Personalizing the Curriculum with the Learning Journey Model

Mark Engstrom shares a personalized model for learning that he calls the “Learning Journey Model.” After students accomplish a core competency, they personalize their learning journey much like the “game of LIFE” board game.

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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.


Enhanced Transcript

Improving the Curriculum with the Learning Journey Model

Link to show:
Date: November 8, 2017

Vicki: Today we’re talking to Mark Engstrom @markaengstrom Head of Middle School and Upper School at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas.

The Learning Journey Model

Mark, you are passionate about helping students have control over their learning. Give me an example. What do your students do?

Mark: So… my students know which components of my classes are foundational and what components are collaborative, what components they will have choice on and what they’ll get to choose from when it's time for assessments.

I think of the Learning Journey more like the game of life and less like a traditional syllabus where teachers dictate what's going to be taught, when it’s going to be taught, how you’ll be graded, how you’ll be penalized, the resources you have to use. I prefer to give kids a path, and let them choose from within that path what works best for them.

Vicki: OK, did you say that they get to choose their assessment?

Assessment in a Personalized Classroom

Mark: So they do get to choose. They have a variety of passion-based projects they get to pick from. Within the assessments, there are six questions, and they do three of them. They have five different chances to take the assessment, so the idea is that there’s choice within the assessment, and there’s choice about when they want to take the assessment.

Vicki: Okay, so are all the assessment tests, or do you assess other ways?

Mark: I assess in other ways as well. We've got MAP quizzes, we've got content-based knowledge assessments, so there are some other some other ways.

Vicki: OK, so there are some teachers sitting here saying, “OK, so you’re coming up with four different ways to assess? That sounds like a whole lot of work!”

Mark: It is! But once you get your kids trained to sort of think, “OK. I'm learning for learning’s sake. I'm going to be assessed in a whole bunch of different ways, and I will have choices,” then they are really feeling empowered.

It becomes less about “playing school” and more about, “How much can I learn? What more can I learn? What don't I know? Who can help me? Where can I go online to get better? Who in the class can help me? What do I need to ask the teacher?” It makes them the agents of their own learning, and it is fantastic!

Vicki: Do you have a learning management system that helps you keep up with all this?

How does this relate to your Learning Management System?

Mark: We do. It’s called PowerSchool. The reality is that it’s a round-peg-square-hole kind of situation, because I don’t want to manage their learning. I want to inspire them, I want to spark inquiry, I want to answer their questions, I want to give them resources. So the whole idea of a learning management system? I just think it’s flawed. We shouldn’t be managing their learning, we should be sparking it.

Vicki: OK, but you use that to track it and hold it all together? I use PowerSchool Learning as well. I think I’d have to say that they do sponsor some of the work that I do, so I do have to say that.

So, OK. So what class in particular… You’re Head of School, but are you also teaching a class, or is this the model in all of the classrooms for your students?

Mark: So I’m the Head of our Middle and Upper School. We’ve got a Head of School who’s in charge of the kit and kaboodle of Pre-K through 12. So, in my two divisions, Middle and Upper School, we’ve got five classes that now use the Learning Journey model.

Vicki: OK. So is this something that you invented, or where’d you find it?

Mark: I went to some professional development that made me rethink the way we do school. And I kind of landed on the Game of Life that I wanted to use. So, yeah, I came up with it.

Vicki: OK. And we’ll share in the Shownotes , you’ve got some infographics about how you structure your syllabus. (See above.) You completely changed the syllabi for these courses, haven’t you?

Mark: Correct. Can I just talk a little bit about how the Learning Journey works, so it’s clear to people?

Vicki: Yeah! Help us

Mark: So, if you’re looking at the infographic, (see above) basically the top left is Goal Setting. You can follow the white arrows all the way down. It kind of forms maybe two “S”-shapes. Along the way, there’s Artifacts and Reflections and Goal Setting. Kids are always thinking about, “What did I do that’s awesome?” or “What did I do where I struggled?” or “What do I do when I want to do it better?”

And “What did I do that was collaborative? Where can I get an artifact that sort of encapsulates this segment of my learning?”

And then they write a little paragraph about it. I comment on that.

So it’s not just about the learning. I tell kids, “The hidden curriculum is YOU.”

We talk about geography, and I care about geography. But what I really care about is, “What are you learning about how you learn best?”

And so, the first part is foundational learning. That’s the blue part. In every class around the world, teachers could identify the non-negotiable pieces that lay the foundation for deeper thoughts. Those pieces are in my Foundational Learning segment.

Then there’s Collaborative Learning, which looks like what you would imagine it should look like for any collaborative project.

Then we move into a personal segment where they do a Passion-Based Learning Project.

The final segment of the class is getting ready for the assessments.

Vicki: Are all the kids operating at a different speed?

How the personalized approach works

Mark: We work on trimesters. The first trimester we kind of all go at the same pace. But then in the second and third, I really let them loose. Some kids really fly, and you realize that they’ve been shackled by the traditional methods of teaching and whole-class instruction. And it is awesome to see kids just take off on their learning.

