How Voice Empowers Personalized Learning
Through field-based experiences, the authors have identified four attributes for building a supportive culture inside schools
BY BENA KALLICK AND ALLISON ZMUDA/School Administrator, June 2020

Bena Kallick (left) and Allison Zmuda are co-authors of Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.
School communities are reimagining policies, practices and technologies to personalize student learning in the here and now of the classroom as well as anticipating the uncertainties of the future.

Schools often adopt technologies that require students to navigate instruction through a series of topics independently and that communicate how students are growing in relation to desired outcomes.

However, technology needs to be disentangled from personalized learning to adapt to a culture that is personal and relational. A noticeable shift unfolds in a school’s personalized learning culture when every teacher’s voice is respected and given weight. Teachers can harvest the seeds of their ideas, imaginings and innovations, and effective thinking and problem solving flourishes. 

Our field-based experiences with hundreds of schools around the world helped us generate four key attributes that help educators build a personalized culture. These attributes, in conjunction with a clear definition for personalized learning, provide a guiding framework to help us know how to design and measure learning in that culture.

What Others Say

Voice honors the learner as essential to the learning process. When developing voice, it is as important to listen to what others have to say as it is to learn how to voice your own thoughts. Often, when we are listening closely to another, we begin to seek greater clarity about what the other is trying to express. We raise questions that help to clarify our understanding and we pay attention to what the other person is thinking and feeling.

At the same time, as we establish our own voice, we try hard to choose words that help express our thoughts with specificity. So, for example, instead of saying “everyone thinks that is the case,” we might say “when I was at the meeting the other day, I heard at least three people say that this is the case.”

Growing voice through building habits of mind that focus on both expressing yourself and thinking clearly about what it is you really are trying to say is an essential key to the sense of empowerment we want all learners to experience as they engage with the world. When everyone in the personal learning community commits to such habits, trust grows. Disagreements or misunderstandings can be worked through a process of learning from one another and effective problem solving.

Incorporating Voice

In Southern California, principal Eric Chagala leveraged design thinking when he transformed the public school he founded, Vista Innovation and Design Academy, with the existing staff. VIDA is a magnet school serving about 750 6th through 8th graders in the Vista Unified School District that teaches students to apply creative thinking skills to nontraditional solutions to real-world problems.

Chagala focused on growing the talent of his teaching staff to manifest engagement and commitment by including the voices and experiences of his faculty. He believes it is nearly impossible for teachers to inspire and support creativity, growth mindset or risk-taking in their students when they do not have self-efficacy in those domains themselves.
Principal Eric Chagala with enthusiastic students at the Vista Innovation and Design Academy in Vista, Calif.

The heart of the academy grew from imagining. He asked at the outset: “What have you always wanted to do with students that you have never been able to do?” He turned those wants into new, specialized elective classes and/or other opportunities on campus to engage their strengths, interests and values. Through his leadership, Chagala developed a work climate that would make teachers jump out of bed, put both feet on the ground and want to run to school each day.

In another setting, when Vermont began to move to a statewide proficiency-based system by articulating subject-area standards and transferrable skills that relate to college and career readiness, Sam Nelson, a middle school social studies teacher, took up the challenge to empower the voices of his 7th- and 8th-grade students to articulate what this would mean in their units of study.

Nelson, who teaches social studies and humanities at the Shelburne Community School in Shelburne, Vt., set up a system in which all students collaborated on the initial curriculum design anchored in the proficiencies. Students continue to develop the curricular document both in full-class discussions and on a weekly basis with the school’s student planning committee as they tweak and implement each of the unit plans.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., consultant Giselle Martin-Kniep co-created a program with the teacher-leaders of Middle School 88 to promote students’ voice in civic discourse by engaging them in frequent controversial issues such as the role of police in local neighborhoods. Through discussions and classroom deliberations, they gained a deeper understanding of different perspectives rather than arguing and solidifying polarized positions.

