Personalized Learning Strategies that Make a Difference
Take those first steps toward personalizing learning across your school.
You should’ve seen the look on my co-teacher’s face the day I leaned over during one of my very first faculty in-services and whispered, “So, why doesn’t everyone get an IEP?” Their shock probably shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the amount of time and struggle that goes into creating and supporting a single IEP across a student’s academic career can, at times, be daunting. Building and maintaining them for the entire student population would be no small feat. And, I imagine my colleague was also probably thinking, “Why would anyone bother to individualize a learning plan for a student who was ‘doing fine’”?
I stick by it, though. As a teacher, investing time in understanding a student’s strengths and needs, how they learn best, what their interests are, what pacing suits them, and what extra supports they might find useful still seems like a pretty good idea. After all, if the goal of education was merely “make sure everyone does fine,” who in that model would thrive?
It was, in fact, a wonderful school, where, in a way, everyone did get an individualized learning plan. One of our guiding principles was that offering a quality education to every student didn’t mean every student getting the exact same thing, but every student getting what they needed. And because every student might, at any given time, need a slightly (or even vastly) different thing, that also meant that our learning environments naturally needed to be variable; our assignments needed to be variable; and our delivery systems needed to be variable.
Depending on what you and your faculty, staff, and students are accustomed to, this may sound easy to accomplish – or like a major culture shift. Either way: if it sounds like a goal worth pursuing, then in a way, you’ve already taken the first big step. So what’s next?
Personalized Learning Strategies
1. Think Big
To get the most out of your shift to blended, personalized learning, dare to think holistically about how you envision your classrooms functioning, both in the short-term and in the long-term. What is your ultimate vision? It should go beyond simply using technology to differentiate reading assignments and pacing. At its core, personalized learning should, in fact, put the student at the center of their own learning plan, with their strengths, needs, interests, learning styles, and goals accounted for – and then surround them with the resources, strategies, and teachers they need for support. Personalized learning means teachers “follow the student,” rather than the other way around – and that takes big thinking.
2. Start Small
Because personalizing learning requires a significant change in mindset, you can’t do it all at once and you definitely can’t do it alone. Getting teachers involved in the process will be key, as will helping them see all the ways personalized learning tools can and will actually help them and their students. Imposing a brand new system by mandate will always meet with natural resistance, no matter the goal or content. Instead, identify a specific pain point for teachers and introduce a personalized learning strategy that will solve it. Introduce software to help teachers evaluate students’ reading skills and choose “just-right texts,” for example. Run a week-long “flip-the-classroom” trial (i.e., students watch or read “the lesson” at home, and then work on projects and problems at school). A small, measurable “win,” early on, will signal to teachers that personalized learning isn’t coming to make their lives more complicated. Rather, it can be helpful and energizing, and result in “more helping hands” in the classroom, and a more robust outcome for more of their students.
3. Give it Time
Simply put: Personalized learning asks that you organize your classroom time differently. Students will need, for example, time to work together on projects and assignments; to debate and discuss; to consult with learning coaches; and to collaborate and plan. Teachers, likewise, will require dedicated time for planning and collaborating with other teachers. “What learning looks like” is about to change.
4. Get Real About Technology
Are you picturing a sea of students sitting at computers all day? You shouldn’t be. You don't need one-to-one technology to personalize learning in your classroom. You do, however, need to use technology effectively. Personalized learning does not mean relying on technology to do everything automatically. It does mean that technology should be incorporated in ways that support teachers as they deliver lessons and review data, making the classroom an even more efficient place for teaching and learning.
5. Watch, Listen, and Learn
Offering a teacher training and sticking a bunch of laptops into a classroom will not create a personalized learning environment. Nor will trying to personalize learning in one fell swoop, with no room for change. Success will come only if you set and commit to specific short-term and long-term goals; support teachers and students by offering them time, technology, structure, and support; and then watch, listen, and learn from them about where to add, adapt, and improve.
By thinking big and starting small, and by building in plenty of time for teachers to talk to you and to one another as you implement new tools and strategies, you will have built-in natural opportunities for watching, listening, and learning, and for making adjustments bit-by-bit as you go.
Molia Dumbleton began her career as a high school teacher at a school for students with unique learning profiles. Since then, she has developed support tools for educators and learners of all ages – from newborn to adult – in formal and informal settings. She is a writer, teacher, and editor who lives in Chicago.