Personalization is permeating our society at large, and it’s no wonder that this need has penetrated education. In fact, one might argue that personalization is of the highest need in education, where our largest priority is to help each individual student maximize his or her full potential.

But this isn’t an easy charge. Helping all students reach their individual potential is much more easily said than done. It’s more complicated than buying an app or finding new curriculum. Instead, the art of personalizing education requires a delicate touch coupled with a firm knowledge of pedagogy and classroom process.

So how do we as teachers do it? How do we achieve personalization in a way that is not only cognizant of individual student needs, but also efficient and scalable for large classrooms and school systems?

Understand Standards and How to Unpack Them

One of the underpinnings of personalization is scaffolding instruction. While each child’s path differs, educators have still learned a great deal about “best practices” and trends in learning. Unpacking standards, whether they be Common Core or otherwise, can help teachers build rubrics and learning progressions that incorporate best practices while making paths accessible to students as well.

One of the most difficult things for me to teach is rounding whole numbers to my upper elementary students. While it seems like a routine skill, in order for students to truly understand this skill conceptually, it’s necessary for them to master identifying place values, understand the relationship between place values, and have a rudimentary understanding of what “half” of something represents. By knowing each of these components, I can diagnose specific learning needs, create ability groupings, and even create rubrics that help students self-assess.

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Leverage the Flipped Classroom

Homework was always a nuisance for me when I taught in public school. I felt like I was prescribing homework simply to appease parents, meanwhile wasting my students’ time and mine (especially when I had to grade it).

By flipping my classroom, I was suddenly able to break through the four walls of the classroom, create meaningful homework, maximize my time, and even involve parents. The best part about flipping was, when the kids came in the following day, I could very easily assess their understanding with an entry slip, immediately create groups, and instruct to each of these groups within minutes.

Master Formative Assessment and Documentation Practices

Of course, none of this would be possible without a firm understanding of formative assessment. Learning does not have a definite beginning and a finite end; instead, learning is process-oriented, and the only way we can truly scaffold instruction and meet students on a personal level is by documenting their work samples and using them as formative assessments in an on-going and dynamic spiral of instruction.

Let’s go back to the rounding example. I had a student this year, specifically, who struggled with number sense, and by watching her conquer rounding problems and documenting her mistakes, I was able to eventually identify that she had misconceptions with the place value system and how ones turns into tens, and how tens turn into hundreds. This information was invaluable in scaffolding instruction in later days.

By knowing our students in this way, and by constantly using formative assessment to know them better, we can personalize their education one day at a time.

Build a Culture of Autonomy and Agency in Staff and Students

The impetus for personalized learning comes from the assumption that all children are different. As a result, the process of personalization cannot be formulaic.

The major components of personalized learning are understanding student interests, assessing for granular misconceptions, and knowing students needs and preferences for learning. There are simply too many variables for there to be a formulaic approach. For some schools, this will be quite a change and a challenge for administrators and coaches alike. But managing this change doesn’t require coercion and rigid mandates; it requires trust, autonomy, and agency in both teachers and students.

By fostering environments where educators can be vulnerable learners, we empower them, not only to see themselves in the learning process, but to own their learning experience as teacher-learners and eventually transfer that both implicitly and explicitly onto students. This sort of personalization is neither ephemeral nor superficial; instead, it fosters a sense of purposeful inquiry where both teachers and students feel motivated to self-assess and self-correct for the purpose of self-improvement–not compliance.

Next Steps

As I said before, this isn’t an easy charge. You may be wondering where to start, and only you can provide yourself with that answer. Here’s what I recommend: Choose something that resides within your zone of proximal development as a teacher-learner, use your colleagues, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Your risks and the mistakes will be well worth the return!

This article was originally published on EdSurge on April 2, 2015.

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5 thoughts

  1. This is great, Paul. My struggle is in what you write about creating an environment where teachers can be vulnerable learners themselves… with so many changes, new initiatives, and in our state (WA) issues with teacher evaluation and our legislature trying to micromanage us, many teachers have withdrawn into the relative “shelter” of isolation in their own classrooms. I’ve spent the last three years organizing and facilitating very informal “learning walks” where teachers observe one another, and that seems to help with the broader culture shift, but when teachers are afraid (re: job security, evaluations, doing something wrong despite their best intentions) then vulnerability hidden and growth stifled.

    That whole paragraph of yours (the one that starts with “By fostering environments where educators can be vulnerable learners…”) I want to print out in giant font and drop in every principal’s and teacher’s mailbox.

    1. I love the idea of a learning walk. That sounds like a really low-risk, informal way to help teachers improve their practice! Do you have a process or protocol you could share with me?

      1. In my building, it relies largely on me connecting people with similar interests (we have about 100 teachers in my HS), and then coordinating for sub coverage so they can leave their own classrooms for a period, a half-day, even full-day… it is grant-funded. I’ve tried to stay away from really rigid observation forms for now, basically prepping observers with a simple t-chart: teacher moves and student moves… as well as front loading the norm that we are there to learn, not to evaluate. I usually go along to facilitate conversation among the observers (probing their thinking, fostering their reflection) and then after the walk, their only obligation is a thank-you email to the host that follows this basic pattern: “Because I saw you [X], it made me think [Y], so now I want to try [Z].” That kind of response not only validates what the host teacher was doing, but also lets the host teacher know that he/she has influenced the practices taking place in another classroom. I believe that keeping it “casual” has helped, since there was tremendous reticence at first for teachers to open their doors to their peers. Its a slow culture shift, but we’re moving…

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