How Will Personalized Learning Change My Classroom?

Personalized learning challenges teachers and students to rethink the classroom to teach and learn better.
"Personalized learning transforms what students do in the classroom by extending the learning process in both directions."

More and more states and districts are encouraging teachers to integrate principles of personalized learning into their classrooms. Some ambitious administrators have even set deadlines to fully transition their schools to a personalized learning environment within the next two years. This has a lot of teachers -- rookie and experienced alike -- concerned as to how PL initiatives will fundamentally change what happens in their classrooms. Let’s take a few minutes to visualize the personalized learning classroom and clear up some misconceptions.

When teachers and parents hear “personalized learning,” they often worry that the approach will create a low-structure, low-accountability environment in which students are “doing whatever they want” and choosing not to pursue a rigorous education. That preconception couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, personalized learning is highly structured and empowers teachers to maximize learning for each student.

How will personalized learning affect student learning?
Personalized learning means that instead of learning, processing and working as a collective cohort, students are encouraged to engage with key skills and knowledge in the way that is most accessible for them as individuals. That means that in a class of 20 students, there’s a high likelihood that 20 different variations of a similar learning activity might be going on. Again, this might sound chaotic at first blush, but the truth is that when students feel that their school experience aligns with their unique needs, strengths and personality, it builds engagement and buy-in across the board. That means more students working hard and more students succeeding.

One of the biggest differences you’ll see in a personalized learning environment is the intentionality with which students acquire information and skills. In the traditional model, students learn through a cycle of instruction, practice and assessment. This works fine for intrinsically motivated students, but for many other learners, it’s unclear what the long term goal or purpose of the learning experience is. As all teachers know, when students don’t see the use in a lesson, they’re bound to disengage. Personalized learning eliminates this issue by adding more steps to the cycle of learning, both before and after material is introduced, to ensure students are truly engaging and putting forth their best effort.

Before students tackle individual skills, concepts and lessons, they work with teachers to set long- and short-term goals. These contain career ambitions, skill targets and other academic or personal goals. This process makes learning much more authentic and purposeful for students, as teachers can connect individual lessons, learning experiences or assignments to specific goals that the student identified for themselves. That way, there’s no question as to “Why are we learning this?” By beginning with goals, personalized learning creates an environment in which students are challenged to grow and improve in a way that helps them achieve their dreams and find success in the real world.

Personalized learning doesn’t just front-load the learning process with goal setting, though; it also encourages students to extend their thinking by reflecting on what they’ve learned and the experience of learning it afterwards. Reflection is one of the pillars of personalized learning because it is during reflection when students truly process what they have learned, connect it to their daily lives and visualize how it might help them in the future. The typical cycle of instruction, practice and assessment too often forgets this metacognitive piece at the end, which compartmentalizes learning and unintentionally invites students to move on to the next thing and leave prior learning experiences behind.

Personalized learning transforms what students do in the classroom by extending the learning process in both directions. Through goal setting, students are primed for learning and given every opportunity to buy in. During instruction and learning time, students explore in a way that makes sense for them while receiving high-quality support from you, their teacher. Then, after they have completed their unit of study, students are challenged metacognitively to think about their learning through reflection. This process creates more engaged, mindful, motivated students.

How will personalized learning affect my planning?
With that said, embracing personalized learning will definitely require rethinking and adapting certain aspects of your approach. One routine personalized learning completely shakes up is planning. If you’re a rookie teacher, lesson and unit planning probably consume a great deal of your time and energy. It can often be daunting to even know what to do day-to-day, and you can find yourself spending hours planning lessons that you scrap halfway through because they’re not working.

Personalized learning simplifies things by allowing you to use student inquiry and work to tell you where to go next. Instead of planning one grandiose lesson for the whole group that isn’t relevant for everyone, you can create individualized “mini lessons” that get right to the heart of what each individual student needs to know and work on. By inviting you to prioritize progress over prescriptive pacing, personalized learning makes it much easier to plan responsive lessons.

On the other hand, if you’re a veteran teachers who’s taught the same course for many years, you probably don’t sweat planning much anymore. Even so, personalized learning provides a new lens to make your planning time more focused and effective. Layering the personalized mindset over your existing planning routine will deepen your understanding of your practice and make your an even-more effective coach and support for your students. Instead of just reminding yourself “what’s coming next,” you’ll find yourself anticipating individual student questions or issues ahead of time, which creates more opportunities to plan how you’ll explain or demonstrate things in the most effective way possible. Personalized learning provides you with the time, data and toolkit you need to craft meaningful interventions and ensure that each student truly learns the material. In this way, it simply enhances what you were already doing as a high-quality veteran teacher.

Embracing personalized learning is undeniably a major shift. However, when you’re armed with knowledge of what personalized learning is (and isn’t), how it can impact learning for your students and how it can improve your own practice, the thought of embracing personalization is actually pretty exciting, isn’t it?