This post is the first in a series documenting and sharing the initiation, design work, and dissemination of the Personalization in Practice - Networked Improvement Community.

The Personalization in Practice - Networked Improvement Community project is designed to develop, test and disseminate solutions for the challenges of implementing personalized learning in Wisconsin public schools.  The project is a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and is supported by the US Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences.

The four-year project will bring together educators from schools across Wisconsin to collaboratively design, test and disseminate new approaches to implementing personalized learning at scale across the state. The project will adopt a networked improvement community approach to focus on designing solutions for the problems educators face in day-to-day practice, and testing these solutions with one another in a professional learning community.

There is a strong network of personalized learning schools in Wisconsin. These educators are working on the cutting-edge of innovative school design. Living on the cutting-edge means that personalized learning educators regularly encounter problems with no clear solutions. During a listening phase in the fall of 2016, we talked with 33 educators, visited 10 schools, engaged CESA and DPI administrators, and consulted with other researchers at UW-Madison. In particular, we focused on “interesting” and “innovative” learning spaces, such as, but not limited to, personalized learning and project-based learning programs. We were inspired by students who feel connected to their learning community and engaged in interest-based projects, by teachers who describe their work as fulfilling and sustainable, and by leaders who see and foster improvement in their systems.

After reflection, we came to the consensus to focus on the pedagogical routine of conferring or conferencing. This is a central feature of personalized and project-based learning, but also found in commonly used reader’s/writer’s workshop models, goal-setting sessions, and Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings in Special Education. This routine is a high leverage practice, with teachers identifying it as having high utility amongst all other aspects of their programs. It is also a place where teachers describe informal assessments of mindset, self-regulation, and grit. We see the potential for this common routine to be used in a variety of settings and levels, between teachers and students, administrators and teachers, or even researchers and organizations.

This winter/spring, we have assembled five teacher/leader design teams who will work together to improve this conferring routine. The work will be organized into a 90-day, “learning sprint,” which is a protocol we will use to guide our participatory design process. During the learning sprint, the school-based design teams and UW-Madison-based facilitators will work together to share current practices, scan the literature for other models, focus on and test potential improvements, measure changes, and report the results.

We will work with teams to adopt common methods for gathering data and testing changes, but this is not a predetermined intervention-based approach to educational improvement. We are focused on developing common methods of inquiry and learning from variation, not experimental fidelity.

The anticipated result of our work will be design principles and formative feedback measures for conferring. Our hope is to make this work widely accessible to educational institutions across the state, thus we will work to share the results in a variety of forms, such as a website, blogs (including this one!), practitioner magazines, research journals, and conference presentations. Stay tuned!


  • For more detail, please see Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., Grunow, A. & LeMahieu, P. (2015). Learning to improve: How America’s schools can get better at getting better. Harvard Education Press.  
  • https://www.carnegiefoundation.org/resources/publications/90-day-cycle-handbook/