Education Trends

What Is Personalization, Really?

Student listening to a man explain something at the computer in an architect's office
Credit: Edutopia

Allison missed more days than she attended in the last quarter of her junior year. She told her guidance counselor that she felt "disconnected" from her learning and "uninspired," and her grades reflected it. Allison said that she just didn't see the relevance between her required courses and her interests in the real world. Her parents were frustrated and told her that she would never make it in college. She was about to drop out when her counselor told her about the new Soar option at Montpelier High School (MHS). Soar is our new personalization pathway that includes independent study, internships, and a weekly seminar. Students design their own independent course of study. Finally, Allison would get the chance to control her own learning.

Two months later, Allison nervously stood in front of an important audience. Her parents, Soar teachers, guidance counselor, and principal leaned in and listened. She was anxious because she hated public speaking, but also because her parents hadn't been in the same room together since their divorce a few years earlier. Yet when she heard her own voice, she began to realize that she was the expert. After all, she'd just spent the entire quarter digging into programming and gaming, and now she had the skills. She had something to say and people who wanted to hear it. She realized that she was in charge of her learning now.

A Culture of Personalization

Allison’s experience was transformative -- for her, her parents, and the educators in the room -- as an example of personalized learning, an academic model offering flexible pathways for students to progress toward a diploma in ways that are personally meaningful. However, with so many schools experimenting with personalization, the term has taken on many different connotations. "Personalized" could mean:

  • Differentiated learning activities
  • Customized course offerings
  • Goal-setting

At MHS, we rely on the following principles to create a culture of personalization.

Give Students Agency Over Their Learning

Many educators agree that we need students to develop a sense of agency, but our school structures often do just the opposite. Students' physical movement during the day, both in and outside of the classroom, is severely limited. Behavior policies tell students what not to do, instead of what they should do. And aside from choosing a few electives and co-curriculars, what and how students learn is tightly controlled through tracking, prerequisites, and course requirements.

MHS doesn't have hall passes, detention, and long lists of forbidden activities. We base our approach on the assumption that most people do the right thing most of the time, and we sum up acceptable behavior in three simple rules:

  1. Take care of yourself.
  2. Take care of each other.
  3. Take care of this place.

Give Students Choice During Recess

Each afternoon during the 15-minute break that we call "MHS Unplugged," our students and teachers lead activities such as basketball, speed chess, knitting, or yoga. There's no attendance sheet. Teachers and students simply go wherever their interests take them. We were a little worried that something so open-ended could lead to bad behavior, but just the opposite has happened -- students have used their freedom to seek out healthy fun, and relationships between students and teachers now seem less hierarchical.

Finally, we want students to design their own learning activities. Eighty percent of our students graduate with community-based learning credit, and we've just created two new programming courses at the request of students who love coding. We hope our students will continue to have more power over how and where they learn. We want to spend more time helping them design their learning activities, instead of handing down requirements and enforcing compliance.

Define Curriculum by Real-Life Skills

Many teachers begin their careers with a common question: What does this school expect me to teach? Unfortunately, the answer is too often a textbook, a set of concepts, a list of facts, or a canned curriculum. Discipline-specific content knowledge is important, but content alone should not define a student's educational experience. Lessons, units, and courses must start with a backward-design approach -- if you plan a trip, it's best to have the destination in mind! If the content is your destination, it's easy to miss the broader purpose of our work, and students' interests and long-term life goals often live outside of our content areas.

Define Learning Expectations

As administrators, we believe that autonomy is about transfer, so we created the following seven learning expectations, a set of deeper transferable skills with common rubrics:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Creativity
  4. Citizenship
  5. Habits of learning
  6. Problem solving
  7. Communication

Our teachers are asked to plan instruction around these learning expectations -- when teachers guide, measure, and push students toward these skills, the learning takes on new relevance and rigor. Application, not memorization, is the goal!

The MHS Learning Expectations (LEs) are graduation proficiencies intended to develop essential skills across discipline areas. These transferable skills also establish a common language for learning through coursework, co-curriculars, internships, and other "real-world" experiences as well. This graphic (PDF) shows how we intentionally connect academic work with students' individual pursuits in the wider community.

Empower Teachers to Know Students as People

All successful teachers care about their students as individuals. However, traditional schooling often doesn't provide time or space for this. Notable exceptions are sports and school trips, where teachers get to know a different side of students, build trust, and connect with families. When important choices come up or things go wrong, these are often the teachers who act as mentors to help students find success. However, students who aren't lucky enough to connect with a teacher may not get this type of support when they need it most.

MHS has several systems to help us cultivate student-teacher relationships. Students know that we know them, and more importantly, that we care about them. A student’s first experience with MHS typically begins before eighth grade graduation -- many of the students in Montpelier Public Schools have been mentored by a high school student since first grade! In addition, we host several transitional meetings, tours, and activities. All incoming freshmen are assigned a teacher advisor with whom they meet daily, and an upper-class mentor. In addition, we run small classes, track student skills and interests over time, and host our Unplugged program to develop common interests among students, teachers, and administrators. Also, outside of recess, we make time to play and eat together. We have traditional whole-school kickball and dodgeball tournaments, and during Fall Harvest Festival, the entire school community sits down and eats a meal together.

Empower Students to Learn About Themselves as People

Perhaps the most important aspect of personalized learning is for students to make meaning about their learning. Through Teacher Advisory, Learning Exhibitions, and Personalized Learning Plans, we want students to connect learning across disciplines and over time, reflect on how they learn in addition to what they’ve learned, and share out their evidence of learning and thinking.

Connect, reflect, share.

The Longer Arc

This is how we hope our students will feel that they are in charge of their learning and have an important role to play in shaping their learning experiences. We believe that, by making these connections in a meaningful way, our students will be motivated by seeing the longer arc of their learning, which, of course, stretches into the future after graduation. We believe that students must be able to see and understand their progression of learning in order to develop a growth mindset. We believe that students need to connect learning outside the classroom -- from landscaping work to writing apps in their rooms -- with the learning that occurs in class. We believe that students are more engaged when they have a bigger audience through online publishing, exhibitions, and community action. We believe that there is more than one way to show proficiency against a given standard, and that having standards should not mean standardizing our students. We believe that learning is always filtered through emotional and physical state, prior experience, race, gender, class. . . and that we ignore these at our peril. We believe that students develop a sense of agency when they belong to a close-knit learning community.

In the end, Allison was able to succeed because she was given the freedom to shape her own path and find new motivation to pursue her learning. She was able to find a deeper purpose to learning than simply credits and GPA, and she developed a new confidence by taking stock of her work and sharing out with people who are important to her. This is what personalization means to us, and this is what we want for each of our students.

School Snapshot

Montpelier High School

Grades 9-12 | Montpelier, VT
Enrollment
313 | Public, Rural
Per Pupil Expenditures
$13,895 District
Free / Reduced Lunch
20%
DEMOGRAPHICS:
90% White
3% Asian
3% Multiracial
2% Black
2% Hispanic
Demographic data is from the 2012-13 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2014-15 academic year.