Article Discussion: Why Schools Shouldn’t Fear Personalized Learning

Guest Blog Post: Christopher Moretti and Hawley Elementary Staff

Principal Christopher Moretti and his staff at Hawley Elementary School in Newtown, CT have been reading and reflecting on key articles on personalized learning. As Chris continues to develop plans for how to support personalized learning at Hawley, he asked teachers to read this article and then each teacher responded individually. Chris interacted with each response making the dialogue personalized.

This individual and transparent reflection created an opportunity for him to assess where the faculty is and address next steps with his Leadership Team. Chris modeled personalized learning by providing each teacher with feedback, supporting and celebrating their efforts with encouragement (and suggestions) for next steps. As a result, the dialogue helped to celebrate and create momentum for the next steps for the school, grade level teams, and individuals. This led to the idea of “Golden Tickets”—cashed in for a one day sub to go observe colleagues. Teachers get to personalize their learning by seeing who and what they want in regards to personalized learning.

The discussion below does not list each individual teacher’s name. However, the document circulated with the faculty acknowledges each teacher by name. It was important for teachers to share the journey with one another.


Article Discussion:
Why Schools Shouldn’t Fear Personalized Learning

Article by Allison Zmuda


Kindergarten Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Teacher 1 Personalized learning is also in our Writing Workshop. Students choose topics and we confer with individuals. We also work in partnerships to make changes and to grow as learners. I am thinking we can find a few ways to incorporate more personalized learning into our math games with voice and choice. 🙂 Yes. Yes. And Yes. Making changes is a great concept. Those changes can be based on the student’s input, interests and strengths, and demonstration of mastery or need.
Teacher 2 Personalized learning makes me think of how our Readers’ Workshop runs. The students have the voice and choice to choose their books and collaborate with peers to work on “tricky” parts and overcome challenging text. Instruction is driven by teacher-student conferences, guided reading groups, and strategy groups. As teachers release more and more control and offer students more of a voice in their own education, we find ourselves surprisingly pleased with the outcome. I find my Kids are naturally engaged because the learning makes sense and they see its purpose. As a result, less off task behavior is seen. A win-win for everyone! 🙂

You are onto something with kids being naturally engaged connecting to voice/purpose and reduction of off task behavior.

Releasing control is the key and the hardest part. You’re doing it a little bit each day, keep going.

Teacher 3 When you are in a classroom where there is personalized learning, you will observe all or at the very least most students in the class not only on task, but HAPPY to be on task. When learning is truly personalized, students have voice in choice regarding what they are learning about. This lends itself to a very interested learner who is eager to gather information, and then share the information with other classmates. In addition, the work being done makes sense to the student, because it about something that they personally care about and is meaningful to them, rather than something that they are told by a teacher to care about. A classroom where personalized learning is present is a classroom in which the highest degree of learning occurs. These classrooms are active, filled with voices of students collaborating and problem solving, and the excitement of student centered discovery. You have captured the essence of the philosophy and the work. Voice, Choice, interest, sharing, meaningful, collaborating. Please continue your journey and let your voice be heard.
Grade 1 Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Teacher 1

Great article! Here are my key take-aways…it definitely got me thinking 🙂

  • Personalized Learning Vs. Individualization….to be honest I never really thought of the difference!
  • I feel as if some of the “Voice and Choice” I implement is more individualized vs. personalized. ie: Front Row, Games. Front Row is an excellent tool, but I feel it is more individual…students are working on individual standards that they need practice in, but there is no specific teacher feedback all of the time. Same with math games.
  • Feedback: this was a word that popped out at me as I read the article. I agree that students need to receive regular feedback specifically tailored to their personalized learning.
  • Conferences: I was happy to see the article mention conferences as this is what I spend a large portion of my time doing with students in all subject areas…in order to provide that specific feedback.
  • MORE OF IT!! I would love to spend some time with my team and the admin team brainstorming more ways to implement personalized learning. I think this is where we get the most for our time and energy with students! Engagement also plays a key role.

See you at PLC tomorrow! 🙂

It is interesting to start thinking of the difference between the two, the value they both have, and when to use which.

Feedback is key and the best personalized feedback can occur during conferences.

Please keep playing with it, trying it and we will be discussing more- we’ve just started.

Thank you for your excitement, passion and leadership down this path.

Teacher 2

I think the biggest take-away for me, both when I read it the first time and when I reread it again just now, is that it must be very common for teachers to get personalized learning and individualized learning confused if they weren’t given specific training in either (or both).

I also think that, depending on the grade level, both must look very differently (high school vs elementary).

In elementary school, I think the most personalized learning comes from giving students personal feedback and then having a game plan as to the next step for instruction.

