In their transition to using more personalized learning, the Bristol-Warren Regional School District in Rhode Island made professional development a priority.

Located southeast of Providence, this district of 3,500 students and about 300 teachers created a plan that included cooperation with other school districts to help prepare and train teachers in how to use digital tools to create custom-fit lessons for children. They learn on the job, with the help of teacher-leaders who provide real-life examples of how personalized learning works in the classroom.

“We had to go slow before we can go fast,” said Diane Sanna, an assistant superintendent at the school district. “That way everyone sees it and feels supportive. We are asking them to make big changes.”

Their work had four goals: setting clear learning targets that all teachers and students know; embedding models of strong and weak work in classrooms; giving teachers descriptive feedback; and creating a safe learning environment.

“We knew we didn’t want it to be top down,” Sanna said. “We wanted teachers to see the opportunities.”

And not just teachers. Two key initiatives – assessment literacy and digital learning teams – are being used to help both teachers and students use digital resources in creating personalized lessons. They want to give students some choice and voice in how they learn, while the teachers provide them with lessons that are neither too easy nor too hard.

The digital learning teams collaborate with other school districts that are also on a journey to provide effective and affordable teacher training. Teachers create research projects and present their findings to colleagues. Students are also part of this work. They lead the meeting during parent-teacher meetings, and are tasked with explaining what they are learning and why it matters.

“Personalized learning is one component,” said Mario Andrade, the superintendent of Bristol-Warren. “It’s also amplifying great teaching.”

Rhode Island is on the front line of states that are making changes to promote and expand personalized learning. In September, the state government announced the RI Personalized Learning Initiative, a program meant to bring personalized learning to every public school statewide.

“Across the country, individual schools and districts have been piloting personalized learning for several years with some impressive results,” according to a white paper published by Rhode Island about its efforts to personalize learning. “Yet there have been limited efforts to support personalized learning across an entire state or region. Due to our existing bench-strength in student-centered models, Rhode Island is an ideal state to pilot supporting personalized learning at scale.”

This focus on personalized learning comes several years after the state sought to promote blended learning, which combines technology with in-person learning. That foundation in technology from the emphasis on blended learning could put the state in a strong position to take personalized learning to all schools.

But even in Rhode Island, where state education leaders believe in the promise of personalized learning, the authors of the white paper warn against framing this strategy as a cure-all.

“While we are excited about the potential for personalized learning, we caution against hailing it as a silver bullet,” the report states. “Personalized learning is one of many initiatives focused on student-centered learning and one of many efforts to bring more engagement, rigor, agency, and individualization to students’ experiences. There are also many unanswered questions about how personalized learning models are best designed and implemented.”

And, in the spirit of open dialogue, Rhode Island invites feedback on its plans and provides an online portal for sending those messages.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.