students. Explain that it goes beyond merely “individualized” learning techniques to which parents and teachers may be accustomed.
  • Be transparent. Frequent, open communication is critical, no matter where you are in the process. Don’t try to oversell immediate results or undersell the challenges that are involved. Because it is such a different approach, there inevitably will be a period of trial-and-error and adjustment on the part of teachers, school administrators, and school staff as well as the students themselves.
  • Don’t lead with technology. Technology can be an important component, but focus on changes to other core elements such as the student-teacher relationship, instructional approaches, learning environments, and how student progress is measured.
  • Show, not tell. Provide real-world examples, videos, and testimonials of personalized learning in action from teachers, parents, and students, and offer in-person opportunities such as school tours.

For additional resources to help you better understand and explain personalized learning to your constituencies, as well as examples of personalized learning in action, visit the Alliance for Excellent Education’s website,

Daniel Kaufman ( is a senior partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. 
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