What Progressively Student Driven Means in Personalized Learning

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.


We define personalized learning as: a progressively student-driven model in which students deeply engage in meaningful, authentic, and rigorous challenges to demonstrate desired outcomes.  Progressively student driven model hearkens back to the timeless pedagogy of gradual release of responsibility from teacher modeling to students taking the lead.  As students become increasingly comfortable in exercising their voice, they share their wonderings, questions, and perspectives given a curricular topic or challenge. Students become more capable of self generated learning as they feel that what they say continues to shape the direction, development, and evaluation of their learning experience.

When we present this visual to educators, we immediately share the visual metaphor akin to a mixing board where the educator amplifies student opportunity to take an increased role in the design, development, and evaluation of learning. We have found this metaphor to relieve a significant amount of anxiety as the small incremental moves indicated in the visual are valid and valuable to grow a personalized culture within the classroom.

But there are also immediate misunderstandings that are helpful to dispel as well.

  • The #1 misunderstanding. The goal is not to move the lever from the left-side to the right side. It is not a continuum or a rubric. We suggest a balanced approach as students become more capable being increasingly more self-directed and educators find more opportunities to allow students the space to participate in design work.
  • The #2 misunderstanding. As students become more self-directed, teachers become less important. On the contrary, teachers can finally focus on coaching student thinking and providing provocative questions that help deepen their thinking.
  • The #3 misunderstanding. If we are doing personalized learning, then the teacher should not be telling the students what to do. Teacher generated includes powerful assessment and instructional practices such as identifying goals of learning to frame the purpose for a given assignment or designing a performance task where students are expected to apply their learning in an authentic scenario. Moving the fader to the left does not mean a total absence of teacher input. It does mean close attention to the individual interests and needs of students and their growing capacity to be in the game of learning.

The heart of personalized learning is personal — continuing to engage with the learners in front of you and expecting the best of them. We work to better understand their passions and motivations as well as expand their repertoire and knowledge base. The learning plan truly is a partnership where we collectively work to provide more flexibility and freedom to engage them on what matters both to them and to the designated curriculum.

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