What Personalized Learning Really Means For Modern Teachers

When I first read about Personalized Learning as an approach to improving school outcomes for children, I assumed it just meant “good teaching.” Know your students. Engage them as individuals. Address learning style, skill level and interests.

Then I thought about the fact that when you double the number of students per teacher and broaden the spectrum of skill level and interests in any given classroom, it becomes exponentially harder to address all those personalities. Personalized Learning, as I understood it, would be impossible in such situations no matter how excellent the teacher. There just is not time in the day for a single human being to meet the diverse needs of 25-40 kids.

So I was cynical when education innovators, school leaders, researchers and funders started pushing Personalized Learning as one answer to the public education crisis. Apparently, I did not fully understand what they were talking about.

student with brain

What Personalized Learning Means Today

I did some research. I interviewed school leaders who are implementing it in their classrooms. I participated in webinars. I found helpful information through the Colorado Legacy Foundation, which is committed to funding Personalized Learning implementation in Colorado, while supporting related professional development programming nationwide. I talked to two educators in Colorado Springs District 11, where Personalized Learning programs are being implemented. I read articles in Education Week and Ed News Colorado that focus on everything from using technology in classrooms to creating a “sense of wonderment” in students.

While Personalized Learning is about teaching to the individual child, it is ultimately about shifting how teachers think of themselves and their role in the classroom.

The goal is to transition from a “sage on stage” approach, a description I learned from Scott Fuller and Greg Wilborn, Personalized Learning program leads in Colorado Springs, to becoming a facilitator of student-directed learning.

It’s Not All About Technology

Many people think that Personalized Learning is all about technology. It is not, although technology makes it more accessible in over-crowded classrooms. If an individual student has Internet access, that student can work independently while the teacher facilitates an in-depth discussion with a small group at another skill level. Technology empowers the teacher to keep a larger number of students at different levels moving forward simultaneously.

Personalized Learning is also about improving the ability to assess student’s skills or growth in real time, rather than at the end of a unit or semester when it could be too late to redirect. Again, technology helps, but it is more about changing the mindsets of teachers, parents and students about how skills are measured and when. In addition, that ongoing assessment enables teachers and parents to better communicate about a child’s needs.

Setting goals for each student is a critical piece of Personalized Learning programming, as is measuring achievement and skills against those goals. It merely provides an individualized route for each student to reach the same set of goals set by the teacher and standardized test score requirements.

Some students respond better in a traditional classroom. Others need to work with their hands. Some work better independently, while others excel in groups. By freeing the teacher up from the “sage on stage” approach, Personalized Learning allows him or her to provide multiple paths to the same goal.

The challenge?

It sounds like we are trying to create a learning environment that is all things to all people. It sounds like it will require funding that districts do not have, technology that is not universally accessible, and more teachers with additional training to facilitate diverse learning plans. Detractors say that means more exhausted teachers with less accountability for their students’ success rates.

The Good News

The educators implementing it in their classrooms, however, tell a very positive story.

They claim they have more control over their classrooms, have more planning time during the school day, are better able to raise the level of discussion in small groups, and are leveraging ongoing skills assessments to address individual needs. They are also excited by what they are seeing in regard to student engagement and achievement.

It seems the challenge then is getting the word out about Personalized Learning so that the rest of us understand what is being accomplished in classrooms by good teachers who already get it.


  1. Folkse

    August 4, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Great. I’m sold, as many are sold…at least on the theory. How about some practical How To? How do you individualize learning for 25-40, or at the secondary level, 130-150? Would love to see more concrete and practical tips and less of a sales pitch. We use Discovery Ed, Odysseyware, Edmodo, CScope, Eduphoria, and Learning.com. Despite these resources, w/o the ability to clone ourselves, the challenge remains: how do you monitor, manage, redirect, re-teach, and challenge that many students, all at different levels w different learning styles? Edudemic, I have faith you can help answer some of these where-the-rubber-meets-the-road challenges.

  2. schink10

    August 5, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Excellent post!!! I think this is a very important concept which you present. The “cookie-cutter” model of all students on the same worksheet, same problem, same skill is not effective. I also began to think that “individualized” or “differentiated” learning sounded great in “theory” but could not really work in a classroom. I was very pessimistic about it. The “Aha!” moment for me was when I began doing 20-time, ComPassion Based Learning, or Genius Hour. I truly became the “Guide by the Side” instead of the “Sage on the Stage”.

    My classroom is completely different now. It was a tough shift to make, because I could not envision the paradigm shift, but once it became a reality, it is wonderful. I now feel that I am preparing students to succeed more so than I ever have in the past. Thank you for sharing this post!!!

    I was fortunate enough to start a Pilot Program with three other WONDERFUL educators called “Communities” in which we try to provide a more individualized education with more feedback and a strong focus on “learning how to learn” and 21st Century Skills. Our first year of this program was wonderful. CommunitiesONHS

    Oliver Schinkten
    ComPassion-Based Learning