Shift Happens – Revisited

In 2013, I wrote an article entitled, Shift Happens: A Challenge for Education.  Since then, a great deal of progress has been made in both imagining and building a new system of education – one designed to meet the needs of our changing world. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, a new mind-set has been taking shape; one that allows teachers and students to practice and learn in new ways. This new system is called Personalized Learning. It includes a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students. It is defined by four distinct components – Proficiency-based Learning; Learning Anytime / Anywhere; Personalization; and Student Voice and Choice. It is a system designed to ensure that every student is prepared for success in college, career and democratic citizenry.


Harwood Union is at the turning point of the challenge; that is carrying out all four components in a comprehensive way, and over turning a system that has been in place for a Century or more.  Change, especially one of this magnitude is difficult. While cycling Nova Scotia this summer, I spent many hours observing the landscape, experiencing the culture, and making connections. My thoughts were less about the work back at school though, and more about the transition we would need to make as practitioners; more specifically it was about “how to be” to ensure our new system would be truly transformative.

The landscape of Nova Scotia is truly stunning; as a Harwood Highlander, I was especially drawn to Cape Breton. Beyond the landscape though, I was struck by the remoteness of communities dotted throughout the region; they are inconceivably small – some with only a couple hundred residents, and nothing else, but perhaps a church or other structure identified only as a community center.  There is a great distance between these communities, and as I pedaled away the hours, I wondered, how do they exist – survive?


The answer became apparent after days of cycling through dozens of these so called towns; the people are connected by a common thread of “how to be”. I noticed that each place, regardless of size, had a motto – a mission or vision per se, that was posted sometimes on just a sign that marked the entry into the geographic area of the township, while in other places, it was posted at every available space – an entry sign, at the church, a store if there was one, and even on mailboxes. I also noticed, that in addition to service hours, the church or community center hosted regular events – suppers on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays, community meetings on the 1st Tuesday, or social gatherings like the musical Ceilidhs on Fridays.

My final observation was of the people themselves; be it the interactions I saw between them, or the ones I experienced, the characteristics were the same; that is a positive disposition along with genuine interest, care and well-being for each other.  Seemingly, these people have recognized the importance of the human connection and growth mindset in preserving their community. They were incredibly intentional about “how to be” in order to ensure efficacy.

Last year was a ‘Leap’ year of sorts and Harwood leapt with vigor into immense design work; that is structures for a system of Personalized Learning.  And, although the design work continues, I think about this year – 2016/17, truly as ‘Phase I’ of perhaps a three year implementation toward Personalization and perhaps more specifically, Proficiency-based Graduation. This year, we are officially making the transition and the Class of 2020 will be the first one to graduate with a Proficiency-based Diploma.

As you know, with any transformative systems change, and especially within a public institution – one that is the cornerstone of our 6 communities, Phase I is undoubtedly the most critical in terms of ensuring efficacy. It is also the most challenging: not every plan, product, or newly developed system will be clear, fully user friendly, and/or without flaws; and not every ‘situation’ will have been considered and as a result, have an easy solution. This may lead to discouragement, frustration and/or perhaps even anger – all normal feelings. We must be aware of our feelings, and more importantly how they translate – be it attitude, words, and/actions. We must keep our ‘motto’ – the over arching purpose that connects us in the forefront of our thinking, and refrain from unproductive criticism or self-serving disruption.
As we begin this school year and then forge ahead, know that ‘iteration’ is a foundational component of designing a new system. If we collectively keep this in mind, and adhere to the concepts and practices below, we can ensure the ‘survival’ of our community and thus, the successful outcome of our vision for a system of Personalized Learning.


  • Assume good intention and exercise a growth mindset
  • Acknowledge and openly celebrate our successes
  • Think critically, but do not openly criticize; instead ask questions and seek to understand, engage in dialog and then contribute to solutions, by making suggestions in positive, productive ways
  • Be a good neighbor – understand and promote the rationale for a System of Personalized Learning and help others do the same, offer encouragement, provide support, and practice patience
  • Take calculated risks and support others in taking risks
  • Be a resource for others – share information & resources, provide constructive, meaningful feedback, and give support


And most importantly, remember that although change is hard and you may experience challenges as you learn new systems, and practice in new ways, the qualities possessed by the members of the Harwood community – exceptional professionalism, a strong commitment to high standards of learning, and caring supportive relationships still remain in tact; it will continue to be the thread that connects us as a community.


Harwood Union System of Personalized Learning