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Next Generation Learning: Personalization

The second in our New Generation Learning series focuses on personalization. Where last time we drew attention to schools that had made innovative leaps in assessment protocols, today we look at schools that are taking the design of personalized learning pathways seriously. Our yard stick in this endeavor is once again selected grant recipients of the New Generation Learning Challenges program.

Vista Unified is a public charter high school in San Diego, California serving primarily lower- to middle-income families with a heavy Latino base. In 2013, Vista Unified’s acting superintendent interviewed more than 2,000 middle- and high-school students about their school experiences. He then put their raw responses into a software program, and was astounded to find that the most frequently mentioned word was “irrelevant.”

So, over the course of the 2015-2016 school year a team of eight teachers alongside 165 11th grade students piloted the Personalized Learning Academy (PLA) into which 160 junior students were inducted. The objective was simple: a personalized, challenging learning environment designed per student, aimed at preparing them to become inspired leaders, able to solve real-world challenges with critical thinking, empathy and self-awareness.

At the heart of the new model is what the school calls a “contemporary curriculum”, designed to broaden and improve upon the traditional learning subjects, better preparing them to compete and succeed in the global economy. New areas within the curriculum included:

  • Digital literacy: Evaluating, defining and assembling digital information.
  • Media literacy: Recognizing bias and generating their own media to describe what they learned and believe.
  • Global literacy: Being able to see the world through a recognition of cultural diversity, and being able to acknowledge and respond to global issues.

The Challenge

One example of how this personalized curriculum rolls out in practical terms is the “Challenge” course. As an example, one year students were challenged to examine and research the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (an international framework for ending poverty, alongside principles of environmental sustainability.) Students selected their own project areas under broad themes such as poverty, hunger, health, education, clean water and climate action.

Teachers then worked with individual students, helping them to understand the complexity of the issue, and advising them to perhaps review the number of perspectives at play. Students were then challenged to develop presentations that delved deep into the data and recommending actions within both their local as well as global communities. Students were additionally encouraged to connect their research to potential career and entrepreneurial opportunities.

In such an environment students become driven by passion; they are free to choose whichever path they choose within the broader subject framework.

Fresh Design

One of the hallmarks of the Vista approach to personalization was the use of what the school calls “houses”; a way to organize students that lends itself to more organic, direct and personalized instruction, as opposed to bell-time schedules. Students, as well as teachers, at Vista are organized into six “houses”, with each “house” having 130 to 140 students alongside an interdisciplinary team of five teachers, who then cover the core academic subject areas for each grade. Teachers then work as a team to develop weekly plans using the available 240 minutes per day.

The benefits of this system were almost immediately obvious:

  • Within an enormous school population the “houses” create a school-within-a-school atmosphere, allowing for greater connection and a feeling of safety and immediacy.
  • Teachers found themselves with four hours of planning time per week, in concert with a close-knit team who understood that particular student population’s learning needs
  • Interdisciplinary lesson planning became a powerful way that teachers could address their subjects

In order to extract the maximum benefit from the new design Vista realized they were on the wrong side of the digital divide, with many student's families not having access to the Internet. Through a partnership with Cahoot, the school is proceeding with an ongoing program that provides every student with a wireless hotspot for home-use.

Vista Unified has realized that they cannot revolutionize their school’s learning modes and design in isolation, and have so far initiated a number of other programs that are designed to reinforce and support the new vision:

  • Teachers incorporate the Habits of Mind framework into their work and create space and structure for students to understand and improve their responses to challenges.
  • To improve school culture and climate, Vista has implemented a restorative-justice practice, alongside intensive monthly professional development inculcating the principles of restorative justice into the school’s DNA.
  • Parents and guardians participate in mini-sessions on topics such as Habits of Mind, Restorative Practices, Digital Safety, Campus Resources,Personalized Learning, Clubs/Sports and more.
  • Part of the curriculum is “Wellness” a course focused on 9th graders. It covers character development, health and wellness, “power skills” (sometimes referred to as “soft skills”) and “Vista Pride,” the school’s vision for a distinctive way to relate to the local, national and global community.


Fully transforming a large and established high school such as Vista Unified is no mean feat, and reading the story of Vista Unified is both illuminating and encouraging.

I am enamored with the school case-studies I have unearthed since exploring the list of NGLC’s grant recipients, and I hope you will forgive me one last foray in next week’s blog.