Personalized Learning: Student-Designed Pathways to High School Graduation


John H. Clarke

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    Dedicated to Nancy, Steady and strong


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    The audience was paying rapt attention. James was on a small stage in front of a group of twenty teachers, administrators, and community members, including his mother, from Bristol, Vermont. Also in the audience were educators from five other communities across New England. Despite what should be a nerve-wracking situation for a struggling ninth grader, he was coolly and calmly explaining the musical history that led to the evolution of the modern electric guitar. It was his public exhibition for course credit earned through the Pathways program at Mount Abraham Union High School.

    His passion for music led to this event. He was clearly thrilled to be able to build a guitar of his own as part of his schooling. His pride in his work was evident.

    After explaining the history of the guitar, he proceeded to focus on the science of sound waves. It was a deep discussion of sound waves. Again, everyone was impressed. I was thinking that James must be a strong student.

    James then proceeded to show his progress in making a guitar. This was the passion that opened the door for him to earn half credits over a semester—one each in science, history, and art.

    The most compelling part of James's exhibition came during the public comment session at the end of his hour's presentation. His teary-eyed mom publicly thanked his advisor and the others involved in the Pathways program for giving her back her son. She explained that James had been struggling in his relationship with school and, more poignantly, with how that difficult relationship had clouded the bond between mother and son.

    This was a moving moment for me. After decades of trying to assist schools to meet the needs of all students, I was on this day presented with a strong vision of how schools should be different in a way that meets the needs of all students and their families.

    In this book, John Clarke explains how an entire community—youth and adults, students, teachers, mentors, community groups, business owners, and parents—is transforming its high school by creating a personalized learning experience for its youth.

    It paints a picture of how a personalized high school might look using the words of those who created it. It asks readers to listen to the voices of students, advisors, administrators, and community members to describe their individual experiences in the development of a personalized high school. These stories show how personalizing learning provides deep learning by all youth.

    In the current public discussion, personalizing is often interpreted as online learning in which students interact with computers to learn. The Pathways program has learned that online resources can be valuable as part of larger projects. But online courses cannot provide the level of deep understanding that students at the Pathways program have demonstrated.

    Learning is always personal because it depends on personal curiosity, effort, practice, and persistence. Personalized learning engages students in using information to manage their lives and to participate actively in their communities. James's story at Pathways illustrates a failure of conventional classes and a return to active learning in a community setting. Personalized learning is not a linear process; it is circular, recursive, self-adjusting, and increasingly complex, preparing students to manage change in their lives and the lives of others.

    There are three compelling aspects of this book:

    • It lets students, advisors, community mentors, and administrators speak in their own voices about personalized learning.
    • It illustrates high school transformation by focusing on one school working through redesign;
    • It includes examples of materials that support independent learning, with a large number of graphics that represent learning processes.

    This book provides a convincing road map for educating all of America's students. It is a must-read for anyone who cares about educating all our youth.

    JosephDiMartino, President Center for Secondary School Redesign, Inc.


    Why This Book?

    The purpose of this book is to show that a medium sized comprehensive high school can personalize learning while preparing all students to meet common graduation standards. The book aims to inspire readers to consider personalized learning as a feasible approach to secondary reform at a time when the population is growing increasingly diverse, preparation for work has become a high priority, and technology has created access for students to an unlimited amount of useful information. To show that personalization offers a feasible way to redesign secondary learning, I have depended on illustrations from Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, Vermont, where such a transformation has been under way for several years. With illustrations in view, I aim to show teachers, administrators, parents, and community members that high school transformation toward personalized learning, Grades 7–12, can happen when the students' personal interests, talents, and aspirations provide a starting point for designing their own pathways toward graduation, work, and college.

    This is not an expository text that tells educators how to personalize their schools. My experience suggests that personalizing a high school cannot follow prescriptions. School transformation is a process of growth, following patterns set by earlier growth. Like personalized learning itself, it has to be a process of exploration undertaken by a whole community based more on personal commitment and collegial relationships than on techniques. Mount Abe's personalization initiative proves that transformation is possible, even in an old institution that has defied a long list of alternative ideas. I have used the term high school referring to any secondary school, Grades 6-12.

