Book Review – Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change

Originally published by TCRecord:

Reviewed by Penny Bishop (April 18, 2019)


In Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change, authors Shawn Rubin and Cathy Sanford walk readers through the Rhode Island-based Highlander Institute’s process for helping schools transition to more blended and personalized learning environments. The text is intended as both a call and a roadmap to embrace student self-direction, mastery, and engagement and to de-emphasize teacher-centered pedagogy as a means to meet the academic and affective needs of all students. Rooted in their work with hundreds of educators and dozens of school districts, the authors provide examples, case studies, and tools to make this work accessible to others.

Basing instruction on a keen understanding of individual students is far from new; one need only look at Dewey (1938) or Vygotsky (1930-1934/1978) for example. However, personalization as a broader school change movement has experienced a rapid uptake over the past decade. It continues to be heavily promoted through legislative mandates, federal and state incentives, and philanthropic funding (Netcoh, 2017). For educators interested or already immersed in these or related initiatives, this book offers inspiration combined with an array of tools for implementation. Over the course of twelve chapters, Rubin and Sanford detail a five-phase approach to designing and implementing personalized learning at scale. They walk readers through planning, piloting, refining, growing, and networking as a comprehensive strategy for design teams to use in their own local contexts. They emphasize the importance of a lead change agent and a design team comprised of a range of stakeholders in the planning process. They describe how to identify priority practices, the role of iteration, and the function of ongoing data collection as key to an effective pilot phase. They offer several scaling strategies in relation to both the degree of barriers and the scale of implementation. They also address the elements of a comprehensive communications plan as part of strategic scaling. Finally, they depict the promise of improvement science and Networked Improvement Communities.

Unlike many other personalized learning advocates, these authors propose throughout these phases that personalized learning is the challenge rather than the solution. They situate this conversation in the context of what they identify as three core elements of personalized learning: differentiation, pacing, and agency. They assert that “if mastery is the goal and personalization is the challenge, then blended learning is a key strategy” (p. 28). In their view, it is the power of technology in the form of blended learning, then, that offers a solution to the considerable challenge of scaling a personalized approach. At the same time, the authors wisely caution against the increasingly available plug-and-play personalized learning products and platforms so often touted to adapt to learners’ skills, aptitudes, and interests, emphasizing instead how complex educational change requires local knowledge.

Indeed, a considerable strength of this book is that the approach is rooted in the local. The authors place value on empowering local change agents to collaboratively identify and act upon their purposes, which may range from increasing student achievement, to enhancing learner engagement, to promoting students’ acquisition of 21st century skills. They relatedly distinguish between the pockets of innovation so often seen in schools and the challenge of moving an entire system forward. They note that personalized learning is “not about shiny new products or isolated classroom examples of amazing teacher practice. Instead, innovation is found in a user-centered approach to change management that empowers teachers and students to design, test, and codify their own locally defined personalization strategies” (p. 5). As such, they are attentive to the role of local data, observing that “innovation centers on how leaders learn what aspects of personalization are making a difference for their students and how they create systems to facilitate and expedite faculty adoption of these initial successes” (p. 5).

Another strength of the book is the balance it strikes between detailing school-level change strategy and painting a picture of classroom-based practice. Although this balance can be a real challenge to achieve in a text such as this, Rubin and Sanford vividly illustrate throughout the five phases how teachers and coaches grapple with the complexity of this work and effectively put strategies into practice. From Maya’s high school civics class, to Roshni’s competency-based report cards, to Yarissa’s small-group instruction, the examples help readers place the change strategy in context and imagine its implementation in their own setting.

Bringing educational change to scale is complex work. Because the framework in the book is presented as a series of five phases, it may be tempting to view this work as linear. Readers will do well to remember the authors’ own caution that “timelines for moving through the framework will depend on local conditions present in a school or district and will often require significant adjustment as design teams learn, cycle back, or skip ahead” (p. 18).

Relatedly, the book’s personalized learning progression depicts traditional instruction on one end and fully personalized learning on the other, identifying with unidirectional arrows the teacher actions needed to progress along the continuum. While the progression presents helpful distinctions in teacher roles and strategies, readers would again be wise to reject the temptation to view this as a linear process. Rubin and Sanford themselves warn that “the path a district takes through the progression is not necessarily linear” (p. 35).

Indeed, reimagining and transforming a centuries-old education system is no small task. School leaders wishing to integrate a personalized learning approach into their settings will surely only succeed if they avoid the (particularly ironic in this case) temptation of a one-size-fits-all model of school change. With its emphasis on the local, this thorough and engaging book provides readers with both a vision of what’s possible and a consideration of the process needed to achieve such a vision.