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Personalize your learning environment

By Barbara Bray
June 11, 2014
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Personalized learning is built on the idea that each learner is unique and learns in different ways. This is called variability in learning.

To support all learners' unique needs and preferences, learning environments have to be flexible. It takes a process to transform learning environments and change learner and teacher roles. This process does not happen overnight.

Take it one stage at a time
Shifting successfully from a traditional, teacher-centered learning environment to a learner-driven, personalized learning environment (PLE) can happen in stages. At each stage, the teacher's and learner's roles change:

Traditional learning environment: Teacher centered with explicit or direct instruction
In a traditional classroom, the teacher's main job is to deliver knowledge to the learners. He is responsible and accountable for what learners learn.

Stage One PLE: Teacher centered, with learner voice and choice
In Stage One, the teacher is dipping his toes into personalized learning by encouraging voice and choice. To do that, she helps learners create learning goals based on how they learn best. The teacher uses this information to redesign lessons, assessments and the physical environment.

Stage Two PLE: Learner centered, with teacher and learner as co-designers
In Stage Two, the teacher and learner work together to co-design lessons, assessments and the physical environment. This is the stage where it becomes each learner's responsibility to acquire the skills and knowledge to choose the appropriate tools, methods and strategies they need to accommodate how they learn best.

Stage Three PLE: Learner driven, with teacher and learner as partners in learning
In Stage Three, learners self-direct and drive learning at their own pace. Their learning environment, no longer confined to the classroom, expands to include their home, community and extracurricular interests. Learners are responsible for designing challenging learning experiences for themselves, and the teacher's primary role is to partner with the learners.

This is a culture shift that takes time, commitment and perseverance. Because every journey must start with the first step, let's begin with the transition from a traditional, teacher-centered classroom to a Stage One PLE, where every learner has a voice and a choice.

The teacher can begin making this transition by: As the teacher's role shifts, the learners will begin:
Understanding how each learner learns based on Personal Learner Profiles (PLP) and data. Working with the teacher to establish learning goals based on how they learn best.
Creating a Class Learning Snapshot (CLS) based on four diverse learners' PLPs. Working with the teacher to create a personal learning plan based on their learning goals.
Redesigning the learning environment based on the CLS. Choosing learning environments for individual and group work.
Transforming lessons and projects to encourage voice and choice. Having more opportunities to have a voice in what and how they learn.
Universally designing methods and materials to engage and guide learners in establishing their learning goals. Having more choices in how they access content and engage in activities so they are motivated to meet learning goals.
Designing, adapting and using existing assessment strategies. Choosing how they express what they know and understand.


Understand how teacher and learner roles change
In a Stage One PLE, the teacher begins to encourage more voice and choice throughout the learning process, and learners take more responsibility for their own learning. What does this look like?

Understand how learners learn best


The first thing the teacher needs to wrap her head around is how each learner learns. A tool that makes this process easier is the Personal Learner Profile (PLP) we created using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology. UDL is an ideal framework for personalized learning because it addresses the uniqueness of each learner and variability in how they access, engage and express their learning.

According to UDL, it works best to give each learner:

  • Multiple means of representation (access). Each learner is unique in how they best access content and process information into useable knowledge, so they should be able to choose from a variety of learning modes.
  • Multiple means of engagement (engage). What motivates and inspires passion differs from person to person. Each learner knows best what strategies and tools will engage them in the content and inspire them to own their learning.
  • Multiple means of action and expression (express). Each learner knows how they best express what they know and understand using actions such as writing, presenting, drawing, acting, building and sharing.

By applying UDL principles, you can reduce individual barriers to the curriculum and maximize learning for everyone in your class.

Make Personal Learner Profiles
Each learner creates his or her own PLP by determining how they access and process information, engage with content, and express what they know. Once they discover how they learn best, they will be able to take more responsibility for their learning.

To grasp how this works in a classroom, consider a hypothetical learner named Jared and his strengths, interests and challenges. Jared's teacher helped him design this PLP based on how he accesses information, engages with content and expresses what he knows:

Jared's Strengths and Interests Jared's Challenges
Access Good spatial ability, can interpret graphs and charts, likes music Difficult time focusing on the text, trouble organizing and taking notes
Engage Comfortable with Google Docs and the internet, likes to come up with new ideas Frustrated when writing ideas down on paper, cannot sequence what is happening in a story
Express Artistic ability, likes to draw, likes taking pictures, likes building things Not able to write or speak descriptively, does not know how to formulate a good question


Select resources for Personal Learning Backpacks

Personal learning backpack

To be prepared for college and career, each learner needs to:

  • Acquire the skills to choose and use the appropriate tools, resources and strategies to support their learning.
  • Select the appropriate tools and resources based on how they prefer or need to access, engage and express.
  • Develop learning strategies to support their learning.
  • Reflect on evidence of their learning.

Each Personal Learning Backpack should include a customized set of tools that supports how the learner accesses, engages, expresses and learns. This will enable him to become an independent, self-directed and eventually expert learner who is prepared for college and career.

A Personal Learning Backpack might include a tablet or other mobile device, recording device, camera, websites and other resources. The mobile device could feature a customized set of apps to support the learner with various activities, such as:

Create a Class Learning Snapshot

Create a Class Learning Snapshot (CLS) focused on four diverse learners. This sample group of learners is called " "the anticipatory set" " because you use their strengths and challenges in how they access information, engage with content, and express what they know in order to anticipate the strengths and challenges of most learners. The CLS will help you decide on resources and tools for instruction that will support the majority of learners in your class.

