Building-level administrators are asked to lead efforts to determine the strategies, philosophies, pedagogies, and technologies used to meet students’ needs. One might think the hard part would be finding ideas to embrace; however, the greater difficulty lies in wading through the multitude of available options to determine what is truly meaningful, impactful, and long-lasting. The ability to find game-changing ideas while avoiding the latest fads can be difficult. Catchphrases, acronyms, and flashy titles seem to come and go in our profession, but if we’re not careful, we’ll spend our careers chasing buzzwords and miss out on the game-changers.

One phrase that has buzzed the loudest in our industry in recent years is “personalized learning.” School administrators include personalization goals in their strategic plans; educators take site visits to see how others are implementing personalization strategies; and presentation proposals for conferences and abstracts for articles are routinely accepted if they include a variation of the word “personalize” in the title. So, is personalized learning a buzzword—here today but gone tomorrow—or is it a game-changer—a concept worthy of our time and effort?

Analyzing the Goal

A journey to determine what is right for our schools must first ensure progress. Every practice we adopt must be measured in terms of how it moves us toward our purpose.

Thomas Jefferson thought that education should “[rake] a few geniuses from the rubbish.” At that time, education’s original goal was to determine which “genius” should leave the “rubbish” and gain access to further education. The original purpose of education was not to make sure all students learned—it was to find a way to compare students and enable a select few to move on while the others returned to the fields or factories.

While Jefferson and the beginnings of formal education might seem far removed, many of our widely accepted current practices indicate we are still employing strategies that only move us toward the original purpose. How else do we explain class rank? Why do all students go to school the same number of days regardless of how quickly or how much they learn? If we want all students to learn, why is it considered acceptable to assign a student a “D” grade and move on, knowing full well they have not mastered the content?

Even though some students could learn faster and others end up learning very little, we move them along until they reach graduation for the sake of expediency and efficiency. Since the goal of education early on in America was not that all students learn—and since a system was needed to sort students—time became the constant and learning became the variable.

I doubt there’s a principal in America today who would say their goal is to “rake the genius from the rubbish.” Today’s public education system exists to unlock the unique human potential inside each student. Modern educators believe schools have the potential to provide all young people with the opportunity, skills, and knowledge required to live lives of meaning, purpose, and agency.

So why haven’t our curriculum and pedagogy evolved to better support learning? It’s hard to change something when everyone already accepts it as is. On top of that, while we might acknowledge that much of our pedagogy is outdated, it brings with it a certain level of efficiency. Sometimes we don’t change or grow because we can’t come up with an equally efficient system.

If our traditional system doesn’t lead to our modern purpose, what’s the answer? If we want to unlock each student’s unique potential, then we must trade our one-size-fits-all model for a newer, personalized approach to learning.

Not All for One

Personalized learning has the potential to be a true game-changer. In the name of personalized learning, some schools have adopted practices that become a new type of one-size-fits-all. For example, instead of all teachers employing traditional teaching methods, all students now sit in class on computers, and it’s called personalized learning.

To make personalized learning a game-changer in our schools and ensure this program takes us toward our purpose, we need to start with a question: How would we structure school if the goal was to make sure each student learned and had doors opened to unique and meaningful futures?

To meet each student’s individual learning needs, we need to develop personalized systems that communicate in terms of competency rather than grades alone. A student wouldn’t make satisfactory progress just because her numerator points led to an acceptable grade. Instead, we would personalize communication based on the level of competency attained. Imagine organizing a course’s content into three levels: essential, advanced, and mastery. The essential content and skills would be those skills that a student absolutely had to learn in order to pass a class. The advanced category would build upon the essential category and could include the skills used less often in other courses or those that might even be taught again in the future.

Building off the advanced competency level, the mastery topics would be unique to this content area, and a student would have to learn them in order to truly master the course. With this model, getting a grade in a class or passing a class would no longer be dependent upon earning enough points, but instead would be directly connected to what the student had learned. Students who learned the essential content and skills could move on to the advanced topics at a personalized pace under a supportive teacher’s guidance. Similarly, students who need more time to become competent would move at a slower—more meaningful—pace, rather than falling further behind.

In this personalized competency-based model, the entire language of the classroom could shift to the language of learning. Students who wanted to improve could ask questions about what topics they still needed to learn to move into the advanced level instead of asking what they could do to raise their grades. After assessing the current competency levels of a student, teachers could help them learn additional content so they could progress up the ladder of competency. While grades might still follow and be attached to this learning journey, the focus would be on meeting individual needs based on what they have or have not learned rather than based on what grade they have or have not earned.

If we want to unlock unique human potential, we need to create more personalized learning environments where students can create passion projects exploring their personal interests in meaningful ways. Classrooms need to be expanded beyond the traditional schoolhouse so students can learn in settings ranging from community colleges to the workplace and from apprenticeships to independent studies.

Too often, students end up taking classes in which they have little interest simply to fill a schedule. School is much more exciting when students who have demonstrated a certain level of competency and initiative can create independent studies into areas of personal interest and passion. Working under the guidance of a teacher/adviser, students design independent studies, organize experiential learning opportunities for themselves, and create capstone projects into which they poured their time and pride.

If there’s ever been a time when the one-size-fits-all model falls short, it’s now. COVID-19’s impact has stripped many schools of the levers they have used to force compliance with traditional practices. Schools that already implement personalized learning—ones that move toward today’s goal of educating each student—are far better positioned to meet the many unique situations they are now facing.

Personalized learning can take as many forms as there are individual people. This proposition might sound scary because the known is so well-known. It isn’t easy to imagine a world where education looks different. But we cannot be satisfied using pedagogy that moves toward an outdated purpose.

As principals, we have an exciting purpose. Let’s not just adopt personalized learning. Let’s look at our current practices to determine what needs to go, and then let’s replace them with game-changing personalized opportunities.

Scott Habeeb is the principal of Salem High School in Salem, VA. Salem High School was named among 25 National Innovative Best Practice Districts, in large part due to its efforts to create a culture of personalized learning.