Design principles for personalized learning in schools

Over at Impatient Optimists, the official Gates Foundation site, my teammate Scott Benson and I blogged about our investments in personalized learning in schools. It’s a solid high-level overview of our approach, but the IO editorial process resulted in a bit of a formal tone.

So, I wanted to use this blog to spark a more direct dialogue about the set of design principles we look for in schools we’re investing in:

  • Student Centered: designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  • High Expectations: committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  • Self-Pacing & Mastery-Based Credit: enables students to move at their own optimal pace, and receive credit when they can demonstrate mastery of the material
  • Blended Instruction: optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  • Student Ownership: empowers students with skills, information and tools they need to manage their own learning
  • Financial Sustainability: sustainable on public per-pupil revenue within four years
  • Scalable: designed to serve many more students if it demonstrates impact

Obviously not every school we’re investing in has every principle figured out. The two that are wide-open for innovation right now are self-pacing & mastery-based credit and student ownership. We think both are important and we’re following their evolution closely. Here’s a little more about what we mean by each:

Self-pacing & mastery-based credit

As soon as students learn something and can demonstrate it, they should get credit for it and move on. Move on to the next set of concepts and skills on their learning path, and move on to deeper engagement in topics they’re interested in. No more sitting through hours of classroom instruction that’s too basic or too advanced. No more tyranny of the clock and the calendar. This is such a compelling idea, and really hard to implement in a school, a network, or a district. It requires a rethink of time, classroom organization, teacher roles, student support, and curriculum & assessment. Some school leaders and policy-types are doing and saying important things on this topic. Diane Tavenner, CEO at Summit Public Schools, recently blogged about their efforts on this front over at Blend My Learning . The folks over at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation are supporting several schools that are experimenting with what they call competency-based curriculum and credit – you can read more about it here.

Student ownership

The NYT recently chronicled the college-going experiences of three low-income girls from my neck of the woods (or rather, coastal plain) in Galveston, Texas. Even though they had done well academically in high school, the girls struggled with all sorts of challenges at college. A growing body of research and practice is focused on the kinds of factors that contribute to stories like theirs. Paul Tough wrote about it in How Children  Succeed, my favorite education book last year. Some critics of high performing charter networks say the “no-excuses” model of intensive teacher support employed to help students score well on state exams and graduate fails to develop the habits and initiative required to successfully navigate learning opportunities after high school. Many of the same school leaders are dismayed by the college completion rates of their graduates. While their completion rates are often higher than others like them, these students still graduate at a rate far below those of higher-income students with similar academic records.  A number of these schools are tapping into a body of research that might help set students up for longer-term success.

The research team at the Chicago Consortium for School Research produced a great literature review  on “non-cognitive” factors that lead to better academic performance, and Carol Dweck and colleagues reviewed the research on what she calls academic tenacity. Both have extensive bibliographies if you’re interested in reading more. For a look at what a couple of schools are doing to implement the ideas, check out the KIPP NY initiative and Diane Tavenner’s description of what they are doing at Summit.

We’re at the beginning of our learning curve on these aspects of personalized learning and privileged to be working with so many innovators. What do you think about our list of design principles? Have you seen interesting implementations of self-pacing & mastery-based credit or student ownership we should know more about?

4 thoughts on “Design principles for personalized learning in schools

  1. Hi Stacey,

    How about adding “Pay Vendors for Results” as a design principle?

    The vendor(s) providing the technology portion of instruction are only paid if the school’s standardized test scores grow faster than the school district average.

    • hey chuck — really important idea. Knowing which products work best for which learners & under what conditions, and aligning incentives for suppliers to performance is something we’re really interested in. great idea for future post!

  2. A design principle that I think is critical, but not on yet “on the radar” as an element of design, has to do with innovations that serve as catalysts for changes in attitudes and behavior leading to student ownership. We hear from teachers embracing mastery-based models that some students aren’t ready to take ownership. “We didn’t realize how conditioned they are to sit, listen, and regurgitate facts back.” (see blog @ And we know that “cultural inertia” in existing school environments can make it difficult for changes in professional practice that would let students take ownership. There are bodies of research on motivation and organizational culture, and design principles from other disciplines, such online gaming, that are only beginning to be applied to student learning. There is opportunity to more formally address student development of those “non-cognitive” skills that lead to better academic performance. There is much more research to be done to inform the design of personalized motivational feedback loops, differentiated professional roles, and other innovations needed to take student ownership to scale. These may be the “design patterns for learning” that unlock the next leap forward for next generation learning.

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