6 Principles that Define Personalized Learning
Personalized learning is a concept that has varied and sometimes controversial meanings, depending on how it referenced. The term personalized learning has been used by online schools and companies selling online learning programs to K-12 public schools that are designing and implementing new school designs. In some educational circles, blended learning (the practice of using both online and in-person learning) is used interchangeably with personalized learning. The difference between personalized learning and other concepts such as next generation learning and blended learning has not always been clear. The definition of personalized learning continues to evolve as funding provided by foundations such as the Gates, Dell, and Broad Foundations focuses on furthering personalized learning models through efforts such as the Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC).
The NGLC was created to accelerate educational innovation through applied technology to dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States. NGLC defined personalized learning as the approaches that individualize learning for each student based on specific strengths and needs, student interests, and/or individualized goals. It funded regional partners and proposed that next gen learning incorporate personalized learning, and that seamless integration with technology was necessary to implement it effectively, affordably, and at significant scale. Technology advocacy groups, with contributions from educators, developed a working definition of the attributes of personalized learning that included competency-based progression, flexible learning environments, personal learning paths, and learner profiles.
As an NGLC regional partner in Massachusetts, the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) worked to create a critical mass of schools that exemplify personalized, competency-based, and engaged learning. CCE’s Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network (MA PLN) was designed to support schools in developing educational experiences that were individualized, project-based, and attuned to the unique academic and social-emotional needs of students. Committed to putting students at the center of their learning, CCE guided them through a process to break out of the traditional school mold and create thoughtful learners and graduates prepared for the 21st-century world.
CCE found that personalized learning can take place in digitally enhanced environments or not. They created a personalized learning framework where students are at the center; learning is tailored to individual students’ strengths, needs, and personal interests; and learning opportunities take into account existing knowledge, skills, and abilities, set high expectations, and push students in supportive ways to reach their personal goals.
Building from the foundational NGLC work, CCE initially defined these six principles of the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network:
Personalized Learning Pathways: An academic profile created for each student. The profile describes the student’s learning style, strengths, challenges, passions, and interests, and helps teachers evaluate the assets and needs of individual students. Using the profile, a personal learning plan is derived that is focused on pursuing the student’s passions and interests, while also addressing the student’s learning challenges.
Competency-Based Progression: Competencies are targets for student learning, representing key concepts and skills applied within or across content domains. Competencies enable flexibility in the way that credit can be earned or awarded and provide students with personalized learning opportunities.
- Learning goals are the same for all students, but students progress through material at different speeds according to their learning needs.
- Teachers and school administrators use a data-driven, digital approach to measure student progression and provide support as needed to meet competencies.
- Academic supports are provided to students who struggle to attain competencies.
Flexible Learning Environments: Time, space, student and staff roles, and instructional modes flex with the needs of students and teachers rather than being fixed variables. A flexible learning environment allows students to learn at various times and places within and beyond a traditional school day and building through a blend of instructional methods designed to meet individual academic needs. This includes:
- Flexible scheduling: Each student’s schedule may be different based on interests, learning style, and pace. The schedule changes as students progress in attaining competencies.
- Anytime, anyplace learning: With a flexible and self-directed schedule and options for instructional settings, each student is able to learn anytime and anywhere, opening up possibilities for reimagining learning time and space.
- New staff and student roles: Teachers become facilitators of learning, while students have greater choice and ownership over their learning and work.
Engaged Learning: Students engage in a variety of instructional methods in which they are constructing and applying learning, including project-based, small group, and blended learning, to attain success in their personalized learning plans. Among them are:
- Use of new technology, digital resources, and learning tools
- Small group instruction, assisted and independent from the teacher
- Project-based learning in which students engage in in-depth research to investigate a complex question or problem
- University-level courses
- Community-based learning, including apprenticeships, internships, and community service.
Next Generation Curriculum and Instruction: The curriculum is organized around competencies, which are aligned with common core standards. Students demonstrate competency through engaging assessments that require them to transfer knowledge and apply complex skills. Educators collaborate to align, design, and analyze rich, engaging, and relevant projects and performance tasks that measure the depth at which students learn content and apply complex skills to create or refine an original product and/or solution. These assessments are used to:
- Enhance learning
- Assess students’ attainment of competencies
- Guide teachers’ daily instruction and larger revisions of curriculum
- Make high-stakes decisions related to progression and graduation.
Social and Emotional Learning and Academic Mindsets: Students develop caring and concern for others, handle challenging situations, and learn how to self-direct their learning. Students become confident learners and citizens. They will:
- Develop self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and self-management in order to establish positive relationships and capably handle challenging situations.
- Learn to work collaboratively with others and self-direct their own learning.
- Acquire an academic growth mindset in order to effectively communicate, collaborate, persevere, respond to different learning environments, and express creativity.
Educators who see the factory model of education as outdated see personalized learning as a progressive alternative, and others see it as a means to promote technology or online programs or tools to personalize. Others, like CCE, begin with a focus on the learner, framing personalized learning as student-centered learning. Classroom teachers today are well aware of the need to personalize learning to meet the needs of students, but with the help of research, publications, and funding from groups like NGLC, it has now become a movement toward meeting the diverse learning needs and styles in our classrooms. The “one size fits all” approach is no longer viable, and advances in technology have been the game changer, helping educators move “personalized” forward.
Dr. Ramona Treviño serves as senior director for district and school design at the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts, leading the Massachusetts Personalized Network. She has successfully served as both an executive leader and campus principal in a variety of settings with diverse populations. She led the lower school at the Graded American School in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and served as chief academic officer for the Austin Independent School District. She was the founding principal and the CEO of the University of Texas Elementary School and served as an elementary school principal in the Austin School District. Prior to her work as an administrator, she worked as a special education teacher for the Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She completed her B.S. from Wheelock College in Boston, and her M.Ed. and Ph.D. from the Educational Administration Department at the University of Texas. She served the University’s College of Education as a clinical professor and was named a fellow in the U.T. Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, coordinating the Urban Education Project.