Natick Bright Spot Profile
For the better part of a decade, Natick has been a pioneer in personalizing learning in Massachusetts and nationally, earning numerous grants and awards for its transformative teaching and learning strategies. As one of the first districts to join the Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech (MAPLE) Consortium in 2016, Natick provides an example of the progress that can be achieved when adults make a sustained commitment to focus all their efforts on knowing students well, authentically addressing individual students’ needs, and giving students agency over their own learning.
Natick is a suburban public school district located 20 miles southwest of Boston, with more than 600 educators serving over 5,700 students. It is a high- performing district with 94 percent of graduates matriculating to two- or four-year institutions of higher learning. While Natick shows improvement across most accountability measures, as with many comparable districts whose student body is predominantly middle class, white, and English-speaking, the district struggles to ensure that its special education and racial subgroups keep pace with the improvement rates and achievement levels attained by its majority populations. The desire to improve engagement and achievement for all students was a driving factor behind Natick’s decision to embrace personalized learning.
Natick’s journey began early in 2008 when the district was one of the first in Massachusetts to launch a 1:1 laptop initiative. Since then, the district has been a trailblazer in blended learning, using data and assessments to inform instruction, shifting the teacher’s role to that of coach and designer of learning, creating innovative learning spaces, and focusing on future-ready college and career skills.
Teacher-Led Progression from 1:1 to Blended to Deeper Learning
Natick’s progression from 1:1 learning to blended learning to deeper learning would not have been possible without the leadership of teachers; they drove the shift in their own role from being lecturers who deliver instruction to being coaches and facilitators who constantly use data to assess their instruction and make real-time adjustments based on students’ needs. The district formalized professional learning communities (PLCs) around 2008, and in the decade since, PLCs have expanded to become an integral component of the district’s personalized learning evolution, going far beyond simply having teams working together in a meeting to becoming a fundamental force of daily life in all schools.
Defining Personalized Learning: Natick’s Three Pillars
As they shifted toward more student-centered approaches, teachers and district leaders began to consider how they would best define “personalized learning” for their district. The emerging Natick definition of personalized learning included elements similar to those in MAPLE’s emerging definition. In fact, Natick district leaders worked closely with the leaders of MAPLE to help finalize MAPLE’s definition of personalized learning, advocating both for ensuring mastery of the highest standards by all students and for an emphasis on personal connections.
With time, experience, and a bit of trial and error, the Natick team succeeded in identifying three core strategies, called instructional pillars, that are reliably effective in personalizing learning for students and in putting students at the very center of the teaching- learning process. These three core strategies are: Blended Learning, Project-Based Learning, and Social- Emotional Learning (SEL). Natick believes they are key to moving the district forward as a whole and to enabling every student to be successful.
Even as teachers made significant progress in their efforts to personalize learning in every classroom, district leaders realized that many students were still being “spoon fed,” with teachers making the high-level decisions about what students would study and how students would learn. Determined to provide students with more opportunities and experiences to deepen future-ready skills, the Natick team decided to shore up their instructional design’s underlying foundation and infuse more student agency by incorporating the six Deeper Learning Competencies: Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. This approach served to fortify Natick’s Personalized Learning & Teaching Framework by giving it a firm foundation that underlies its three core strategies.
The leadership team then set a districtwide goal for all teachers to design, manage, and assess engaging, high-quality, project-based learning (PBL) focused on Deeper Learning Competencies and to share, through a districtwide collaborative and reflective process, their PBL designs, their student learning experiences, and other outcomes. At the same time, district leaders gathered feedback from Natick alumni as well as local business leaders and higher education institutions about the skills required for success in college and career. The Natick team used this information to define a “profile of a graduate (POG),” striving to clearly articulate those skills the district expected students to possess or demonstrate by the time they graduated. The Profile of a Graduate initiative now serves as a driving force behind learning and teaching throughout Natick—targeting the building of students’ skills in communication, collaboration, empathy, critical thinking and creativity, resilience, and initiative and self-direction.
Over Natick’s decade-long commitment to advancing personalized learning, the district has accumulated some valuable lessons that are essential to its success to date. Some of these lessons, described below, particularly relate to the importance of supporting and building the district’s human capital.
- Put the right people in the right roles. Natick creatively designed new roles to support the intensive process of personalizing learning districtwide. Over time, Natick also demonstrated its commitment to personalized learning by sustaining and promoting those teachers and administrators who championed it.
- Hire and support talented teachers. Natick has developed a strong process for recruiting and vetting teachers best suited for its innovative work. In addition, its reputation as a leader helps attract new talent.
- Establish PLCs with real authority. Strong and effective professional learning communities continue to ensure that Natick teachers play an active role in researching, analyzing, and assessing different approaches to achieving the district’s goals.
Emerging Initiatives and Next Steps
In school year 2019-20 and beyond, Natick expects to continue making strides toward its goal of providing personalized learning for every student. To achieve this goal, Natick is focusing on three main areas: competency-based learning, connecting with the community, and personalizing learning to develop the whole child.
Even districts such as Natick, with a long-established connection to personalized learning, need to continually renew that commitment and assess their progress. In the summer of 2018, nearly a decade after launching Natick’s first personalized learning initiative, district leaders and school committee members held a series of community meetings. At these meetings, stakeholders made it clear that the district needed to revitalize its commitment to personalizing students’ daily learning experiences and to not assume that this important practice would continue without intentional support. This Bright Spot profile tells the story of Natick’s path to personalized learning and examines the district’s ongoing pursuit of a robust education environment where the ideal of individualizing learning for every student is a daily reality in every classroom.
This Bright Spot offers a roadmap and guideposts for districts considering a shift in their learning systems from traditional models to personalized learning strategies. If Massachusetts’ students are expected to be full and successful participants in a dynamic global economy of the future, the proliferation and ubiquity of personalized learning efforts in districts across the Commonwealth will be an essential component to getting there.