To increase their voice in the ownership of their inquiry, inform their research and prepare for deliberations, students develop and refine their voice through their own inquiry questions. The results lead to opportunities to assess their own cognitive biases and to recognize the biases in the voice expressed through the mass media.

Pat Deklotz (center), superintendent of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine School District, says her schools give students the chance to voice their learning through portfolios and self-assessment.
In Madison, Conn., superintendent Tom Scarice wanted to provide “elbow room” for teachers to explore and take action on personalized learning. Teachers initially voiced their worries and need for permission to take risks and try innovative instructional approaches in a safe environment. That means withholding judgment as an administrator and offering support in developing and refining instructional practices.

Scarice created what he called an “innovation space” with a consultant and a group of volunteer teachers to test and refine ideas. Individual projects flourished. In anatomy class, each unit was launched with a case study and students then navigated instructional choices to more deeply understand the content and propose a diagnosis/treatment. In high school English classes, students increased their role in the evaluation and grading of their own writing, while precalculus students reflected on current performance, determined areas of challenge and sought resources to improve their fluency and understanding.

In addition, teachers in the Madison schools continued to share their thinking with their students and with one another as they personalized their instructional strategies.

In Wisconsin, when Pat Deklotz became superintendent of the Kettle Moraine schools in 2006, she was asked by her school board to transform the school district into a 21st-century learning environment that attends to academic achievement, citizenship and personal development.

A Definition and Four Attributes
First, our definition: Personalized learning is a progressively learner–driven model where students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.
Source: Students at the Center: Personalized Learning With Habits of Mind by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda. Photo courtesy of Bena Kallick.

Her first move was to set up an inclusive system to engage the voice of the school community. She created leadership councils at the district and school level and, as they gradually learned how they would like to meet this challenge, decided the school district would use the habits of mind, an identified set of 16 problem-solving, life-related skills most recently appearing in the 2018 book Cultivating Habits of Mind: A Quick Reference Guide co-authored by one of us (Kallick) and Arthur Costa. These habits served as a frame-work in the Kettle Moraine schools for defining and implementing that elusive question of personal development.

Over many years, through Deklotz’s commitment to including the voice of students, teachers, administrators, businesses and community organizations, she successfully has led a K-12 design for personalized learning. One principle insight was realizing that the most powerful way to assess personal development was by using this framework to give students an opportunity to voice their learning through a portfolio and self-assessment. 

Space for Partners

So what have we learned from working with these and other educators about growing voice within a school system?

Personalized learning requires some flattening of the top-down hierarchy of a school to make space for meaningful partnerships where key stakeholders have voice in designing their aspirations as well as co-creation in the approach. We’d suggest education leaders consider the following:

»Attend to listening with understanding and empathy and questioning and posing problems.
»Provide regular opportunities for students and staff to examine actions, interpret results and develop next steps with your support to grow innovative practice.
»Encourage teachers to voice their strengths and talents and bring them to the design table as they transform learning.
»Support teachers in giving voice to students as they develop explorations and actions in alignment with desired outcomes.
»Foster critical thinking and respectful discourse by protecting a safe space to express opinions and challenge thinking and the thinking of others.
»Consider ways to assess personal development by using a consistent, K-12 framework to give students an opportunity to voice their learning through a portfolio and self-assessment.
»Provide a clear understanding for stakeholders as to their role — when they are advising and where and how the final decision will be made.

Seeking out others’ perspectives and providing regular forums to benefit from voices takes more time and can feel messy and inefficient. But ultimately, the process leads to increased ownership because everyone is committed to the vision and believes her or his voice has influenced the actions of the learning organization. 

BENA KALLICK is an education consultant based in Westport, Conn. Twitter: @benakallick. Allison Zmuda is an education consultant based in Virginia Beach, Va. Twitter: @allison_zmuda. They are co-authors of Students at the Center: Personalized Learning With Habits of Mind (ASCD).