Vicki: What happens, though, when you have some people who’ve covered a lot more material than others, and then you go back to this, “OK, these folks have class rank.”

Class Rank and Traditional Grading in this model

Is it fair if somebody covers eight more chapters than somebody else?

Mark: What do you mean by “class rank”?

Vicki: Well, in high school, do you have first, second, third, fourth in your class, or do you not do that at your school?

Mark: We have to do that for the state of Texas, because it affects admissions policies. But other than that, we don’t need to.

I mean, I see your point. There are kids who go above and beyond. But this isn’t a system that’s geared to satisfy other components of traditional education.

Vicki: Ahhhhhh….

Mark: I’m trying to drill down to what does research say about agency? Like if you look at Daniel Pink, Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose… the Learning Journey is full of autonomy and purpose options. That’s kind of the driving force.

Vicki: So… you… are just reinventing school!

Mark: That’s what we’re trying to do.

Vicki: Do you get any pushback?

What pushback do you get with the Learning Journey model?

Mark: I’ve presented this at conferences before, and I’ve written about this. Some people will write in and say, “Wow, that’s great!” But I get very few people who actually want to jump in. I think right now there aren’t enough incentives for teachers to take the time to overhaul their class. Whether their principal wouldn’t appreciate it, or they team teach with people who aren’t interested — I just think there aren’t enough incentives out there right now.

But I would say that any teacher out there, who’s really looking to get re-energized around student learning and the experiences that they’re offering their kids? They’re more than welcome to reach out to me. I’m on Twitter, and I’d be happy to talk through the first couple steps of the Learning Journey.

Vicki: Mark, the truth is that we’re going to end up where you are at some point. We can either aggressively go after it and become part of the change, or the change can be done to us.

You’re either a victim or a victor when you’re dealing with change.

This whole personalized learning approach is really where we’re moving. I mean, would you agree with that or disagree with that?

Mark: Amen. I think you’re spot on.

30-second elevator pitch for the Learning Journey model

Vicki: But it’s just hard. I’m trying to get my arms around it. What do you think… If you were stuck in an elevator with someone who was in charge of the curriculum for one of the biggest districts in the country, and you had one minute to sell this approach of the Learning Journey model. What would you say?

Mark: I’d probably start by asking them, “What’s the number one thing they want to change about student learning in their school district?”

And, depending on their answer, I would chime in that there are different parts of learning journeys, or personalized learning, or digital tools that can accomplish what they’re hoping to accomplish.

And if I had a whiteboard or my infographic at the ready, I would kind of walk them through how the Game of Life — which allowed you to make choices about going to college, having a wife and family, investing in stocks — I mean, that same sort of board game path is applicable to giving students agency over what they want to learn and how they want to learn.

Vicki: So what’s your greatest, “AHA!” moment from this whole process?

Greatest Aha Moment

Mark: ASo I think the “AHA!” moment is that we don’t need to move students through the old industrial model of teaching. It’s easy to do flipped class learning and see how that works. It’s easy to do Project-Based Learning and see how that works. But all of those things feel to me like piecemeal or part of the answer. Whereas I hope the Learning Journey is more of a holistic approach to giving students control. I think that would be my “AHA!” moment.

Vicki: What do you think is the biggest mistake you’ve made in this journey?

Mistake in Personalizing Learning

Mark: The first step I made was to get rid of all content as a requirement. I gave kids too much choice to start. I got a lot of pushback from parents saying, “We don’t know what to study.”

I wish I hadn’t started there. I wish I had started smaller, and given kids choice and trimmed back the content instead of giving them total choice over what they study.

After the Foundational Learning piece of the journey, they really do have total control. So I’ll have some students who only do politics. Or only do environmental stuff. Or only do economics. And I didn’t do that well the first time.

Vicki: I love that you admit — I think that this is important for the transparency — saying, “This is what I did right, This is what I did wrong.”

Your Learning Journey model really is a journey, for you.

Educators, you’re definitely going to want to check the Shownotes for the infographics and the links to Mark’s site.

We love to feature brave, remarkable educators on the 10-Minute Teacher to really provoke your thinking. This is the direction that I think that we’re all going to be heading.

It sounds complicated. It sounds hard.

But I’ll tell you this — we cannot let the fact that something is challenging keep us from doing it, because we’re talking about lives here.

If it works, we need to consider it.

So let’s take a look at the Learning Journey model, and see what we can learn from it.



Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Mark Engstrom is an Educational Consultant, Blended Learning Designer and the Head of MS/US at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas. He has presented on digital and personalized learning through Independent School Management, Association of American Schools in South America and Association of International Schools in Africa. He has also written for EdSurge, Getting Smart and Teachers Matter. He has helped teachers from all over the world make learning more engaging for their students. Feel free to connect through Twitter @markaengstrom


Author of

Blending Alone-

Redesigning the syllabus to reflect the learning journey-

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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