George Lucas Educational Foundation

Personalized Learning- Challenges and Successes

Personalized Learning- Challenges and Successes

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The concept of personalized learning can be overwhelming for teachers. In today's diverse classrooms, it's can be challenging to accomodate students with IEP's and 504 plans, let alone take on the task of personalizing learning for all students. Yet we all know that students aren't widgets- they are individuals, and they all come to the classroom with strengths, weaknesses, challenges, different background and cultural experiences, let alone different developmental stages and abilities. We know personalized learning can be done, but it requires re-framing what a classroom looks like, and how it functions. What have been your biggest challenges or successes with implementing personalized learning or differentiated instruction in your classroom? What would you like to see discussed here? What do you see as the greatest area of need? We can't wait to hear from you!

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Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

The most challenging thing for me lately has been the mandated "co-teaching" that was implemented 3 years ago. It came down with not much training - I think a video was about it. Teachers weren't asked if they wanted to do it but told we WOULD do it. I'm a big fan of co-teaching but, as a special education teacher, I'm at the mercy of classroom teachers.

I have a lot of ideas of how to differentiate more and personalize the instruction - something I think would benefit many of the students, not just those with IEPs. However, I'm limited by what classroom teachers will permit.

The thing about co-teachings is that if you ask 10 people what it is you'll get 10 different answers. I'm sure the classroom teachers see us as co-teaching but I feel more like a glorified aid. I think of all we could accomplish with 2 people in the room, even in a situation like ours when I'm not in there all the time. Two heads are better than 1, right?

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Erika!
I'm wondering if you get any planning time with the teachers you co-teach with- is there a way you can figure out lesson plans in advance enough that you can figure out who does what and make it more of a team effort? In many ways, DI can be all about the planning, so the direction and end goals are clear enough that people can modify the plan on the fly for all students as needed during class.
Finding time to plan is always challenging- maybe taking some of it online through email, or even a Google Group with the teachers you frequently co-teach with might help everyone get some ideas on how to better integrate co-teaching into the classroom, and share what is or is not working in other classrooms.
If you think you might want to try something like that but are unsure of how to set it up, let me know or drop me an email at ldpodcast [at] and I'll be happy to help anyway possible.

Jenifer Fox's picture
Jenifer Fox
Strengths Consultant, Author, School Leader

I agree with Whitney, Erika. Co-teaching can only work when clear planning has prescribed the roles and duties of each teacher. These questions must be answered:

What are the students to learn?
How will they demonstrate that learning?
What are the teachers' roles in ensuring that the students have learned?

Until these questions are answered your co-teaching is not going to help the students and will only lead to confusion. Once these questions are answered, then you can get to the next level of planning where you divide and support toward the objectives based on your teaching strengths.

Ambar K. Mitra's picture
Ambar K. Mitra
President, Actus Potentia, Inc.

"Personalized Learning" is one of the challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering. It still remains a challenge, because we are still unsure about what it means and how it is implemented.

The meaning and implementation will remain unclear as long as the phrase remains abstract. Like Ee equals Em Cee Squared was a thoery until the energy was practically released from an atom. Therefore, I should start with my own understanding of "personalized learning" and employ it in my classrom, find deficiencies, and improve my deployment.

The key issues are abstraction to practicality, theory to experience, and continuous improvement.

Planning is a good thing to begin with, provided we are ready to make mid-course corrections. Airplanes have a wonderful flight-plan before take-off, but the airplanes are off-course 90% of the time making repeated corrections.

On the issue of abstract to practicality, for a teacher like Erika Saunders, it could be a good idea to ask a more specific question - "How can I implement personalized learning for the topic of solution of two simultaneous algebraic equations?"

Then ask the question, "what can my students do now, and what should they be able to do at the end of this chapter?"

And be ready to make corrections in "implementation" until the students attain the desired level of increased ability.

Jimmie L Rice's picture

All your comments are about how to use personalized learning in the classroom. What if we changed the concept and simply talked about one on one learning. With technology, it would be possible to create learning centers instead of "schools", eliminate the need for required "seat time" and develope a learning community. I have written a short paper that explains how this would work and how it is an improvement over our current system for all students including the gifted. I believe all students want to learn, they simply need to be guided. Textbook are out dated because they limit how facts and concepts are taught.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Jimmie!
While distance learning and outside the classroom learning is important and a critical part of personalized learning, I think there's a role for the teacher and the relationship between students- creating an activity community of learners, that is harder to establish long distance rather than face to face.

I'd like to hear more about the learning centers you propose. How do you organize and fund them? How do you ensure high quality instruction?

