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Personalizing Education to Personalize Learning

Learning happens in lots of ways and places. These past 18 months have provided numerous and excellent examples of that. But how do we create or add that educational magic that personalizes both learning opportunities as well as curriculum opportunities?

Personalized learning is defined by iNACOL as “Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.” While some of this tailoring has occurred in the past, the switch to virtual learning necessitated additional to occur. Personalized learning does not need to be all the above. Which pieces have you incorporated and which ones do you want to strive to incorporate?

Establishing and developing a culture for learning is key to supporting students in directing their learning, personalizing their learning paths. And it’s not just in the classroom. Think about the curriculum offered in a school district, large or small, rural or urban. Can one district or school provide all the courses that would actively engage all learners?

Personalized learning offers students the opportunities to collaborate with their peers, practice higher-order critical thinking skills and attempt more rigorous coursework to stretch them – all skills needed for success in the modern workplace, all part of becoming self-regulated learners.

Three Reasons Why Personalizing Learning Is Important

Learner Engagement

Providing multiple options for engagement is critical as it helps learners stay motivated. Engagement includes metacognition, collaboration, choice, and challenge. If we consider some basic metacognitive strategies: the ability to predict outcomes, self-talk to explain concepts and ideas to improve understanding, identify areas of challenge, activate background knowledge, and plan ahead, all of these are skills that can be taught. These skills also set learners up to create their learning paths. How do we do this for our learners? Which strategies can you incorporate into your learning environment?

Learners of all ages thrive in environments where their voice matters and they have a choice in the learning process. We can support learners in making intentional choices about who they choose to work with by providing reflective prompts. These opportunities for collaboration allow for personalization by the learner.

Expanding choice expands engagement. As we talk about personalizing learning we are focused on what students want to learn. Other choices matter as well, such as the learning environment itself. Does all the learning need to happen in the usual places? Think about the entire educational ecosystem, which includes the community. How students learn may also be a choice: read, watch, listen, try, participate in online communities, or collaborate with peers. Another way to personalize and increase engagement is in offering choice in how learners demonstrate their learning.

Ideas

  • Some schools have adopted Genius Hour, which is based on principles from Google where employees spend 20% of their time working on passion projects. In K-12 education, Genius Hour is simply providing students regular opportunities to explore their interests and curiosities.
  • You might institute a program called WIN (What I Need). In WIN, students get to decide which content area they will focus on during the weekly WIN period.
  • At one elementary school it is called “power half hour” where students can direct their learning for 30 minutes each week.  After six weeks, they must produce something that teaches others about what they’ve focused on. It is used as a listening and speaking grade along with research.

Equity in Learning

Personalizing learning and opportunities to learn are equity issues. The UDL website says, “Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their interests and goals. To recruit all learners equally, it is critical to provide options that optimize what is relevant, valuable, and meaningful to the learner.” How is it possible to provide equity if all are given the same assignment to do in the same way? 

Creating unique pathways is the framework for personalizing both learning and curriculum and maintaining high expectations. Creating them can be:

  • based on learner profiles that provide information about individual strengths, needs, motivations, and
  • based on goals Individual learners create based on interest (and data).

Let’s look at another definition of personalized learning. “Learners are active participants in setting goals, planning learning paths, tracking progress, and determining how learning will be demonstrated. At any given time, learning objectives, content, methods, and pacing are likely to vary from learner to learner as they pursue proficiency relative to established standards.” –Institute for Personalized Learning. This fits with some of the thinking shared above. Think about students who have experienced trauma (of any kind). Helping them function in the classroom – to focus, learn and avoid triggers – is supported by choice and teaching specific strategies. Empowering student voice through student-directed learning can be a powerful tool.

Ideas

  • Let students “choose their own adventure.” Standards still need to be met, and there is nothing saying they can’t be met in innovative ways. Letting all students identify the passion or curiosity, set the goal and develop the plan is teaching metacognition and self-regulated learning.
  • Reframe (you and the learners) how you think and talk about assessment. Consider it a verb. Think about the learning goal and about the process of getting to the goal, what was learned along the way. Develop tools that learners can use to plan, track and reflect on their learning.

Global Opportunity

The United Nation’s data says 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries were affected by the changes in education during the pandemic. Now that virtual learning is commonplace around the globe, what new opportunities are there to explore? In the United States, high school students have long been able to take college-level courses while still in high school. Some rural students have been able to join classes virtually if the course wasn’t offered at their school. Now that more learning has moved online, more opportunities to cross county or state lines, even country borders, exist allowing education agencies to personalize the curriculum to meet learner needs.

We can build resiliency in our educational systems by considering how to take what’s been learned in the past 18 months and expand on it. What if we reimagine “education” and talk more about “opportunities for learning”? What if we consider the multitude of entry points we have to personalize: support for educators, the right to education by removing connectivity barriers, skills for employability in the future, supporting traditionally marginalized groups, or meeting learners where they are and supporting them in where they want to go?

Ideas

  • Consider culturally relevant education you’d like to offer your students. If it’s not available  where you are, who might you partner with? You might reach out to organizations like CEESA or AISA, which support international schools.
  • Develop a playlist for your students pulling resources from around the world to supplement a focus topic.

As Becky Wilusz and Ken Templeton said, “True personalized learning facilitates more equitable outcomes by promoting success for more students.” We all want to support and empower all learners in being successful. What will you do this year to personalize learning for your learners?

Let us know. We’d love to share your examples.


Additional reading

iNACOL_Whats-Possible-with-Personalized-Learning.pdf (aurora-institute.org)

Personalized learning can either close or increase achievement gaps (hechingerreport.org)

A Personalized Approach to Equity – Educational Leadership (ascd.org)

Personalized-Learning-for-Global-Citizens.pdf (k12blueprint.com)

Personalized Learning in a Post–COVID-19 World | Future Ready


This article was written by Kathy S Dyer.

Kathy Dyer is an innovative educator who has served as a teacher, principal, district assessment coordinator, and adjunct professor. She has a passion for learner-centered learning—opportunities for learners of all ages to learn with, from, and for one another. Believing that all learners can learn more and grow more, Kathy is passionate about helping schools and educators get better at what they do.

Kathy combines a deep understanding of adult learning with a passion for collaborative problem solving to help school systems improve student outcomes. Her work has been featured on eSchool News, Education Dive, Ed Circuit, Teach. Learn. Grow. blog, and Getting Smart.

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