We also individualize our instruction as well (ie Front Row).
Although I do believe that personalized instruction should not be feared (as the article states), I also feel that HOW we go about implementing this successfully in an elementary school would be great to investigate. 🙂

I agree, that personal feedback is key. It’s strength comes from knowing the student well, folding their interests into the action plan, and truly letting them be part of designing it. Powerful stuff.

This is very exciting to investigate. Many of us are taking on that professional learning responsibility by reading books and articles, discussing it with and observing each other, asking questions and sharing ideas, and trying new instructional practices. Join us.

Teacher 3 Individualized and Personalized Learning both engage students but Personalized Learning requires the teacher to know their students at a higher level. The teacher needs to not just look at the data like in Individualized Learning, but to create an action plan to get the student to their goal of mastery with specific feedback making tweaks along the way until it achieves that goal for that student. Yes, knowing students well is key. Knowing their interests, likes/dislikes, learning style (strengths/weaknesses) helps that action plan be engaging especially if the student takes part in creating it.
Teacher 4

Read the article and love the idea of personalized learning but am wondering what it would look like in first grade. There seems to be a lot of possibilities but I guess I would love to see what someone did with a topic for math, science, social studies, etc. I think this time of year may be more manageable especially with this group as they can sit longer and work independently on their own more.

It seems like Frontrow is an example of how they can make their own decisions with the math instruction – practice as they progress.

I am wondering if in the classroom you would be standing back – seems exciting to let them investigate and talk on their own. May need some modeling at first to get things going and for them to feel comfortable.

You are touching on many of the key components: interactive modeling, independence, investigate and talk on their own. We are discovering, and I am hearing from many, that those components grow and happen the more we engage the students by allowing the students to participate in the process (a shifting of control, which yes, is scary). You can see it, it is happening throughout the building, at every grade level- please allow yourself the opportunity to use that Golden Ticket ;0)
Grade 2 Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Teacher 1 Loved this article! Thanks for sharing Chris. It reaffirms the direction we are transitioning into. I loved the idea of the teacher/student relationship being one of collaboration. If we continue to relinquish control, and trust in what our students are truly capable of, the sky’s the limit. A quick easy read for anyone interested! Relationship and Control are vital as we shift instruction from Teacher Centered to Student Driven classrooms. Your passion and efforts are noted and your students are benefiting, their level of performance is the reason we do this when asked Why. Please continue to share and lead this endeavor.
Teacher 2

My biggest take aways are that:

  • it follows perfectly with student voice/choice
  • it has hints of what we used to do with student portfolios as assessment and evaluative tools
  • it will foster the development of partnerships amongst students (and hopefully staff) as they begin to learn from/rely on each other.

Great connections. As we begin to relinquish control over to students, the relationship between staff and student, and student partnerships are key.

As I shared in your post, you are so doing this. Let your voice be heard to help those also putting unnecessary pressure on themselves and with the same uncertainties.

Teacher 3 I like the idea of the teacher facilitating learning through student questioning. It would tie in with our grade level problem solving focus. Key components to Personalized Learning are voice and choice, appropriate challenge, and interest. It means establishing classrooms that build this thinking into planning and instruction. It moves us away from a Teacher Centered Environment to a Student Driven Environment. Facilitating learning through student questioning is certainly a piece of this work.
Grade 3 Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Teacher 1

I enjoyed reading this article. It truly was very black and white for me. Obviously, I find myself teaching with both methods. It was great to see it laid out the way the article discussed it because as a teacher I truly was able to see the benefits from the child’s perspectives.

We all have an end result, but how we get there is what is important. By using more personalized instruction during math, I have seen first hand how important voice and choice truly is. How important the engagement and discussions during personalized instruction is so not scripted, more authentic. Where in individualized learning we as instructors have our own agenda and what the “right” response “needs” to be.

I completely disagree with the fact that people feel that personalized instruction is simply a “packet” and that there is not teacher participation. I find myself actually having fun with my students, making connections, learning about them as learners not what the objective is.

Of course individualized instruction has its place in the classroom, but maybe it can be tweaked a bit and be more of a hybrid if one does not feel comfortable completely losing all control.

Personally I would like to find a way to incorporate personalized instruction in all areas.

Your comment, we all have an end result but how we get there is important, really resonated with me. As we move from a Teacher Centered to Student Driven Classroom, this is where we can begin. Allowing students to be part of developing that path, you clearly have seen the benefits. Spread the word.

Kudos for wanting to incorporate into more areas. This will be our school focus.

Please continue to talk to and observe colleagues. I appreciate your enthusiasm and success.