    Unlike research studies or personal narratives about secondary learning, this book should accomplish the following:

    • Spark the imagination of people who want more students to succeed in in secondary schools, Grades 6-12
    • Illustrate the feasibility of developing customized curricula for students with highly distinctive orientations to learning
    • Demonstrate how secondary schools can increase their effectiveness by opening access to knowledge from widely diverse sources in a community
    • Describe how new roles can expand professional options for teachers when students take more control over their own learning

    A comprehensive high school can help all students prepare for work, college, and adult roles if the school organizes itself to serve each student, one at a time.

    Who Might Read This Book?

    Because parents, students, educators, and community members play essential parts in school transformation, I hope readers from across the broad network that supports public education will use this book to consider new ways to engage young adults in learning. Because educators have the primary responsibility for making schools work, of course—and because adapting their professional roles is essential—I see teachers and administrators making up most of the readership, with students preparing to become innovative educators in the mix as well. Most profoundly, I hope high school students see the book as a way to confirm their sense that school can be different from what it has been for so long—increasing their willingness to take leading roles in their own education. Personalization is the work of a whole community, which might benefit the most if all participants read these stories simultaneously while in conversation with each other.

    What's in the Book?

    Despite the uniformity prescribed by curriculum guides, each of us would tell a unique story about how and what we learned in high school; a book about personalized learning has to begin with personal stories that are told from many different viewpoints. Rather than obsess about theory, I have chosen to let the students, advisors, mentors, parents, and administrators tell their own stories, describing their own experience with personalized learning. Then I have tried to weave their stories into a comprehensible fabric of connected ideas in each chapter. You will not find any ultimate prescriptions here. You may find, instead, a story that encourages growth from within, showing how a conventional high school can create a new version of itself because students come to school actively engaged in creating new versions of themselves. Interactions among adults and students at Mount Abraham drive the process of school transformation, as people who come to share the same vision enact specific changes and develop new roles—the best means I know for making change happen at the secondary level.

    I gathered ideas and transcribed stories from interviews conducted over a 3-year period at Mount Abraham, during which I was also a consultant to the faculty, a community mentor, and a volunteer advisor. With adults and Pathways students, I used the same focusing questions to organize wide-ranging conversations.

    • What are you working on right now?
    • How did your work get to this point?
    • What led you to consider personalized pathways to graduation?

    With minimal cutting and editing, I have tried to preserve the “voice” of those I interviewed and reveal the larger scope of their stories. Rather than presenting short clips illustrating isolated concepts, I tried to capture the creative turmoil that arises when many students simultaneously design personal pathways to high school graduation and explore distinctive futures in the adult world. In these stories, their work will appear unique, but their sense of personal efficacy will stand out.

    Unusual stories of personal accomplishment have propelled the evolution toward personalization at Mount Abraham for 15 years, long before Pathways began to integrate related programs, then expanded from independent studies, to a full-time option for some students, to a variable credit option for all students organized within the Department of Personalized Learning, which then helped shape a whole-school transformation initiative. Mount Abraham students have told stories of their learning projects at school board meetings, in public exhibitions in the town hall, and at regional conferences, often receiving expressions of acclaim and wonder. Within the school district, they have enlisted their parents in project development or worked with a wide variety of community mentors on learning projects, gradually weaving a fabric of legends that slowly expanded the community's hopes for its high school. With the stories, I have included illustrations from Pathways learning guides, showing how personalized learning can be designed so all students move toward different goals. I have also referred briefly to research from earlier efforts to engage all students, particularly studies of separate aspects of personalization that high schools can organize into a coherent process that supports learning for each student, one at a time.