Jimmie L Rice's picture

I'm not talking about long distance learning, I'm talking about reconfiguring local resourses. Sometimes virtual learning can be more personal that in a class room of 24 to 30. Here is my paper, it is not long. I some paragraphs each sentence is a concept. Jim Rice
1421 Sauk Trail
Tecumseh, MI 49286
August 24,2010

It seems that we currently design any changes we make around the model of a "classroom" where there are a number of students and an adult. No matter how we have adjusted the day or the "marking period" it all is an adjustment to the classroom. The biggest challenge of the classroom is that research shows that the adult (teacher) can be effective if there are 17 or fewer students. The cost of having enough teachers and classrooms to accommodate that number is huge, but anything larger than that diminishes the ability to give every student the attention needed.
What if instead of having a model from the concept of a classroom, we start a model with the concept of "one-on- one" instruction? What if every student could learn at his/her own pace and with his/her own interests? What if advancement was biased on the mastery of rubrics instead of moving from year to year and from grading period to grading period? What if teachers became available by an assigned shift, by appointment, or virtually and schools were available 24/7, 365 days a year? What if "schools" were instead "learning centers" designed for specific needs and for assessment locations? What if teachers became guides to the individual and facilitators for group activities?

Let me start with some basic beliefs;
First, I believe that all children (in fact all humans) have a desire to learn. We all want to know more and left alone we will find ways to learn what we want to learn. For the sake of consistency in a society, that society needs to decide what concepts and information are necessary for a person to function in that society.
Second, I believe that every child mentally, physically, and emotionally develops differently. That concepts and skills mature on a different time table for each student. I further believe that the current educational system was designed for convenience of the educators and not the best interests of the student. Until this time in history, the only efficient way to get information across to students was to set them down in groups and present facts and concepts to them as a collective. However, it was also understood that one-on-one instruction was more effective but was only affordable by the wealthy.
Third, I believe if public education does not change from the inside, it will be forced to change from the outside. Twenty percent of all doctorate degrees in the U. S. are acquired on-line. The University of Phoenix is one of the largest university in the U. S. (if not the world) with over 200,000 students. Home school students are finding the internet to be a valuable resource for learning material. Our "one size fits all" approach to public education is becoming totally outdated because of technology. What was once the only way to effectively and efficiently deliver information has become antiquated. We created a box and expected every student to fit in the box, and when they didn't we labeled them as problem students, antisocial students, or unmotivated students.
Fourth, I believe that stating a student is in second grade or that a student received a B in math, tell us nothing or little as to what that student understands or has mastered. I believe that well defined rubrics can tell us more and that the practice of mastery learning can assure that in fact no child is left behind; that every person can become an affective citizen in society.

Replace Annual Matriculation and Marking Periods with Benchmarks and Affective Assessment
One of the major keys to making a more open model of education work is to be very sure we know what we want students to learn and to make sure we can assess that learning. Benchmarks will need to be developed that address facts and concepts necessary for a student to be successful in life. (We also need to define what success in life means). The list of benchmarks will need to include the mastery of social skills, physical skills and development, emotional coping skills, as well as academic skills. The different disciplines as we have currently defined them will need to be re-evaluated to see where there are duplications of skills and facts and also to see where concepts in each discipline might interact with those of another discipline. (Currently, we have divided the disciplines into four "core" areas; math, science, language arts, and social studies; plus, the arts, athletics, and social behavior). Children will (as is now the practice) be assessed to determine when they should start public school (between ages 4 & 6) and they will be allowed to continue with public education until a set number of bench marks are accomplished (up to age 26 for special needs students and between 16 and 20 for typical students.)
Each rubric will define what behavior or performance will determine mastery. If mastery has not been achieved, the student will be asked to continue working on that rubric. Multiple exercises or activities will be available to vary the delivery of information and for the practice used to "hone" that skill. Text books and other printed material will be replaced with electronic devices. These devices can be programmed with specific software programs and also can access the internet and the local network to acquire appropriate materials for each student. As a student works through the learning material, spot checks (or quizzes) can be automatically brought on the device's screen and the results of the student's work can be transmitted to the educator's computer for review. The software can also be programmed to lock students out from their activities until an appointment is made with one of the educators at the learning center.
A designated amount of one-on-one or group time will always be required at the learning center. These groups should be designed around students working on the same graduated rubrics and should be kept small (no more that 10 to 15 students). Interaction can also take place through mediums like email or Face book or through virtual interaction. Educators can be available through specific times at the learning center (not all need to be there during the same time frame) or through internet communication. My prediction is that 80% of the students will be working independently through self motivation 80% of the time. This means that the educational staff can focus on the 20% at any given moment.
Some social rubrics and physical skills rubrics could be accomplished by working with other community organizations such as 4H, travel teams, or Scouts. A method of documentation could be developed that would show that the student has met the criteria.
There is no "class" that needs to move along together leaving some students behind and restricting others from moving on. The timing for reports to parents will be determined by the completion of rubrics and not by a calendar. If progress slows down to where the time between reports is extended over a predetermined time frame, a conference will be scheduled with that set of parents to bring them up to date. Regardless of progress, a determined number of conferences will be scheduled with every parent.
It is theorized that students would be motivated to learn through this system by the fact that there is enough flexibility in the learning order and in the time tables that the student would nearly always feel success. The individuality built into the system would minimize both the sense of not being able to keep up or the frustration of being held back. Eventually, the misuse of competition (the belief of having winners and losers) would be replaced by an ongoing desire for self improvement. The availability of immediate and personal intervention from an instructor will also help keep each student motivated to learn.
It has been said that if we could just have all great teachers we could solve our problems. The truth is that great teachers are a natural occurring phenomenon and we are likely to have a few great teachers and many good teachers and a few bad teachers. In today's system some of the good and bad teachers are really only weak managers, they lack good "class discipline" skills and the ability to keep a diverse population of kids busy. With this new system, that is not an issue. People capable of one-on-one communication can find a place that works for them in this system.
If there are too few great teachers, there are even fewer good lecturers. Lectures would be few and far between in this system, and most would be recorded. Give that job to your best lecturers and make the lecture available for repeated review. Since it is recorded, students could even stop and start as needed.
One of the responsibilities of a teacher has been supervising students (sometimes called babysitting). Since students in this new system are not required to be in a school environment for a specific time each day, this supervision is seldom if ever necessary. For the younger children, the use of day care facilities will expand where supervision of children is a primary function. Some tax dollars may shift from school buildings to public day care facilities. Here is a good place for business competition; away from the learning aspect of child development.
Counselors will need to focus on identifying a child's abilities and interests to help guide each child toward appropriate networks and programs. Again a "one textbook fits all" concept is inappropriate.
In short, nearly all the responsibility for learning is left to the student, with the support of his/her parents. Teachers (or learning facilitators) would be left with the responsibility of analyzing and guiding learning by the directive of a system of benchmarks and their related rubrics.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

