Pathways to Personalization and Science for All Students

Science educators now familiar with the Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for K-12 Science Education are likely aware of its emphasis on recalibrating science classrooms to be for all students. The NGSS dedicates an entire appendix to this motto, including seven separate case studies on non-dominant student groups to illustrate different models for implementation of effective classroom strategies that meet the specific needs of student subgroups that historically have exhibited persistent gaps in science education proficiency.

This motto was on my mind while participating in a PD short course titled, “Pathways to Personalization.” Highlander Institute facilitators, Shawn Rubin and Cathy Sanford charged us with the need to “update our one size fits all [education] system to meet the specific needs of the students we serve” while recognizing the great challenges that come with making such a shift. Together they presented a roadmap for district and teacher leaders to work together to actualize such goals using a framework that could just as well be a roadmap for many school changes.

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I found several points to be valuable across my work as both a science coach and district improvement committee member, most notably the following:

1: The importance of articulating “the why?”

During our district breakout session, one of the facilitators emphasized the importance of “articulating the why” when and planning and piloting personalized learning models. Why are we pursuing the initiative? What characteristics of the initiative are our priorities? Four domains of change were highlighted in a tool titled the “Walkthrough Tool Domains and Indicators” which included several indicators that overlapped with the Framework vision and goals of the NGSS. Among them just to name a few (with my own science contextualization in parentheses):

  • “Students are engaged in work that is authentic” (phenomena based sense-making, constructing explanations and/or designing solutions to engineering problems)
  • “Teacher uses a variety of techniques to assess student progress toward learning goals” (through explanations supported by modeling, various forms forms of media, etc.)
  • “Teacher uses data to inform instruction” (as done through formative assessment)
  • “Students are given the opportunity to apply learning from one task to another” (as seen when teachers take on a ‘storyline’ approach to curriculum sequencing)
  • “Students present evidence that supports their thinking” (via sense-making approaches to curriculum and instruction)
  • “Students design or create a product to demonstrate their understanding” (such as models, claim arguments, etc)

These indicators were later used to develop a vision statement for what sorts of changes we would come to expect to observe happening in those classrooms piloting our personalized learning programs. To this effect, what we selected as our priorities were to be baked into how we would go about assessing both our students and the new system. Bringing me to my next takeaway…

2: The need for clear goals tied to valid assessments

During one of the workshop’s exercises, we absorbed start-of-year and mid-year datasets for our personalized learning pilot school in the form of qualitative classroom observations, standardized test data aggregates, and then some. The data was overwhelming in part because what our mock-district aimed to achieve had not been articulated outright, leaving us to wonder whether certain data points should be looked up as good, great, outstanding, or short of the mark.

One of the greatest challenges NGSS shifting teachers fess-up to is the need for more formative and authentic assessment of students that require a shift in what kinds of assessments are being used and how. A diversity of methods of assessment allow for a wider range of student scientists to show what they know in different ways, but not without challenges.

Without clear goals and exemplars about what new learning should look like, educators fall back on the methods and strategies traditionally used, methods which likely do not reflect what new student understanding should look like under the NGSS. Disappointing “results” lead educators to feel insecure about their learning path, frustrated with the process, and may lead to teachers abandoning the initiative all together. A February KQED Mind/Shift series on equitable grading practices (thank you, PLN member Cari Williams!) highlighted this fact through a standards based grading exposé, attributing such an assessment system as one that whittles away at the gap between dominant and non-dominant groups.

A featured teacher quoted in the article noted that, “teacher experiences will drive change — they must have opportunities to try out strategies and see the effects themselves — but district leaders also have to provide the tailwind for this to become a reality. And that’s where [I see] the biggest challenge to this work.” Such tailwinds include instruction and assessment models to adopt or adapt as well as “cover” from skeptical community members and students familiar and/or successful with the more traditional system. Leading me to my final point:

3: “Bottom-up” research & development with “top-down” support

Boxed curriculums dropped from the heavens marked with well polished NGSS-ready tags may ‘equip’ your classrooms, but with what? For genuine implementation of the shifts necessary to meet all students it will take work from classroom educators and support staff familiar with the strengths and challenges of their specific student bodies. Work that will be need to be done day-in and day-out over several years. Not only will curriculums need to be vetted but classroom instructional strategies and practices will need to be looked at critically to evaluate which will meet the needs of all.

Teacher leaders who innovate and try new approaches will need understanding from administrators and evaluators who may see untraditional learning at work, as well as support in the form of time and resources, commonly resources only administrators have control over. They will also need coaching and time as they recalibrate their own instructional strategies, highlighted in a recent read from the California Science Teachers Association blog titled, “Re-novicing of Science Teachers and the Science Coach” (thank you PLN member, Kristen Rademaker!) Administrators themselves will need to come to more deeply understand the shifts being undertaken in their NGSS classrooms, both the why and the how.

4: “The chasm” is a problem and requires an engineered solution

Even with all this work, it is likely that uptake of these shifts will be slow, with “innovators and early-adopters” taking the lead, before new curriculum, instructional practices, and methods of assessment jump “the chasm” to their school and district colleagues.


The challenge is real (observed in everything from educational initiatives to technology adoptions) and the stakes high, for “pockets of innovation” in a school or district can only go so far while being held to standards like the NGSS that build over time. Without foundational knowledge in elementary and middle grades, high school students will be ill-prepared for classrooms where the shift has been made and calls to return to “what worked” (for historically dominant student groups) will become louder.

“Pathways to Personalization” presents a path under the context of personalized / blended learning, but the idea of paths is important. Like an engineer, failure points will be identified as curriculum, practices, and assessment evolve, leading to refinement, and additional redesign cycles. It’s important that we all share such learning through our PLNs from local to global so that we can bridge the chasm as a collective, pulling ourselves ever upwards to the goal of meeting the needs of all our students.

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in NGSS, Professional Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

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