Fulfilling the Promise of Personalized Learning

“Personalized learning” is one of the hottest buzzwords in education. It is one of the most-cited initiatives that schools say they plan to implement, and a Google search turns up more than 23 million results. But what do we really mean when we talk about personalized learning—and is it truly achievable?


Defining Personalized Learning


The online Glossary of Education Reform defines personalized learning as “a diverse variety of education 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.” In other words, personalized learning is student-centered; instead of asking all students to learn in the same way and at the same pace, we design the learning experience to fit the needs of each student.


In practice, however, there is little agreement on what personalized learning actually looks like and what it demands from teachers, students and school leaders. In an effort to bring some clarity, a consortium of education advocacy groups led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation created a working definition with four broad pillars for personalized learning:

  • Competency-based progression that allows students to move through the curriculum at their own pace based on mastery
  • Flexible learning environments that are responsive to student needs
  • Personal learning paths that allow students to progress towards standards based on their individual mastery levels, interests and goals
  • Learner profiles that outline each student’s unique blend of strengths, needs, motivations and goals

 The Problem with Personalization


This prescription for personalized learning sounds like a pathway to an educational utopia. But many teachers struggle to put personalization into practice.


The reality in the classroom is that personalized learning can often feel like it is in direct opposition to the need to hold all students accountable to the same set of rigorous grade-level standards. All students must still master the same content and skills by the end of the year and are tested using the same instruments. How do we allow learners to follow their own path, at their own pace, while ensuring that they all end up at the same destination?


At the same time, teachers are already stretched thin between lesson planning, teaching, grading, classroom management, and the many administrative tasks we have put on their shoulders. Asking them to now personalize instruction for each child in the classroom may feel like an insurmountable burden.


But the truth is, a personalized approach to learning and a student-centered learning environment will vastly increase the chances that all students will achieve mastery of grade level standards. In a “one size fits all” classroom, students who are struggling will continue to fall further behind. There is no opportunity for them to catch up on skills or content they have missed, and these gaps will continue to hold them back as the rest of the class races ahead with new material. Additionally, students of all ability levels will struggle to engage with material if it is not presented in a way that fits their interests and learning styles.


Of course, we can’t expect teachers to create entirely unique learning paths, lessons and assessments for 30 different students (or, for middle and high school teachers, 150). And we want students to continue to have shared learning experiences where they interact with curriculum together. To make personalized learning manageable and effective for both students and teachers, we need to have systems in place that provide a shared foundation while enabling enough flexibility to meet individual learning needs.


Creating a Map to Personalized Learning


At West Belden, a K-8 charter school in Chicago managed by the non-profit Distinctive Schools, Thinking Maps provides that shared foundation. Scott Frauenheim, Distinctive Schools Vice President and COO, explains:


“Consistency of language is huge. Our approach to teaching is heavily team-based. Now, all teachers are reinforcing the same cognitive skills and academic language. Students are no longer seeing all different styles of graphic organizers in different classes. They see the same approach in every class, which helps them internalize the thinking processes.”


Thinking Maps gives students and teachers at West Belden a shared language for learning that serves as a springboard for personalization. Students have a common set of strategies for making meaning out of content and communicating their ideas that they can apply across all subjects and grade levels. Within this framework, they can apply the Maps to whatever content they need to learn and individualize them to meet their own learning styles.


Making Personalized Learning Manageable


There are a number of other strategies that schools can incorporate to make personalized learning more manageable. Some of these include:

  • Incorporating technology tools: Technology can take a lot of the burden off of teachers when it comes to monitoring student progress, assessing students needs and delivering individualized content.
  • Flipped or blended classrooms: Flipping the classroom gives teachers more time to work with individual students or small groups during the school day. Rethinking the use of precious classroom time can help teachers open up room in the schedule for a more personalized approach to learning.
  • Building student ownership of learning: Ultimately, personalized learning requires shifting much of the responsibility for learning from teachers to students. Instead of acting as the ultimate authority in the classroom, teachers become facilitators, mentors and guides as students take ownership of their own learning paths.

These are just a few of the approaches schools are using as they shift to more personalized models for learning. Are you implementing personalized learning in your school? What are your favorite strategies for building a personalized learning environment?


For Further Reading and Viewing


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