Personalized Learning: A Student-Centered Approach for Learning Success

Janet Pittock, Curriculum Director, and Cassondra Corbin-Thaddies, Director of Professional Learning - McGraw Hill Education

Personalized learning is no longer just a buzzword or a passing fad. In fact, more and more school leaders view the successful implementation of personalized learning programs as top priorities for their classrooms. In a recent survey, 86% of district leaders report that they have implemented personalized learning in their schools but also report that obstacles persist(1).
So clearly interest and intent are there, but what exactly is personalized learning, and how can educators successfully implement these programs in their classrooms?

What Is Personalized Learning?

Interestingly, a Google search on personalized learning delivers more than 26 million results, which is not surprising. In today’s ever-changing world of education technology, the term “personalized learning” appears everywhere and carries with it various definitions and connotations. Often personalization, differentiation, and individualization are used interchangeably, and while they are related, it is important to note they are not synonyms.

  • Personalization: the learner and teacher collaborate to drive learning and determine needs, plans, and learning design.
  • Differentiation: the teacher drives instruction and adjusts the learning environment for groups of students.
  • Individualization: the teacher drives and accommodates learning needs for an individual learner.

Personalized learning is similar to differentiation and individualization in that each affects learning experiences via content (what is being learned), process (how the student learns the material), and output (the ways students demonstrate learning growth).

What makes personalization different is that it is student-centered and provides students more opportunity for agency around their learning. In personalized learning classrooms, you can observe practices such as planning and design conferences between the student and teacher, ongoing formative assessment that authentically involves students, and student learning portfolios that gather evidence of learning.

Why is there so much interest in personalized learning now? Teachers have always known that teaching to the middle meets the needs of few students. The problem has been that it is difficult to personalize at scale. But now, with the support of technology and more widespread accessibility, addressing students’ needs is more possible than ever.

Don’t Take a Leap — Build a Bridge

While many educational leaders are enthusiastic about personalized learning, the path from traditional instruction to personalized learning can be challenging. There are many instructional models and philosophies along the way, ranging from traditional teacher-driven to personalized student-centered. Emerging technology provides tools that allow educators and students to make choices based on data and options.

Many of the conditions are in place to support wide-spread adoption of personalized learning; however, expecting teachers to jump from traditional instruction to student-centered instruction will result in a difficult or impossible transition for many. To support the greatest number of educators to transition to personalized learning models, leaders need to build a bridge that plots out the steps of change. Four key elements to keep in mind for your teachers are:

  • Ensure that tools for personalized learning are available and provide support to reduce frustration.
  • Develop a variety of implementation models that allow teachers to move toward student-centered learning step-by-step rather than all at once.
  • Build in time for training and professional learning communities where teachers share successes and challenges.
  • Model a growth mindset, expect and value mistakes, and learn from them.

It’s important to allow time for systems, tools, and philosophies to change and to provide success at interim points.

Hallmarks of Student-Centered Learning

As teachers journey from traditional roles to new roles as learning facilitators, their classrooms will begin to exhibit personalization, student agency, real audience, connectivity, and collaboration and creativity — the hallmarks of student-centered learning. Valuing and celebrating these hallmarks is one part of building the bridge that all educators can use to support the change to personalized learning.

Personalization is a student-centered environment where the learner and teacher collaborate to drive learning and determine needs, plans, and learning design.

  • Teacher Kendra Rosales, Edison High School in Huntington Beach Union High School District, CA demonstrates innovative personalization in her math class using a screencast to onboard students to the personalized learning process. In each math unit, her students choose how they want to move their learning forward within a lesson using modalities they are most comfortable with. All students begin by using a learner profile with “I can” statements to code their prior knowledge on a topic as beginner, progressing, or mastery. Students then provide evidence of learning for each code. This gives students a voice in their learning process as co-planners, and Kendra noted, “This opened the world for my students!”

Agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and empowerment that the student exercises and experiences.

  • Students at Rio Vista Middle School, Rio School District, CA are given choice in their learning environment. The educators created Blended Learning Hubs where students have a level of autonomy over the subject they learn, the modality, and the pace of their learning. Students are also expected to set the culture for how they will responsibly use technology at their school. Each student created a pledge that is displayed for ongoing accountability. Student agency empowers students to feel a part of and have some control over their learning experience.