Read more about designing for all learners instead of designing for an " "average" " learner.

Universally design your methods and materials

The teacher's role is to design instruction and materials so that they will engage and guide learners in establishing their learning goals. You can determine the methods and materials to use in your lessons by reviewing available resources and choosing a range of formats that will support the diverse needs and preferences of the four learners in your CLS. The goal is to give learners more choices in how they access content and engage in activities so they are motivated to meet their learning goals.

For example, to give your learners more choice in how they access content, you could:

  • Provide both hard copies and digital files of all text and other materials.
  • Offer resources in multiple formats, including photos, speeches and videos.
  • Allow learners to choose from a variety of content topics.

To offer more variety in ways to engage with the content, you could:

  • Provide adjustable levels of challenge.
  • Allow learners to work individually or in groups.
  • Provide checklists for learners to monitor their own progress.

Redesign the learning environment
Once you know who your learners are and how they learn best, you are ready to redesign the learning environment. One way to do this is by incorporating multiple learning zones.
Kevin McLaughlin was a Year 4 teacher at Old Mill Primary School in Broughton Astley, Leics, United Kingdom, when he redesigned his classroom with learning zones. He now teaches kindergarten with the same design. The setup of his room allows young learners to self-direct their learning and complete each activity in the zone of their choice.

This is what his PLE looks like:
LL 407 Room Chart

  1. The Discussion and Thinking Zone is where learners participate in whole-class discussions and talk about their learning.
  2. The Discovery Zone is where they investigate, solve problems and collaborate on projects.
  3. The Show-Off Zone is where learners write, present and share their work.
  4. The Repeat level is where learners go to get help, advice and explanations.
  5. The Creation Zone is where they write, edit, develop and refine their content presentations.

Transform traditional lessons to allow voice and choice

Miss RumphiusConsider a grade 3 language arts lesson on the book Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney that's designed to meet Common Core State Standard ELA-RL.3.2:Recount stories, including fables, folktales and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text. This lesson can also meet the ISTE Standards for Students 1: Creativity and Innovation and 2: Communication and Collaboration.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher would likely read the book, which is about a girl who learns about the world through her grandfather's eyes, out loud to all the children. She then would ask them all to do the same activity ? often a book report about the moral of the story ? to meet the standards.

How can this lesson be transformed to accommodate every learner? The teacher can still read the book to the whole class, but she can also make it accessible to them in several different formats, such as:

After the teacher reads Miss Rumphius along with the learners, she can facilitate discussions about the lesson the book teaches, asking questions such as:

  • What are the most important events that happened in the story? How do you know?
  • Can you tell how the character is feeling in this part of the story?
  • How does this character affect what happens in the beginning or at the end of the story?
  • What lesson is this story teaching you?

The teacher can also invite questions from the class about the story behind the story, using prompts about the book's themes. As a class, the learners can come up with an essential question, such as " "How can you make the world more beautiful?" " to inspire projects that will demonstrate what they have learned.

Give choice in how learners express what they know and understand

Here's how one pair of hypothetical learners, Susan and Jared, chose to express their understanding of the themes in Miss Rumphius. First, they brainstormed supporting questions for the essential question, " "How can we make the world more beautiful?" ":

  • How can we make our school more beautiful?
  • How can we make a garden for our school?

These questions inspired Susan and Jared to develop a proposal and plan to plant a small vegetable plot on an empty lot in their school commons. They used iScape Free, a landscaping app on their tablet, to design a garden. During this process, they reflected in their KidBlog and invited feedback from others.

Jared enjoys photography, so he took photos of vegetables and other plants they wanted in their garden using the digital camera on his mobile device. Jared worked with Susan to choose pictures for the blog and upload them to DropBox. Both he and Susan wrote a reflection on this process. They compiled all of their evidence and reflections in their proposal, which they presented to their class using Prezi. Then the teacher helped them get approval from the school administration to make their vision a reality.

Because Susan and Jared became partners in learning with their teacher, they were more involved in lesson design and choosing the appropriate tools to support their learning. As a result, they became more engaged in the lesson and more motivated to learn.

As you start the new school year and meet your new learners, consider these ideas for introducing personalized learning into your classroom. You may find that when you really get to know each child and how they learn best, you can build a class community with a culture of trust and responsibility that inspires investment and ownership in learning.

Want to learn more about PLEs, focusing on the learner first and how technology can support personalized learning? Find resources and information about the three Stages of Personalized Learning on our Personalize Learning website, sign up for our 5 W's of Personalized Learning e-course, or read our upcoming book, Make Learning Personal , when it comes out this fall.

To learn more about the use of technology to personalize learning, check out Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology by Peggy Grant and Dale Basye.


Barbara Bray is co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC, and founder/owner of My eCoach. She writes a professional development column for Computer Using Educators' online journal, OnCUE. Bray has more than 25 years of experience making learning personal and building communities of practice. You can follow her on Twitter via @bbray27.

Kathleen McClaskey is CEO and co-founder of Personalize Learning, LLC, as well as the founder and digital learning consultant for EdTech Associates. She has over 30 years of experience designing instruction and learning environments for all learners and in creating professional learning programs and projects using the Universal Design for Learning framework. You can follow her on Twitter via @khmmc.