What is Personalized Learning?

Personalized learning is a powerful approach, but it's often misunderstood, even by educators.
"Personalized learning is the belief that becoming college- or career-ready looks different for every student. It’s an emphasis on empowering each learner to explore, work and grow in ways that fit their individual strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and interests."

As even more states, districts and schools push to integrate elements of personalization into their curricula, there’s still a fundamental lack of knowledge among students, parents and even teachers as to what personalized learning (PL) really is and looks like. This is a major problem because learners and educators have already endured a decade or more of half-understood, start-and-stop initiatives that have done little to improve the quality of education. Unlike these programs, however, personalized learning offers real opportunities to rethink school in crucial ways while also maintaining the best parts of the system we’ve already built.

So, what is personalized learning? Personalized learning is the belief that becoming college- or career-ready looks different for every student. It’s an emphasis on empowering each learner to explore, work and grow in ways that fit their individual strengths, weaknesses, learning styles and interests. PL isn’t just about “letting kids learn whatever they want,” though; rather, it invites students and teachers to use areas of natural interest or engagement to access valuable, high-level skill and knowledge targets.

Personalized learning is built around three main pillars: student directed learning, high quality instruction from teachers and leveraging technology to assist in organizing and managing learning. Let’s take a moment to explore each of these values in some detail.

Student Directed Learning

Personalized learning is a student-centric model, meaning the individualized needs, interests and curiosities of each student are the driving force behind their education. Unlike the traditional classroom model, which grants exclusive control of content and assessment to the teacher, PL invites learners into the process, where they become masters of their own learning through goal setting, inquiry-based learning experiences, authentic assessment and meaningful reflection.

Student voice and choice are crucial to learning because they build engagement, authenticity and feelings of accomplishment for students. When learners have more freedom to explore their interests or areas of strength, it provides them with game-changing self-esteem and transforms school into a place where each student’s unique talents feel recognized and valued. In this way, PL helps students discover and deepen their understanding of themselves, preparing them for life in the real world, where they’ll need to strategize and problem-solve in a way that works for them on a daily basis.

High Quality Instruction

When some teachers and administrators hear the term “personalized learning,” they visualize a chaotic classroom in which students do whatever they darn well please with minimal accountability or rigor. On the contrary, personalized learning actually challenges teachers to design and execute better, more targeted interventions than ever before. When students take an increased role in goal-setting and determining access points for learning, it frees up teachers to transition into a coaching role for each student.

Rather than the traditional model, which encourages “teaching the middle” of the room, personalized learning empowers teachers to do what they’ve always known is right: giving each learner specific, targeted feedback and support that meets them at their level, takes advantage of what they already know and do well and pushes every student to improve in ways that are relevant and achievable for them. Personalized learning challenges teachers to get to know all their students as individuals and encourages them to break new ground, explore new approaches and leverage the compassion and problem-solving skills that brought them to the profession to help create a bright future for each learner in their charge.

Leveraging Technology

Obviously, personalized learning forces teachers and students to ask some tough questions, have some meaningful conversations and create some unique learning experiences. This work can feel overwhelming or shapeless without the right structures in place, but that’s where modern technology comes in to provide support. Online management interfaces known as LMSes (Learning Management Systems) or LRMs (Learning Relationship Management Platforms) allow teachers and students to extend the classroom space in ways that simply weren’t possible until now.

Using an LMS or LRM, teachers and students can design, archive and update personalized learning goals and tie them to curriculum standards to demonstrate how each learning experience reflects local, state or federal expectations. Additionally, students and teachers can communicate through the online system to migrate potentially tough conversations about learning and progress to a space where today’s students are more comfortable communicating. The online nature of the system means that no teacher has to bring home a twenty pound tote bag in order to assess and no student needs to worry about misplacing important papers in their locker.

Those three values drive just about every aspect of the personalized learning approach. In order to round out our definition of personalized learning and clear up some misconceptions, however, let’s take a few minutes to talk about what personalized learning is not. Personalized learning is not an online “curriculum-in-a-box.” Even though PL values students thinking and working independently, it emphasizes them exploring concepts, skills and information that are relevant to them, the world in which they live and the future they see for themselves. Obviously, this means that any kind of pre-packaged curriculum is completely antithetical to the values of personalized learning.

Another misconception is that personalized learning encourages students to mainly engage and learn with their computers, cheapening the role of the teacher in the education process. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the role of the teacher is more important and powerful than ever in a PL classroom. PL teachers aren’t just masters of one curriculum they’ve taught for many years; they’re open-minded creators who are constantly integrating new ideas, discovering new ways to engage students and brainstorming ways to get each individual learner to the finish line. In truth, personalized learning gets right at the heart of teaching, encouraging educators to truly focus on helping create a successful future for each of their students.

Clearly, personalized learning represents a major shift in what the day-to-day operations of a classroom look like. With that said, however, personalized learning is still doing what all good educational approaches have done since the beginning of time: it encourages students to think, wonder and problem solve, while encouraging teachers to reach every learner, create the most exciting possible learning experiences and mentor growing minds in a way they can be proud of.