Q&A with Shawn Rubin of Highlander Institute on his new book, Pathways to Personalization

Originally published by New Profit:



Q&A with Shawn Rubin of Highlander Institute on his new book, Pathways to Personalization

We caught up with the Highlander Institute’s Chief Education Officer, Shawn Rubin, to talk about the recent release of his new book Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change, co-authored with his colleague Cathy Sanford. Highlander Institutea New Profit grantee-partner and member of our personalized learning cohortresearches, develops, and disseminates innovative methods to improve outcomes for all learners. The book’s practical five-step framework helps school leaders and educators design and implement personalized learning practices based on local needs and contexts. The book summarizes significant learnings from Institute partnerships with a hundred schools implementing blended and personalized learning in southeastern New England, and makes this information accessible to educators nationwide.

Q: As a leader of a nonprofit in the personalized learning space, what motivated you to write Pathways to Personalization and what are you hoping to achieve with the book’s publication?

Shawn: It’s an interesting question. I was actually pretty reluctant to even think about this book in the early stages. We were approached by Nancy Walser of Harvard Education Press who found our 2015 white paper, School District 2.0: Redesigning Districts to Support Blended Learning. She felt like the piece clearly described what administrators need to do to support blended learning and what was missing in the field was a more detailed process to help leaders define, develop, and sustain new learning modelsnot for cutting edge school leaders with rich change management skills and strategies, but for the average school leader just beginning to think about how to lead a change process. Nancy spent almost a year trying to convince us, and I give credit to Dana Borrelli-Murray (the Executive Director of Highlander Institute) who ultimately gave us the push by saying: “We’ll make the time. We’ll make the space. We’ll support you. Go for it.” That’s really what led to me and Cathy writing the book.

What we are really hoping to accomplish with the book is to help school leaders address three fairly universal challenges that we have seen across districts. First, leaders have trouble articulating the change they are seeking and communicating their vision to stakeholders involved in the change process. Second, they are unsure of where to start the change processhow to lead a self-study through a user-centered lens to determine current strengths and challenges from the perspectives of students, parents, and teachers. The final, and hardest piece, is figuring out what step-by-step process can lead them from point A to point B, allowing them to achieve their vision at scale across a school or district. We found that the linear orientation of our framework, combined with a focus on customizing and personalizing based on local efforts, addressed a current gap in the field.


Q: Why did this feel like an important thing for Highlander Institute to invest in as an organization?

Shawn: Initially, we were not sure that it was an important thing to invest in or that it was the right approach for changing education. We were still deep in the process of exploring, learning, and testing various steps in the framework and were constantly iterating based on breakthroughs and mistakes. As we studied some of our own coaches and staff that were supporting the change process in schools, we realized that we had a lot that we could offer in terms of best practices for schools attempting to implement at scale. We didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like when we started writing, but we believed in our hearts that documenting the process would enable us to come out the other side with a strong framework and strategic perspective that would guide our future reform efforts. As an organization that personalizes our approach for every school we engage with, we recognized that this would provide an avenue for us to develop a more standardized change process that schools could replicate.


Q: You start the book by noting that this is about moving towards an approach that encourages differentiation, student agency, and a focus on rigor & mastery. Can you bring that to life for us? What does it look like when a school is doing that well, and what does it look like at scale?

Shawn: To be honest, I don’t necessarily know of a school that does all three of those things completely well in every classroom all day long. As a field, we’re still trying to figure out if these are the right north stars. We think they are, but how do we actually get there? We’ve seen glimmers of hope in individual classrooms. We’ve seen schools starting to do some of these things at scale. But it’s not necessarily something that you’re going to immediately set out to do and do successfully without a lot of real struggle and multiple pivots in direction.

When we were writing the book we decided to take these big concepts like student agency and break them down into more specific and actionable practices. That idea evolved to become our priority practices tool, which is the foundation for most of our work. There were three main areas we focused building out through this tool:

  • Differentiation: This domain focuses on how teachers leverage continuous student data to inform instructional decisions for different individuals and targeted small groups. Practices within this domain center on how teachers are developing and implementing systems for efficiently collecting and analyzing data with students, scaffolding activities and instruction based on that information, and creating opportunities for students to move at their own pace.
  • Identity, Interest, Agency: This domain encourages teachers to really get to know their students better as individual people and build learning activities that incorporate choice, connect to their identities, or enable them to pursue an area of interest. Practices include how teachers set up their physical classroom space, student reflection and goal setting, and systems for building student engagement and ownership of their learning.
  • Rigor and Mastery: This final domain is really critical. When we talk about things like choice and engagement and culturally relevant instruction, we cannot implement them at the expense of rigor. High standards and a clear vision of mastery can help teachers design challenging and authentic problem-based tasks where students are asked to support their thinking, create new knowledge and apply their learning.