    No individual had envisioned the Pathways process in its current form. Instead, school transformation at Mount Abraham is emerging through interactions across the institutional lines that usually divide education into fiefdoms— academic departments, administrative offices, special education services, counseling, and student services. The Pathways team, made up of the following individuals, has contributed to the development of this book:

    • Russell Comstock, a community advisor with a special interest in global issues and experiential learning
    • Maureen Deppman, social studies teacher supporting independent projects and a Middle School Pathways Exploratory course
    • Gerrie Heuts, the far-ranging community liaison who finds internships and conducts rolling seminars on car trips throughout the county
    • Josie Jordan, an English teacher with broad experience in communication and the arts
    • Vicki Buffalo, an advisor with extensive experience with students at risk of failure
    • Caroline Camara, team leader, advisor, former chemistry teacher, and member of the Mount Abraham transformation team
    • Lauren Parren, coordinator of technology for the school district, including the online student portfolios and standards-based transcripts used at Pathways

    You will hear from the members of the school community, who have also been actively engaged in developing Pathways and Personalized Learning: community mentors, who sponsor Pathways kids in their work settings; coprincipals Andy Kepes and Leon Wheeler, who lead the school transformation team, weaving small initiatives into a larger fabric; Nancy Cornell, Associate Superintendent for Curriculum, who wrestles with the intricacies of district-level change; Evelyn Howard, our Superintendent of Schools, who has organized policy development and has led the school boards to see how personalized learning meets the needs of this community; and Armando Vilaseca, Vermont's Secretary of Education, who has been deeply involved deeply in statewide efforts to engage students in learning and to make room in the system for change.

    I particularly want to acknowledge all the students who recounted their stories for this book, whose courage and energy have pushed back the limits of what we think is possible. The Metropolitan Career and Technical Center—the Met—in Providence, Rhode Island, provided much of the inspiration and structure for Pathways at Mount Abraham by hosting a visit, offering materials, and illustrating how a personalized high school might look. Through Big Picture Learning in Providence, Rhode Island, the Met version of personalization has spread through more than 80 secondary schools in the United States, including three new Big Picture Schools in Vermont and more than 40 schools internationally ( The New Country School in Henderson, Minnesota, hosted the Pathways design team and demonstrated a workable and inspiring structure for project-based learning. For examples of skills assessment rubrics, the team went to the Compass School in southeastern Vermont. Other models and ideas arrived over the Internet and telephone.

    The support of the Nellie Mae Foundation provided initial funding for Pathways, helping energize the long process of high school transformation at Mount Abraham, as it has throughout the Northeast. For an inspiring vision of high schools adapting to the modern world, please consider reading Sir Kenneth Robinson's The element: How finding your passion changes everything (London: Penguin), and watching his videos.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Sara Coleman, Science Instructor
    • Norwalk High School
    • Norwalk, IA
    • Dr. Patricia Conner, Curriculum
    • Berryville Public Schools
    • Berryville, AR
    • Dr. Gary Frye
    • Homeless Liaison / Grant Writer & Executive Director
    • Lubbock-Cooper ISD & Llano Estacado Rural Communities
    • Foundation
    • Lubbock, TX
    • Dr. Kathy Grover, Assistant Superintendent
    • Clever R-V Public Schools
    • Clever, MO
    • Mary Beth Hamel, Assistant Superintendent
    • Ayer Shirley Regional School District
    • Ayer, MA
    • Deborah A. Langford, School Counselor
    • West Hills Elementary STEM Academy
    • Bremerton, WA
    • Dr. Cathy Patterson, Grade 5 Teacher
    • Walnut Valley Unified School District
    • Walnut, CA
    • Dr. Judith Rogers, K–5 Mathematics Specialist
    • Tucson Unified School District
    • Tucson, AZ

    About the Author

    John H. Clarke began teaching high school English in Massachusetts in 1966. He moved to Vermont in 1977 to prepare secondary teachers, interact with local high schools, and run a teaching improvement program for faculty at the University of Vermont. He joined the research team in the Secondary Initiative at Brown University's Education Alliance and Lab at Brown (LAB), focusing on student engagement and high school personalization. Often with others, he has written or edited several books and many articles, focusing on thinking strategies, personalization, high school change, high school teaching, and systems adaptation. Four of those books focus on personalized learning:

