Innovation and redesign begins with asking, “What if….”

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Today on the blog we have another guest post by Bob Wedl, who posits that personalization in education starts with the essential question “what if…”. We hope you enjoy his thoughts below!


Bob Wedl’s career in public education includes experience in both district as well as chartered schools, state department leadership and higher education. Bob served as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education in the late 1990’s leading Minnesota’s innovative standards and measurement initiatives, electronic data collection systems and new finance models including having revenue following students to the sites they attend. In the late 1980’s and early 90’s while serving as deputy commissioner of education, he was a leader in the development of much of Minnesota’s choice policy including open enrollment, post-secondary enrollment options, “second chance” programs and the nations first charter school law.

Bob served as the Executive Director of Planning and Policy for the Minneapolis Public Schools where he led the development of new models for serving students, expanded the Response to Intervention (RtI) model and assisted develop a “value-added growth accountability model.” He also provided direction to the district’s nine chartered schools and 33 contract alternative schools. Bob is an adjunct faculty member in the education administration departments at the University of Minnesota and the University of Saint Thomas. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Saint Cloud State University.

Innovation and redesign begins with asking, “What if….”

By Bob Wedl

“Personalization” is the latest buzz word in education…and that’s a good thing.  This isn’t the first time education has walked down this path.  But with today’s technology, personalization is now more doable because we can more easily track where each student wants to go and where they are on their personalized learning path. Doing that by paper-pencil was a huge task and the weight of 3-ring binders of student information caused “Individually Guided Education (IGE)” schools in the 1960’s and 70’s to discontinue their efforts.

In project-based learning schools, personalization is built into the design of the school but in course and class-based schools, that becomes a bit more complicated…until we ask, “What if…”  Like, “What if…we stop requiring students to learn the competencies they already know?” This can be asked in any area but Algebra I is a good example.  What if we said to students and parents, “If you wish, you can independently access xyz algebra program online (at no cost to you) as it addresses all of the state standards and you can meet the requirements this way.  Many students will jump at this chance.  Some students will complete the course in a week others in a month.  Some will do it over the summer others during middle school but each at their own pace.   Or, “What if…we have classes of 120 students in Algebra I in an on-line class with one teacher and a para helping those students that need assistance and as soon as students have met the competencies they are finished with the course and go on to a new set of competencies.  We are not asking, “Should students learn Algebra” because indeed they do need those competencies…but when we personalize we also need to have various instructional designs ready to match the learning needs of students.  Some students don’t need any instruction other than the amazing on-line instruction that indeed can replace the live teacher.  Note: Psst you…the one that is saying to yourself right now, “Well that’s crazy.  Everyone can’t learn that way.  Computers can’t replace teachers.”  You are right.  Not everyone can but in personalization, “everyone” gets replaced by “this student.”  That is why I said “some students…” and indeed “this student” can…so let her.  I personally know students that have learned algebra I online over the summer…and then came back in fall to enroll in… yep, Algebra I.    

Some students need a teacher and a small class.  Others can handle a large class of 120 with someone available to help them out on occasion…perhaps Kahn Academy could serve that purpose as well.  Personalization means both personalizing the learning but also personalizing the structure of the learning day…which is now 24 hours long.  (Just an FYI, In a future blog, I will address the need to personalize the state standards.  Amazing isn’t it that we want to personalize instruction and learning but yet require everyone to master the same set of standards?)  

Key to personalization is the validation of learning.  Even when teachers do not directly teach, learning needs to be validated.  In some cases that will be the same tests teachers use for classes.  But we accept independent evaluation of learning now such as AP tests perhaps we need to be open to other validation methodologies as well?  

“What if…” questions can be asked in many areas.  For example, we value students learning a world language yet most schools use the most expensive and least effective method for teaching world languages. Elementary schools have a few Spanish language classes a week.  Seriously, are students really learning Spanish?  We wait until the language-learning years (birth to age 8) have passed and then we begin.  “What if”…we began Spanish immersion in pre-k when children’s brains are wired to learn languages?  We could use paras who were Spanish speaking along with teachers fluent in Spanish?  Children would come to K fluent in a world language.

Dee and Doug Thomas asked the question, “What if teachers could make all the key decisions regarding the operation of the school?”  Not just be on a committee.  Years and mountains of data later tell us this works pretty darn well and an entire national movement has begun using this school management model that is empowering professional teachers as never before..  

Dr. Stan Deno at the U of M asked, “What if we collected one-minute samples of students reading in grade-level texts as a way to determine how well they could read?  And what if we measured the impact of our instructional interventions weekly to see how well the instruction worked.”  With that “What if,” “Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM)” was born and validation studies of this RtI model by Dr. Doug Marston at the Minneapolis Schools and Gary German, Dr. Kathy Howe and Dr. Kim Gibbons at the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) demonstrated its amazing effectiveness.   Now the RtI model has expanded to MTSS and is widely used across the country.  

Professional Learning Communities can be asking the “What if” questions.  “What if” we combined grades 11-14 so that students, using personalization, received their AA or career certification instead of a high school diploma and at no added cost to the state but huge savings to families?  

Some “What if” will require exemptions of laws and rules ant that is what the Innovation Zone enacted in 2017 does.  The Legislature, led by Representative Roz Peterson, enacted the Innovation Zone law that removes numerous laws and rules in exchange for letting teachers and administrators try innovative ways to improve learning and schooling.

Asking, “What if” is the beginning of thinking differently…of innovation and redesign.  Try it…you’ll like it.