This is interesting to read. But I think we also have to recognize that some students will need more help and motivation than others; if we move teachers into a mere supervisory role, will they still have any stake in an individual student's outcome?
Like you a believe every kid wants to learn and needs appropriate; preferably self-paced challenges, however, I think if you give a 6 year old the choice between learning to read and getting through the hard parts, particularly if they have a learning disability, and taking a trip to the playground instead, you will see a percentage of kids who choose not to push themselves but are perfectly content doing whatever they want.
I think you're still going to have to have some outside metrics of achievement and quality. I think you're going to have to have teachers who are excited about learning and can communicate how fun and worth while even the challenging stuff is to their students. You will have many self-motivated students, but plenty that are not so driven, just based on their neurobiology. How would you handle the folks who inherently need a more structured environment, and at early developmental ages are unable to provide that structure for themselves? How do you account for the developmental stages of children in this model?

Dennis Deaton's picture

I am currently trying to offer students in an 8th grade Agriscience Exploration class the opportunity to choose and pursue a self paced study from our course of study. The biggest potential problem was that split between those that are self motivated and those that were not. We are about two weeks into the process and most of the more mature students are well into developing lists of possible projects and activities that can satisfy a specific section of the COS. How ever after numerous explinations and rationals that discribe the opportunities available about thirty to fifty percent of each of two classes have elected to do only what they are told to do. Most of the students in this group are boys. I have selected a study in small engins hoping we can start with an area of interest and build on this as we move softly toward the more flexable format the others are following. I plan to direct the study making adjustments as we go moving some of the students into leadership roles and eventually into more personalized studies. I find at this age the girls are more mature than the boys most of the time. I have a few young men that are also more focused on the opportunities offered. I beleive that if there are expectations of the student from home that relate to preformance and their future there is a greater potential for students to recognize opportunity and pursue it. We are trying to work from a form of basic introduction/research to some level of simulated or real entrepreneural format. Some will reach the upper levels some will not but we are trying. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

Jimmie L Rice's picture

The technology is part our the solution. The lack of activity on a student's computer can be flaged to help the instructor know where someone is lagging behind. The student would be directed to meet with the instructor, redirected with new activities, or brought into a small group where students would work together. Part of your staff would be counselors who would identify and work with emotional challenges or developmental challenges. In a classroom, the teacher would need to balance this with class dynamics and discipline issues. Also, remember that one of the great things that happened in the "one room school" was students helping students. Something that has been brought back in recent years and could be developed and expanded.
Personal contact and social interaction is not eliminated but is not so dominate that it gets in the way of offering more personal help. I appreciate Dennis Deaton's comments and his efforts. If artificial marking periods or ridged deadlines are not imposed on him, he may find some of his current challenges work themselves out over time.
In our current system, once a student starts to get behind, they are often moved on increasingly becoming more behind. (What did the "A" student learn that the "D" student didn't?) Time can not be the constant, learning must be the constant. Allowing mastery learning to occure should allow each student to developmentally progress. There are times where each may be behind the "curve" and times they move ahead.
As far as support from home is concerned, that is always better, but not always available. My wife taught in Detriot for 5 years. We begane to realize that lack of support becames almost a cultural expectation. Intervention became very difficult because all the student could see at home was dispare and low expectations. Many who tried to overcome experienced the "crab basket effect" from their community.
Challenges can be met when the educator is free to interviene and is not interrupted by the many expectations of a classroom.
My paper is not a completed product. There are many mechanical issues to work out, but I believe that trying to work from a model we have been working with will be more dificult than totally changing the way we look at what we do. Some of the end result may look a lot like what we do today, but by comming at it from a compelely different direction we will at least have a fresh new view.

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