Q: Throughout the book you contrast the approach you outline to the typical approach of education reform, noting that often change initiatives take a top down approach. Highlander believes that the most effective approaches are driven by educators and come from practical application in the classroom. How did you come to that realization and what does it mean in practice?

Shawn: I think that there’s a couple things that led to that realization for us amidst a lot of trial and error. We spent a lot of time just sitting at the feet of some real gurus and learning from the ways that they have failed using the top-down model.

One of the reasons we had a lot of work to do right off the bat––which we talk about in chapter 12––was a result of so many districts and schools “going one-to-one” with devices across the state of Rhode Island (e.g. one computer device per student). Districts launched one-to-one initiatives under the guise of equity, meaning every child needed to have the same thing with regard to technology. As you start to unpack what equity really means that’s a very narrow definition of it, but school and district leaders felt that it was important to bring their schools into the 21st century. However, when we actually visited one-to-one classrooms, we would see very few changes in terms of practice, which is the real equity issue. This is an example of wasted resources and missed opportunity by applying a top-down mandate. When we took a user-centered lens and started talking to students and teachers about what they wanted, it was not necessarily one-to-one devices. Students wanted more opportunities to have one-on-one conversations with their teacher. They wanted more opportunities to be able to create things in their classroom. They wanted more opportunities to get outside the classroom and to see things in the real world and connect them back to learning in the classroom. So when you look at the need that they articulated, the solutions were not matching those needs. That was a big “Ah-ha” moment for us to reframe all of this around the student and teacher experience.

We also realized the power of educator-defined reforms as we developed the concept of a design team. Rather than having a single administrator develop reform concepts in relative isolation, which we have seen a lot, we asked leaders to create design teams comprised of principals, teachers, students, parents and community representatives to help clarify current conditions and identify needs. Through a lot of pre-work around current conditions––from focus groups, surveys, and one-on-one interviews with stakeholders––design teams have been able to deeply understand both what is working and where things currently stand in their local context. Design teams help leaders narrow the focus to relevant, compelling, and timely problems of practice which allow implementing teachers to really buy-in to the vision.

What is really important about our model is that it is not exclusively a bottom-up approach. We have learned that great teachers can define high value reforms, but the work cannot be scaled or sustained without concurrent administrative efforts to reduce obstacles and redesign systems and policies to support reform efforts.


Q: You note that the framework provided in the book is less of a trail map through a state park and more of a process for bushwhacking through uncharted territory. Why is it that? Why didn’t you or couldn’t you provide a trail map?

Shawn: A lot of that has to do with how much we learned to value local context during the process of writing this book. We learned this the hard way by attempting to bring in particular models like station rotation to all schools or finding particular apps, resources, tools and saying that they will be valuable for everybody. What we found when we did that was that we were short-changing a lot of initiatives that predated us and that if we did not honor the local context in every school, that the work was never going to be fully adopted. Our framework is now flexible enough to support a change initiative of any size or focus, but it requires a commitment to the process which takes three or five years before a school could see change at scale.

It is important to explore and unpack specific models of personalization that have been successful, but not integrate them as stock solutions. For example, when one of our design teams shadowed students at a local elementary school, they found that some teachers were not honoring some of the language barriers that the ELL students in the classroom were experiencing. That is a very specific kind of problem of practice that hinders effective personalized learning.  So, if you try to take a rigid approach to implementing components of a particular model of personalized learning, then you will not necessarily solve for the problems that are specific to individual schools and classrooms. We had to bake that customized approach into our book ultimately striking a balance between commonly known research-based best practices and local context.

Another piece of this comes down to the concept of continuous improvement within our model. We can give you a roadmap that shows you how to launch a pilot but in every instance, we are measuring and observing at a classroom level how the pilot is going. We want to be able see at the local level how well students are able to learn and show growth, mastery, and engagement. A part of this is being able to look at data and identify any unintended consequences of a new school design to understand what is working and not working, which allows each team to iterate on the design and improve it over time.


Q: What excites you most about the field of personalized learning?

Shawn: The piece that excites me most is how rooted personalized learning is in the best of historic education and theory. If you go back to the work of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Maria Montessori you see the tenets of what we’re attempting to scale. We didn’t just develop personalized learning strategies out of the blue and start to test them in classrooms. These personalized learning tenets embody education at its core: getting to know students as individual humans, but also helping them understand their worth and their value within their community; helping them understand their culture and their identity; enabling them get instruction at their right zone of proximal development; and helping them apply their learning in ways that honor their interests and strengths.

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

Original Article published on Getting Smart (gettingsmart.com)

“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.