    • Engaging Each Student: Personalized Learning in Secondary School Reform (2008)
    • Personalized Learning: Preparing High School Students to Create Their Futures (2006)
    • Personalized Learning: Personal Learning Plans, Portfolios and Presentations (2004)
    • Personalized Learning: An Introduction (2003)

    He helped create a system of professional development schools in Vermont, linking teacher preparation and school improvement. For more than 20 years, he has worked to engage all students with the faculty and staff at Mount Abraham Union High School, where he now volunteers with the Pathways Team, designing personalized pathways to graduation with students who want to manage their own learning.

  • Conclusion: From Knowledge to Power

    When I began teaching, tracking was basic to the way high schools organized curriculum and instruction. Advanced Placement students received excellent instruction in advanced subjects; honors students received a classical education from accomplished scholars; general students received an assortment of experiences from competent instructors; and noncollege-bound students received whatever a creative teacher might assemble to capture their attention. My honors classes were effortless; my classes with noncollege-bound students were a challenge. I tried to lead them into reading and writing by bringing up “big questions” and heating them up on one side or the other so they would put energy into academic skills development. I do not remember asking any of my students how they wanted to conduct their lives.

    High schools serve multiple purposes in our society. Two of them stand out because they so often confound each other:

    • Personal empowerment: High schools prepare young students to use information to manage their minds and lives.
    • Sorting and selecting: High schools provide the society with young people to fill the roles it relies on for continuation.

    In retrospect, I wonder why we put so much effort into sorting and selecting when young adults themselves are perfectly capable of using their education to make their own way, with our support.

    Sort and Select or Empower to Grow?

    I see myself in many of the students I have met in Pathways. I find myself asking how I would be different if I had used my schooling to meet the Mount Abraham Competencies rather than to go for high grades, good scores, and the safety of staying on the beaten path. I deeply admire the young adults who take their search seriously for a kind of knowledge they see as essential to their freedom, a purpose I never fulfilled in school. I see in these young people a kind of courage I never had to take on risks and to understand their world while struggling with uncertainty. That challenge promises pain but offers self-respect in return.

    Although students in conventional classes would probably describe their experience of a semester in a similar way, students in a personalized program have to look at the world they have designed for themselves. Their purpose is their own, evolving along the path of their discovery. Their semester plans resemble no others. They read different books, experience different parts of their community, talk to different people, and collect different kinds of evidence that shows how they have met program standards. Only in meeting common standards does their experience reflect commonality—a demonstrated ability to meet adult challenges. Forging their own pathways, they begin to use their creativity, curiosity, and aspirations to improve their lives and the lives of others.

    Personalized learning organizes a different voyage for each student. Each becomes a navigator, and a high school helps arrange a ship and a crew. Not every voyage takes the same amount of time. Not all voyages are happy. Kieran enrolled in Pathways for a year before taking a course at the National Outdoor Leadership Experience and then choosing to finish high school at the Walden Project, an alternative pathway toward graduation offered by a neighboring school district. Walden students take classes, explore their community, and conduct projects based in a rough tent in the woods far beyond a cornfield. Kieran's time at Pathways was not without angst, but it was critically important to the hopes he had begun to fashion for himself.

    Looking for a quiet place to talk, Kieran and I found a plug for my recorder in an empty stairwell behind the auditorium, an echo chamber undisturbed by voices in the roiling hallways. Unlike other students whom I interviewed at Pathways, Kieran had prepared in advance for our conversation by compiling a list of six factors that would improve learning in a high school such as ours—the same task I had also begun in beginning this book. He handed me his list of descriptors for a school that would respond to the needs of young adults:

    Kieran (11th Grade)


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    CORWIN: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK—12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.

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