A Reflective Approach to Personalize Learning

Brian Durst has been gathering wisdom from colleagues and creating memories with students for two decades in the classroom–a learner-centered, educational clubhouse. Brian seeks opportunities to network with other educators, share experiences, and advocate for students. He is a proud father of two, husband, varsity baseball coach, and English department chair at Grafton High School.

Read more from Brian at his website.


This post was first published on Form of the Good and is reprinted with permission.

Leading change. Launching new initiatives. Driving improvement. Shifting a mindset. These phrases inspire some to turn visions into purposeful actions, but leave others with frustration and trepidation. Typically, leaders present ideas, committees are formed, and agendas are set. Responses are mixed—investment levels varied—but we move forward in education.

We’ve identified our purpose. We will reach every student, every day to prepare learners for success in a dynamic world, as advertised in school mission statements. But at the end of a typical (chaotic) school day, can we claim success in achieving our goal? There’s no perfect solution that packages a best practice script, complete with a how-to manual and answer key. However, with the help of educators sharing their experiences and effective models, we can shift a cultural mindset toward personalized learning. Personalized learning is not a program nor a new initiative; it is a philosophy.

The process of where to begin may appear hazy, but our efforts are validated by a clear purpose—reinforced by several simple educator truths.

  • We care about our students.
  • We want all students to learn.
  • We are passionate about education.
  • We take pride in our professional roles.
  • We impact lives.
  • We can always improve our craft.

The last truth often gets misinterpreted as a deficiency—a professional flaw or incompetence—but this is certainly not the case. As the world evolves, so must education. For educators, this means finding new ways to engage, challenge, and empower our learners. While we acknowledge the importance of placing students at the center of learning, many teachers continue to lead from the front of the classroom. Breaking the expected norms of what it means to teach (especially when being evaluated) is daunting. Before diving in or battling with logistics, educators should approach their entry point based on individual understanding and readiness. For educators seeking to personalize their classes:

  • Know where you’re at
  • Think big but start small
  • Design backwards to move forward

Professional growth begins with reflection

When we reflect on our current practices, we may find personalized learning is not far beyond our reach. I invite educators to utilize the reflection guide to increase understanding of personalized learning and recognize how many components of the personalized learning model they already implement.

1. Would I want to spend an entire day learning in my class? How about an hour?

This is a safe place to initiate the reflective process. In most cases, educators would want to spend the day immersed in their subject matter—because they already do. Course content, lessons, and assignments are likely related to an individual passion, delivered in a manner perceived as enjoyable by the intentional planner. The classroom environment is designed with purpose and practicality in a way that makes sense. While most educators subconsciously ask this question throughout each day, continued reflection could inspire a mid-lesson adjustment or guide a teacher to request student input.

2. Would I want my own child to be a student in my classroom?

Welcome to the show-stopper prompt. No question makes professional development more personal. What we deem acceptable for ourselves and our learners takes on a new meaning when our child’s best interest at stake. Suddenly, I’m left thinking about the diverse needs and interests of my children. How do I make each child feel important while challenging them at their appropriate level? What would my children think of my demeanor? Do I treat everyone fairly? Communicate clearly? Would I inspire or stifle their learning? Would they resent the workload or fear my assessment practices? What would my child’s peers say about me? Without question, compassion, empathy, and respect become priorities in my classroom.

What about an educator without children? Consider the same scenario, but replace my child with my best friend’s child or my niece/nephew.

3. Would students show up to my class if they didn’t have to?

Naturally, answers will vary; but what can I do to ensure more favorable responses? With my children in mind and purpose clear, I will provide a respectful environment for all learners. I will spark curiosity, inspire creativity, and provide opportunities for students to discover their passions. Together, we will build lasting relationships and create memorable experiences. We will share responsibilities as teachers and learners.

I will be more reflective in my thinking and invested in my craft. I will create possibilities—not excuses. Fortunately, the education community is passionate, invites conversations, and generously shares resources. I will network with educators, ask questions, learn from experts, support others, and be supported.

4. What would happen if I stopped addressing the entire class (or limited whole class instruction to 5 minutes)?

How do we break learned habits of delivery and instruction? The easiest way to explain new material is through whole-class, direct instruction. But how can I know for certain everyone is paying close attention and absorbing the information in the way I intend? Take the challenge. Have a student put a timer on whole class instruction. Not only does this capture the attention of students, it narrows the focus of the teacher’s directions. I acknowledge the importance of direct instruction; after all, I am the content expert in the classroom. However, while I am the adult in the room, I might not be the only one with expertise on a topic. Some students don’t need to hear more from me; they need time to experience or create. Others require more attention. After a brief team meeting to get the class organized with a purpose for the day, I can sit down with smaller groups or individual learners, and check in with everyone as I move around the room.

5. How could students access course content or find answers without my step-by-step directions?

What types of questions am I asking? What level of thinking is required? I have to remind myself of learners’ accessibility to information. I don’t have to spend a majority of class time delivering content. My students will access information and find answers to their questions in whatever means they prefer. Some will watch videos. Some will read articles. Some will discuss with their peers. Even if they initially seem frustrated when I don’t just tell them the answers, problem solvers will find a way.

6. What connections to course concepts could students make on their own? How could learners reframe (view through a different lens) topics we cover?

To personal-ize, we have to be mindful of the person doing the thinking and experiencing the learning. I love music and can always make critical connections between literary themes and songs. Although my connections may help or appeal to some, other learners will never own the content in an original, individual manner.

7. What do I spend time on, assign, or assess that has little to no impact on essential learning?

I love this lesson. That is my favorite project. I do that activity every year at this time…

We find comfort embedded in tradition. The universal concern of educators is a lack of time. There are never enough days to cover all the material. I have to ask myself, what is most important for students to learn in this class? Is everything I’ve done in the past attached to a specific learning target? Does each activity address a specific standard? If not, why am I spending so much time and energy on it? Sometimes, we have to move on to more meaningful assessments to measure achievement in the course. What if my project is a valid, effective means of assessment? Rather than completely let go, I could offer my traditional favorite activities as enrichment opportunities, side quests, choices on a menu of options, or suggestions for learners in need of ideas.

Where to begin personalization

  1. Learn more about personalized learning and determine individual readiness level. Explore The Institute for Personalized Learning honeycomb interactive link, peruse Learning Personalized resources, or play a round of PL FUNGO.
  2. Get to know your students: Use Google Forms or Slides to create personal learner profiles and collect information about students.

WORKSHOP TIME: Creating Next Steps to Personalize Learning


  1. Pick a unit:  Unit Planning Guide
    • (Entry point) What are the essential questions for students to explore?
    • (Next steps) After being introduced to a topic of study, what are some questions learners might ask? Think big (or ask a student)!
  2. Begin with the end in mind (seems like common sense, but put it in writing!):
    • What should all students know and be able to do by the end of the unit? (Know, Understand, Create, Do — Learning targets)
    • (Entry point) What is the typical summative assessment for the unit? Do you provide choices/options for students?
    • (Next steps) What else could students create to show evidence of learning?
  3. Pick a learning target. Ask, “How will we formatively assess a learner’s level of proficiency of a learning target?”
    • (Entry point) By the end of the unit, what does it mean to be proficient? What does proficiency look like? (link formative assessment to learning targets)
    • (Next steps) Have students determine and craft criteria for “meets the standard,” then add indicators for work that “does not meet the standard” and “extends mastery” using a Co-created Single-point Rubric.
  4. Empower students to guide their own learning and assess themselves, with a reflective, comprehensive, Epic Final Exam.
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