If you’re like me—a public school teacher who is passionate about personalized learning—it’s natural to want your entire school district to make the shift to personalized as quickly as possible. But since it is not practical to expect this change to happen overnight, the best option for educators like me is to make small changes in your own classroom to provide students with a more personalized learning experience as your district works on the slower effort of systemic change.

  • In the interim, teachers face obstacles like:
  • A fixed daily schedule with seat-time requirements (e.g.: 46-minute class periods)
  • Standard learning activities and units of study that students are expected to complete, regardless of whether or not they demonstrate proficiency. For example:
    • Vocabulary lessons where students move on to the next lesson even if they have not yet mastered the words from the current list, or:
    • Literature units, where students write an essay and move on to the next unit (even if they do not demonstrate proficiency on the essay) simply because the rest of the class is moving on, or because the calendar shows it is time to move on to the next unit of study
  • Lack of technology in the classroom which makes it difficult to integrate blended learning activities.

Despite these challenges, there are some steps that I—and any teacher—can take to change the culture of my classroom and take a personalized approach to my teaching and chosen curriculum. The key is to start with what is manageable and not to try to take it on all at once. As I implement personalized learning in my classroom, it is important for me to focus on a few key efforts to facilitate long-term transformation.

From day one, create a culture where students expect to be active participants in their learning. No longer is education something teachers do FOR students; it is something teachers do WITH students. This learner agency is important because it teaches students curiosity, persistence, and self-accountability. One way to do this is to allow students elements of choice in their learning—in either content, product or both. For example, in my Greek mythology unit, I present students a smattering of different types of myths (think creation myths and hero myths). To take a more personalized approach I would present both types of myths and then allow the students a choice of which type of myth they’d like to dive the most deeply into. The class could then be broken into small groups based on type of myth. While the “hero group” would be studying Hercules and Perseus, the “creation group” would be exploring how the earth was created, and how Demeter and Persephone are responsible for the changing seasons. Students would then be given a choice in how to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. The teacher would present several options for a culminating project and allow students to choose one that they can get excited about working on. For example, students would write a new hero myth following a similar structure to the Greeks, or would present a compare-and-contrast analysis of two or more myths. Students would be also be encouraged to present a unique project idea to the teacher that shows their proficiency with the unit objectives.

This approach does not mean that students aren’t held accountable to standards. On the contrary, the standards will drive the options provided by the teacher.
While I may not be ready to move to a fully competency-based model due to the limitations in my schedule and the curricular demands of my district, there are some places in my curriculum where I can do this without creating an unmanageable workload for myself. For example—in my language arts classroom, students are given a list of vocabulary words every week and take a quiz at the end of the unit. If they don’t pass, they move on to the next list anyway.

Students learn two things pretty quickly. One: It doesn’t matter if they don’t learn the words, because they are temporary—the words will go away in a week. Two: They can fail the vocabulary quizzes but still pass the class. To take a more competency-based approached, students who demonstrate proficiency could move on to the next list of words, while I continue to work with the students who didn’t until they can demonstrate proficiency. This approach will teach the students persistence because they will figure out very quickly that the words are not going to go away until they learn them. Also, it will ensure that kids leave the class having mastery of new vocabulary rather than simply a folder full of failing grades.

While not having computers in my classroom certainly makes it more challenging to integrate a blended-learning structure into my new personalized environment, it’s not impossible. In my school, for example, there are two shared computer labs and a library/media center with desktop and laptop computers. What’s a creative way to add a technological element to personalized learning? Book a computer lab for one class a week and allow students to work on the computers as a group while I pull out students individually for quick conferences. Another possible solution is to allow a few students at a time to access the computers in the library during regular class time rotations. For example, if a class of 18 students is broken up into three groups, one group would be engaged in small group instruction with me while another group works independently and a final group works on computers in the library. This option will require clear expectations for behavior and time on task while out of the classroom, but is a viable solution for adding technology to lessons when the students are ready for that level of independence.

While my goal is to eventually adopt a fully personalized model, making these three adjustments is a start I can manage as I work on a lasting transformation. Other educators who are also interested in going personalized can make similar adjustments in their classrooms. Together, our baby-steps can begin a full-on march toward personalizing education for all of our students.

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Singer Crawford is 50CAN’s communications and research associate. She lives in Washington D.C.

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