For years, we’ve seen promising research emerge about the power of personalized learning—and its ability to provide all students with unique learning opportunities and experiences needed to succeed. Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers: The Story of Success that “success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” Students’ success in school often comes down to the learning opportunities they are provided. The better the learning opportunities, the higher the level of student engagement, the more students learn, and the greater success experienced by all students.
As a career educator, my colleagues and I observed—firsthand—that personalized learning can change the lives of students. Here are the stories of two students with very different needs, both supported by personalized learning.
Remediation Personalized Learning Strategy
Johnny, a fifth-grader, was nearly two years older than his peers. He had significant reading deficiencies as well as behavioral issues. The normal classroom experience had failed Johnny up to this point, and he was struggling to succeed in school and in life. Because of his past struggles, Johnny had low self-esteem, very little confidence in his ability to learn, and acted out as a result.
Fortunately, Johnny’s fifth grade teacher was an educational innovator, and she developed a 1:1 iPad classroom. She used various learning apps and an online classroom learning management system to blend learning for all students. Recognizing and understanding Johnny’s strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, and needs, Johnny’s teacher was willing and able to create a personalized learning plan for him that was chock full of reading topics and learning activities—ones that he was interested in and were at his reading level.
His blended online class looked just like every other student’s. He was unaware that his learning was at a level unique to his needs, and therefore, he was less embarrassed about his learning struggles. Johnny’s personalized learning continued throughout his fifth grade year. By the end of the year, Johnny enjoyed school again, his behavioral issues decreased, and his reading scores grew nearly two grade levels.
Enrichment Personalized Learning Strategy
Abby, a high-achieving eighth-grader, was a gifted student who was becoming bored with school and needed to be challenged. Her school offered a robotics class, a nine-week course that students could take one time during the school year. Abby took robotics in the first quarter and thrived with the challenges it offered; she loved everything about robotics! Her robotics teacher recognized her unique interests and needs and provided personalized learning opportunities that changed Abby’s success trajectory forever.
She was invited to study advanced robotics via independent study in the second quarter, and then for the rest of the school year. She delved into robotics programming, engineering, problem-solving, and more. The year deepened her curiosities around science, technology, and space exploration. She went to Space Camp the next two summers and flew in an F-16 fighter jet a few years later. After high school, she was accepted into the Air Force Academy and graduated as an engineer.
Personalized Learning in Your District or School
Both Johnny and Abby had very different educational needs—and they both achieved higher educational outcomes through the unique opportunities provided by personalized learning. Not much was needed to make these opportunities possible for Johnny and Abby except a willingness to break the mold and do things just a little differently. Creating special learning environments and unique learning opportunities can launch every student on a new trajectory of success in school.
As you approach personalize learning in your own school or district, here are some things to ask and know:
- How does your district define personalized learning? School districts have different definitions , expectations, and applications of personalized learning, so it’s good to ensure your team is on the same page about it means in your specific culture.
- What are you already doing to personalize learning? Try taking stock of the efforts, programs, and protocols that are already in place for personalized learning. Do you already have processes in place, or is it up to you to lead the way? If so, build on what you are already doing and take advantage of all the free resources available. Here are some open education resources to get you started: OER Commons , Khan Academy , Merlot , and University of Pittsburgh OER: Big List of Resources .
- What technology do you have that can assist in personalized learning? Does your district use a learning management system or personalized learning platform (and if so, are staff trained and facile in using it)? If not, is there a central bank of apps that teachers can refer to, or a way for teachers to share good resources with their colleagues?
- What programs, community partnerships, or special classes are available? Take an inventory of unique learning opportunities already available to students. Before and after-school programs, clubs, work-study programs, and elective classes can offer unique learning opportunities connected to student interests. How can you create new community partnerships to support personalized learning for your students?
- How do we keep personalized learning “scalable”? Providing personalized learning plans to all students can be overwhelming for districts and teachers–both to think about and to implement. When you are creating your plans, consider its scalability. How will teachers manage personalized learning opportunities for all students? Regardless of the personalized learning plan you decide to implement, remember to keep it simple and grow from there.
- How will we track whether personalized learning is more successful than traditional opportunities ? How does your district currently collect and analyze student data? Are your personalized learning efforts integrated into that platform? Do you have baseline data (before personalized learning) to compare to data after personalized learning was implemented? Or, are you able to isolate a group of students receiving personalized learning programming vs. those who currently aren’t?
Establishing a common understanding of your team’s current personalized learning strategies and efforts is an important starting place. From there, you can strategically develop additional resources and opportunities to expand your personalized learning offerings.
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