Audience in a student-centered environment refers to an authentic audience that goes beyond the teacher in the classroom. Students create learning products that are suited to communicate to various audiences, such as students and teachers in other classrooms or the local community. Opportunities for students to present their work to an authentic audience makes the work more relevant and meaningful, creating a deeper learning process for students.

  • Teacher Luz Velasquez, Baldwin Park School District, CA gave her sixth grade students the challenge to create a team website that would showcase the hard work they had done during the year. The website would be viewed at open house by not only their parents, but also by parents from other classrooms. Students had to review their work and decide on their best work to showcase. The authentic audience provided an opportunity for students to increase engagement and form a deeper connection to the learning process.

Connectivity and Collaboration empowers learners and enriches their learning through gaining multiple perspectives and the opportunity to iterate and improve thinking.

  • The Alief Independent School District, TX leadership team models how connectivity and collaboration can empower learners. The Alief leadership team used a Twitter Chat to enable teachers to collaborate and share best practices. For many teachers, this was their first experience using Twitter to collaborate with colleagues.
  • Teachers like Tara Hoopes shared, “Students want to be empowered and have a flexible learning environment.” While other teachers like Efigenia Zambrano realized, “The current system was designed for another age, and we are innovators changing education paradigms.” Teacher Brandy Jones summed things up by saying, “A huge shift is happening. Traditional approaches aren’t enough to create future leaders in problem solving and collaboration.” Alief School District is shifting traditional teaching and learning practices to dynamic 21st century learning experiences for students and teachers.

Creativity engages students in higher order thinking and activates intrinsic motivation.

  • At Canal Winchester Middle School, OH, students’ familiarity with technology is woven into the learning experience. Welcome to the #Math SELFIE, where S.E.L.F.I.E is a way to guide students through the steps of solving math problems: S-Show your work; E-Estimate the answer, L-Look for careless errors; F-Find multiple solutions; I-Include math vocabulary; E-Explain your thinking #math “selfie”. This practice models how to have fun and be creative with technology concepts.

Future Success

The world we live in and the career and learning opportunities that are available to students are changing rapidly. To help today’s students be successful, we need to ensure they are developing flexibility, life-long learning skills, focus, and persistence — and personalized learning can make a huge contribution to those goals. School leaders who model the hallmarks themselves help ensure that a mindset and culture shift takes place in their classrooms. Valuing and celebrating the hallmarks of student-centered learning is one important way to support educator’s transition from traditional instructional methods to those that will serve the needs of lifelong learners.

(1)EdWeek Market Brief, March 2017

Janet Pittock is a Curriculum Director for McGraw Hill Education. With roots in elementary classrooms, Janet has a deep, personal commitment to personalized technology solutions that inspire and engage each student. She has taught elementary school, preschool, special ed, and Algebra 1 and has overseen marketing, product management, and product development in mathematics, literacy, science, and early childhood at Redbird, Scholastic, Creative Publications, Think Through Learning, and Harcourt Achieve. Janet has been fortunate to have learned from Marilyn Burns, Carole Greenes, and Skip Fennel through collaborating with them to publish books such as Do The Math, Groundworks, and Connect. She is active in national math organizations — volunteering on the board of NCSM as the editor of the monograph series, serving on the editorial board of NCTM’s yearbook on Algebra, and leading the TODOS webinar task force. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Cassondra Corbin-Thaddies is the Director of Professional Learning at McGraw-Hill Education, where she supports district leaders with creating a vision and goals to design 21st century teaching and learning opportunities for students and teachers. In addition, she provides Blended Learning professional development experiences for school leaders nationally and internationally to promote best practices and coaching strategies to create the mindset shift required for personalized teaching and learning. As a transformative leader, Cassondra has been in the field of education for over 21 years. She has worked in government, non-profit, and for-profit agencies. Her work has included funding and managing county education programs, regional recruitment and implementation of tutoring programs, monitoring and quality assurance of educational services, and the facilitation of diversity and anti-bias curriculum to school leaders and students. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.