For more see:

The key to successful change initiatives? Early adopter teachers

It is 5pm on a Tuesday in April, and Liz has just dropped her daughter off at cheer practice. Instead of heading home to think about dinner, chatting with other moms, or checking her social media accounts, Liz spends the next 95 minutes in a nearby Starbucks completing three playlists for her engineering design class. A science teacher at a high school that recently prioritized student choice as a core instructional strategy, Liz is creating a new unit for her STEM class. She has assembled resources, essential questions, and a design process to allow her students to explore either bridge construction, alternative energy, or robotics. Students will then propose a final project aligned with their interest in one of these fields.  Needless to say, building this new unit has taken a lot of time.

Liz is most definitely what we at the Highlander Institute would consider an “early adopter” teacher.  Over the past five years we have observed, supported, and collaborated with close to 500 teachers and administrators from more than 40 districts who are interested in pursuing more personalized approaches to learning. We wholeheartedly believe that early adopter teachers are well positioned to be the engine of any personalized-learning initiative. So what do we mean by “early adopter teachers”?

The adoption curve

The concept of an early adopter is attached to the diffusion of innovation theory, popularized by noted sociologist and communications expert Everett Rogers as a way of defining how innovations are adopted by groups of individuals. Essentially, the theory classifies individuals into one of five adoption categories: innovators (risk takers), early adopters (visionaries), early majority (pragmatists), late majority (conservatives), and laggards (skeptics). The implementation of personalized-learning approaches tends to follow a similar curve, with adoption of new models and practices often relying on teachers in various categories influencing and guiding adoption for the next group.

Source: Adapted from Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (London and New York: Free Press, 1962)

We believe excellent teachers can be found throughout the diffusion of the innovation curve and are not suggesting early adopter teachers are “best.” However, just as technology startups count on early adopters in the marketplace to determine the relevance of new products, administrators can count on early adopter teachers to identify the value and wider application of promising blended- and personalized-learning practices. These entrepreneurial teachers are best positioned to wrestle with the uncertainties of instructional shifts and fail forward. Empowering early adopter teachers to explore new concepts, strategies, and models protects the larger faculty from the frustration and stress that can accompany trailblazing redesign. Lessons learned from early adopter teachers can be baked into implementation pathways to ease adoption for teachers farther down the curve.

How to identify early adopters

Identifying early adopters is one way to use the transition period to new innovations to elevate teaching. Early adopter teachers typically represent approximately 13 percent of  teaching faculty, and identifying early adopter teachers is one of the most important tasks of school and district leaders. While this process may seem obvious, we have seen leaders mis-identify teachers who do not really have the persistence and mindset for change possessed by true early adopters. Without exception, early adopter teachers have mastered foundational classroom skills, including the demonstrated ability to create a strong, respectful culture and effective routines. The table below provides additional guidance to support accurate identification.

At the Highlander Institute, early adopter teachers are the bedrock of our change management framework which is explored in depth in Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School ChangeCo-authored with my colleague Shawn C. Rubin, the book offers guidance on how savvy administrators can identify and empower early adopters to define and model their aspirational instructional shifts. This approach challenges the existing narrative around education change management, where leaders identify a single solution or model, require all teachers to implement the reform together, and invest significant time in coaxing reluctant teachers to participate. “When I started this work, I was consumed with figuring out how to get resistant teachers to participate in reform efforts and ensure 100% implementation rates,” reflected Robert Mitchell, Superintendent of the Cumberland School District in Cumberland, RI, at a recent design meeting. “I realize now that investing in early adopter teachers is a much more constructive use of resources with an exponentially higher return on investment.”

Early adopters as teacher leaders

Empowering early adopter teachers helps administrators understand what is possible, what approaches are easiest to implement in different classrooms, and what strategies are most aligned to district strengths and needs. Early adopter teachers can be tasked with operationalizing a vision, determining the promise of new policies or tools, launching a professional learning community, or collecting and sharing resources to support a school or district initiative. In Liz’s classroom, the excitement generated by her new unit encouraged her colleagues to explore the playlist structure that she developed, and demonstrated how teachers could operationalize the district priority of giving students more choice. Her experience also enabled her colleagues to avoid the initial challenges she faced, easing their process of trying something new.

As the summer marches closer to September, how might your school or district leverage early adopter teachers to actively support your vision for teaching and learning?

For more information on defining and identifying early adopter teachers, check out the Blended Learning Teacher Competency Framework from iNACOL (October 2014) and Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching from Jobs for the Future and the Council of Chief State School Officers (August 2015).

For in-the-field examples, learn from some of our educator and school partners featured on the Blended Learning Universe (BLU).

Cathy Sanford leads research and development efforts at the Highlander Institute in Providence, RI. She supports several initiatives across the institute’s portfolio, including Fuse RI, the forthcoming book Pathways to Personalization: Framework for School Change, and the annual Blended & Personalized Learning Conference (in partnership with The Learning Accelerator). Share your thoughts and insights with Cathy by tweeting @csanford42.