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Schools have no choice but to personalize learning

By Nancy Weinstein
August 24, 2016
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Personalized learning in schools is no longer a choice, but a necessity. After all, students are already personalizing their own learning. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend most of their time outside of school consuming media. In those hours, they choose what they will learn, how they will learn and from whom they will learn.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the latest Gallup study shows that most students are disengaged in classrooms where educators prescribe what they will learn, when they will learn it and how they will demonstrate their learning.

While the Gallup study does not directly show causation between the increase in media consumption with the decline in student engagement, the study authors specifically cite the “lack of experiential and project-based learning pathways for students” as one of three primary sources of failure (The other two sources, an over-emphasis on standardized testing and lack of non-college pathways, fail to explain why the highest academic performers are disengaged along with the non-college bound).

If we want to re-energize and re-engage our students, we have no choice but to give them opportunities to choose what they will learn and how they learn it. It’s no wonder the newly unveiled 2016 ISTE Standards for Students define Standard 1, the Empowered Learner, as someone who “leverages technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in her learning goals.”


Share the ISTE Standards with your students and download the free 'I am a digital age learner' classroom poster.


While there is no single proven model to personalize instruction, we do know that technology, when merged with good pedagogy, offers the most efficient and effective solutions. Amazing progress is already happening at institutions like AltSchools, Buck Institute for Education, New Classrooms and The Learning Accelerator.

If you are at a school that is still not ready to make the transition, your students do not, and should not, need to wait. There are ways for teachers to personalize instruction within the existing curriculum. Consider these ideas:

  1. Allow students to select from multiple options for practicing skills. Students do not need to memorize math facts, vocabulary or spelling words the same way. Some might still choose worksheets or paper flashcards. Others can pick from digital options like TenMarks, IXL or Bitsboard. Giving students choice will increase motivation. Teachers can and should still guide students based on their level of mastery, speed and how they best take feedback.

  2. Let students choose how to demonstrate mastery. A written paper is one way to demonstrate understanding of a topic, but there are many others. Besides, it’s an essential life skill to present in multiple formats. Allow students to use sites such as Haiku Deck or Show Me for engaging digital presentations. Have reluctant writers in the room? Consider letting them make a digital comic with a site like Pixton. For a change of pace, try International Literary Association’s Trading Cards app to create virtual trading cards of historical figures or book characters.

  3. Give students a broader audience. Students are often warned that anything they post online can be seen and shared by people outside their intended audience. Why not give them the opportunity to learn digital citizenship skills and encourage them to share their work with a broad audience. The 2016 ISTE Standards for Students define their second standard, Digital Citizen, as someone who "recognizes the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical."

But those skills must be practiced to be learned. Younger students can use restricted sites like EasyBlogJr, and older students can try safe sites like Teen Ink, Write the World and Figment. When students post for an audience, they are likely to feel a greater sense of purpose and care more about the quality of their work. They will also learn from reading and critiquing the work of their peers worldwide. And if issues do arise — like inappropriate or offensive comments — it’s an opportunity to teach them in the moment.

We will only stem what Gallup describes as our monumental, collective national failure to engage our students when everyone accepts that personalized learning in schools is not a fad. There is absolutely no way that the genie is going back in the bottle, and we shouldn’t want it to. We should embrace the use of technology to make learning magical for each and every student.

Nancy Weinstein is the founder and CEO of Mindprint Learning. She started Mindprint while a stay-at-home mom with her two daughters. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BSE in bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania. She works with an expert team of child psychologists and learning specialists.

Personalized learning is a hallmark of the 2016 ISTE Standards for Students. Download the standards today.