Pathways to Personalization: Highlander Institute’s Framework for School Change

Original Article published on Getting Smart (

“If our goal is to provide every public school students with an education leveraging individual strengths, identities, and interests in order to produce learners who feel engaged, inspired, and motivated, then school must look and feel fundamentally different.”

After coming to that conclusion, Shawn Rubin and Cathy Sanford decided to outline a change process based on a decade of lessons in a new book, Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change.

Rubin (@ShawnCRubin), a former primary teacher, is Chief Education Officer at Highlander Institute. Cathy Sanford (@csanford42) directs special projects at the Highlander.

By supporting lead educators and convening school teams, Highlander Institute has lead Rhode Island’s transition to blended and personalized learning since 2011.

For his statewide leadership, Rubin won iNACOL’s Outstanding Individual Contribution to Personalized Learning Award for 2017. In his acceptance speech, he said, “There are no stock solutions,” and “we’re in the early and messy days of this work.” The book reflects these sentiments and promotes an organic teacher-centered approach to improving personalization.

The framework recognizes three key roles: a change agent, a design team, and a group of pilot teacher. “Leaders across these roles,” warn the authors, “must respect the different perspectives, cultures, identities, and social-emotional needs of their stakeholders; otherwise, teachers, students, and families will never buy into or believe in the shifts being promoted.”

Shawn Rubin visits a pilot teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary, Pawtucket RI

Rubin and Sanford see personalized learning as a strategy for transforming an entrenched system. They offer a design process for this exciting but messy work.

Rather than a top-down model, the authors recommend that teacher teams start with problems of practice, “The best approaches to personalized learning have centered on challenges articulated by key stakeholders.” They add, “It starts with student, family, and teacher voices creating a tangible reason–a why–for personalized learning.”

The authors argue that, “The revised goal of education must become mastery of core competencies for all students.” They suggest, “Personalized learning approaches must align to the unique potential, pacing needs, and passion areas, empowering anyone with the requisite desire and persistence to design, create, research, and compete with their fields of interest.”

The book outlines an approach rooted in student-focused, user-centered design with pilots that create “space for teachers to explore high potential, personalized practices with an emphasis on improving the student experience.”

The emphasize building an evidence base around the pilots before taking personalized learning to scale across a school or district.

Five Phases

The Highlander framework (below) is divided into five phases:

  • Plan: build knowledge, lay the groundwork, design your plan (about three months);
  • Pilot: recruit pilot teachers, structure the learning process, evaluate the pilot (about 18 months);
  • Refine: gather lessons, create implementation pathways and an R&D engine (about three months);
  • Grow: align communication and strategic scaling, contemplate the curriculum challenge, personalized the professional learning (timing depends on pilot success and scale contemplated): and
  • Network: accelerate through collaboration.

“When it comes to creating a project timeline, we believe in the strategy of going slow and learning fast,” summarize Rubin and Sanford

Three core elements have emerged through their work with schools:

  • Differentiation: personalize learning by differentiating and scaffolding learning for students based on current proficiency levels, cognitive skills, and social-emotional profiles.
  • Pacing: personalize learning by enabling students to progress through competency-based progressions or a well-sequenced curriculum at their own pace without waiting for their teachers or peers.
  • Agency: personalize learning by emphasizing self-directed learning and student ownership by offering students increased voice and choice, and through a focus on individual identity, interests, and ability.


This is a great book for a school or district getting started with blended and personalized learning. Informed by rich Rhode Island experiences, the authors outline a process that will engage teachers and community in the process of discovery.

There are, however, limitations to the organic bottom-up approach. It presumes that learning design capacity (what Bror Saxberg calls learning engineering) is widely distributed. Even with great technical assistance like Highlander, that’s not always the case.

A problems-of-practice approach also lends itself to models that improve the system we have rather than lead to breakthrough innovations. In particular, it’s hard for one or two pilot teachers to build a competency-based system where students are learning at six different learning levels in multiple subjects. It’s hard for one or two teachers to pilot an entirely new conception (e.g., starting with engagement, or work-based learning, or dual enrollment).

It’s also hard to start this work without good access to technology and sound infrastructure suggesting that a collection of pilots must also be accompanied a system commitment to phasing in technology.

In our recent book, Better Together, we argued that schools should have the option, in addition to building a model from scratch, to adopt a model and join a network of like-minded schools. We’re particularly enthusiastic about model providers that provide comprehensive services around a new outcome framework and learning model.

My advocacy for system innovation coupled with site innovation is complementary to the approach Rubin and Sanford outline. What I most appreciate about them is their clarity of purpose, “Shifting instruction toward more student-centered, personalized practices is about equity and improving the school experience for all students.” On that, we can all agree.

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