On Horses, Carts, and Personalized Learning

Cathy Sanford, Personalized Learning Researcher & Author

I have always enjoyed the phrase “putting the cart before the horse”, and the imagery it inspires. It is hilarious, and preposterous, to contemplate a heavy cart ready to be hauled to its destination with the capable horse standing directly behind it. I also love the moral — something done in the wrong order will not be effective.

In my experience, the implementation of blended and personalized learning initiatives has a bit of a horse / cart problem. This can be traced back to the early days of the 1:1 device movement, when teachers suddenly found carts (of devices) in their classrooms — with nary a horse in sight. Well-intentioned school and district leaders, used to centering initiatives on “things”, believed that these carts would usher in a new era of teaching and learning. But without a vision for how devices should shift instruction (the horse), many teachers set them aside and continued managing their busy days and multiple responsibilities as they always had.

Despite the many lessons learned over the past decade, the horse / cart problem persists. Rather than aligning a new vision for teaching to the process of selecting great software products, leaders often invest in products more randomly, and provide guidance to teachers in the form of the number of weekly minutes they expect students to work in the software. While students are still being exposed to strong tools and platforms, many product features related to differentiation, data analysis, and determination of mastery are not being leveraged well, and generally, teachers are not personalizing their use of products to best meet student needs or connect to essential goals.

At Highlander Institute in Providence, RI, our collaboration with hundreds of teachers, schools, and districts over the past five years has unearthed several key challenges to traditional change management approaches, including the horse / cart problem. In response, we created the Pathways to Personalization framework, which offers redesign teams a linear process for customizing and facilitating change initiatives to best position the work for success and sustainability.

Our framework begins with the development of an aspirational vision for change that is articulated by local stakeholders (teachers, students, community members) and connected to specific and measurable instructional practices. Design teams consider the 28 practices we have assembled in our Priority Practices Tool as a starting point. While mature personalized learning initiatives will likely include multiple practices across the tool’s four domains, we encourage early stage teams to select 3–5 practices that will form the foundation of the effort. We start with practices because this anchors implementation.

Only after initial practices have been selected do we drill down to explore aligned resources, tools, strategies, and models. Anchoring these decisions to practices empowers leaders to make better investments and provide better guidance; and empowers teachers to fully understand how the purpose and features of a tool connects to the bigger picture.

Consider the potential impact of our process:

Scenario 1: A curriculum director hears about the benefits of project-based learning at a conference and decides that the approach would benefit students in her district. She invests in a nationally recognized project-based learning platform for all middle and high school teachers. The platform is made accessible to teachers, who attend a day-long professional development workshop to learn how to use the product.

Scenario 2: A school-based design team of teachers, students, community members and leaders create a vision for more engaging student learning experiences. They identify practices that they believe will help create this student experience:

  1. Students are collaborating
  2. Students have choice over what they learn
  3. Students design or create a product to demonstrate their understanding
  4. Students are engaged in work that is authentic

Along with participating pilot teachers, they consider strategies and resources that would help operationalize these practices across content areas, and settle on a project-based learning model and nationally recognized project-based learning platform to explore in pilot classrooms.

The difference is relevance, ownership, and alignment. And ultimately, stickiness and sustainable change.

When the horse / cart problem surfaces within your personalized learning effort, consider how your proposed platform, product, or model maps back to a compelling vision and set of instructional practices — ideally, in partnership with a team of committed school stakeholders. In the words of Shakespeare, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Cathy Sanford leads research and development efforts at Highlander Institute in Providence, RI and is the co-author of Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change (Harvard Education Press, 2018). Share your thoughts and insights with Cathy by tweeting @csanford42.


Connect with Cathy and the Highlander Institute team during our upcoming “Pathways to Personalization” Book Club series, where you’ll learn how to strive for student-centered learning in your district. Register here: