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What does personalized learning really look like?

By Dale Basye
September 17, 2014
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The prospect of guiding students down individual learning paths — paths that are every bit as diverse as the children who crave them — can, quite understandably, fill many of today's more traditional educators with dismay. But every student arrives with unique strengths, weaknesses, challenges, backgrounds and developmental stages, so classrooms and teachers must adapt and evolve.

Traditional classrooms are designed to support traditional education, not necessarily the most effective and meaningful learning experience. Every student in the classroom must feel valued and take responsibility for gaining knowledge and freely sharing it with others. This allows teachers to more effectively address skill deficits and provide opportunities for deeper exploration and more immediate feedback.

But understanding the concepts behind personalized learning and actually implementing them are two different things. What does personalized learning really look like in the classroom?

Here are a couple of example scenarios:

Writing assignment

An educator is teaching a block on Medieval culture and wants to engage students through a writing assignment in which they report on the era through a pre-teen's perspective. The teacher describes the assignment in a Google Doc, including:

  • Links to relevant research articles.
  • The assignment rubric.
  • Information on a related assignment on the decline of the Roman Empire.

The students on the class roster receive their Medieval diary assignment, and the teacher notes when each student has begun the work. Through instant messaging, the teacher is able to provide immediate feedback and guidance at most any time of day, no matter where the student is. Students are able to give instant feedback as well, which may prompt the teacher to alter or amend the assignment. If so, all students on the roster are notified of the change immediately.

The students create Google Docs or other content and attach these files to the original assignment. The teacher monitors the progress of each student and, when needed, proposes interventionary measures, such as providing more suitable research materials to a student with below-average reading ability or offering extra-credit assignments to students who have finished early. The teacher may also pair students based on the learning situation.

The students turn in their assignment for review, and the teacher offers suggestions for making final edits. Students have another opportunity to ask questions about the assignment before finessing their work and submitting it for grading.

The teacher grades each assignment and communicates final feedback to students and their parents, along with an analytic overview of how each student is doing overall and where areas for improvement lie.

Collaborative learning assignment

A student is immersed in a block on Ancient Rome and has become fascinated with Roman architectural innovations. Although it is not the focus of the class, the student would like to build a functioning aqueduct and blog about it as if he were living in Ancient Rome with access to modern social media.

The student uses Google Docs to write a proposal for a new class project. He attaches relevant content to help his case: documents, links, photos, video, inspiration — even an Appian Way app that recreates a walk along the famed Roman road. He also recommends other students as potential partners, hoping their interest will help convince the teacher that the project should count toward their grade.

The teacher provides feedback on the proposal, asks for expansion on several issues, and offers to guide and facilitate the project. She also assigns additional students she thinks might work well together in a collaborative study group, based on their interests and aptitude. The student receives extra credit through an actual grade, a badge or a privilege. 

Sure, this level of personalized learning requires more forward planning on the teacher's part, but it gives students the most important thing of all: true ownership of their education. And this ownership will continue to open doors for them throughout their lives.

Dale Basye is the author of Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology. Connect with him on Twitter via @Go2Heck.