Teacher 2

Chris, it’s great to see that you are constantly researching the most progressive teaching practices and sharing.

We do personalized learning with the Math Menus. The students select what they want to do. The teachers facilitate and monitor their work. The ultimate goal is for the students to select and accurately complete the more challenging work on their own. Thus, Personalized Learning is not merely busy work. We guide students and give them feedback while they complete the Math Menu items.

We teach Individualized Learning during reading lessons. The more advanced readers study longer and more lengthy chapters. You’ve already seen how I individualize reading with Post-its. I write a task on a Post-it about which a child must focus. I then tape the Post-it to the inside cover of a child’s group book or to his or her desk.

The most important sentence in the article states, “Personalized learning allows the students to declare what they believe to be relevant, interesting, and worthy of study within the confines of the required curriculum.”

In other words, if a task is interesting, a child will enjoy it more and complete higher quality work. This ties in nicely with The Joyful Classroom.

Your zeroing in on the value of the student declaring relevancy and interest, was spot on. Clearly, their interest increases engagement as your work in math has shown. I look forward to seeing it expand throughout your day.

You are correct. the article is a nice connection to our Joyful Classroom Book Club discussions of Activities Students Like and Making Learning Interactive.

Teacher 3 My biggest take away from the article is that teaching is going in the direction of personalized learning throughout the school day in all areas of academics….students and teachers will be collaborating instead of teacher dictated. Yes and no; don’t panic. Teaching is moving from a Teacher Centered environment to a Student Driven one but not all day, everyday. We will begin to discuss where and when and why we can start implementing these shifts. I am also happy to share, we already are.
Grade 4 Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Teacher 1

From what I have witnessed from Sherry’s group of students that present their projects they love the personalized learning. It’s great to see their true passion of learning come out. Sherry’s group of students has even inspired other students to create their own projects and bring them in.

I agree with Michael. The only real problem that I see is achieving the desires of the curriculum. Certain projects have taken multiple days to present. Providing students with the time to research and explore their passions. One of the only ways I can see this fitting into the curriculum (the one I’m seeing for the first time) is if there is a standard about reading and applying research in fourth grade.

When you speak of witnessing students loving the work and seeing their true passions come out, that shows us that there is something here worth investigating. That is the Vision we started “dabbling” in last year and are spreading our wings even more this year.

It can be done as people in the building are discovering. Together we will continue to discuss, learn, investigate, practice, experiment, and overcome the predicted worries. Excited to be on this journey with you. You have my complete support.

Teacher 2

I think that I personally have become more comfortable with the individualization approach, especially with the regular use of technology in our classrooms (Front Row, Khan Academy). While this instructional style is moving students forward while keeping them engaged, personalized learning seems to go deeper and could be the next step in our problem-solving goal.

The challenge for me is giving students control from the very beginning. The questions that I’d like to discuss are: how do we facilitate the creation of a student playlist? What pre-teaching should be done to make sure all of our students can find success with this model? Sherry-I would love to hear your thoughts because this structure seems to follow your personalized exploration process 🙂

This seems like it could be a game-changer for some of our challenging students if it is implemented effectively. Looking forward to talking about this more.

From what I am seeing and hearing from colleagues that are further down this road is that this shift has increased engagement and decreased problematic behaviors as you suspected. Yes, control is the linchpin of the shift from a Teacher Centered Classroom to one that is more Student Driven. It is a huge challenge and mindshift. You (and your team) have started down this path- keep going.

We will continue to discuss at PLC and Faculty Meetings. I look forward to and others will benefit from your discoveries.

Teacher 3

I think this has tons of benefits.

My questions I would like to think about are not so much in giving students some control of their ​learning but planning for and delivering the required curriculum to match the personalized learning. It is going to require a more support from the district and a more cohesive home/teacher/school relationship.

Also this would be a major shift and we would need the support of the community. What we see right now is a “hands off” sort of parenting. Letting the video games and extracurricular activities take priority of school and the thinking that “my kid is going to be the next Tom Brady.” As well as not taking accountability for learning and behaviors.

I use potential hurdles to help create a path or plan, and do not let them prevent me from starting. You have started down this road and see the tons of benefits.

Great questions. Others are finding ways to cover the curriculum not by fitting it in but making this part of their instructional practices. I think you’d get helpful ideas and strategies through peer observations (Golden Ticket- hmmm).

We will certainly continue to discuss at PLC and Faculty Meetings.

Specials Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Enrichment/ Gifted

There is no doubt in my mind that Personalized Learning is a highly effective way to reach and teach our students. The article you sent to us is a good starting place. I find that teachers need some specific help in adding personalized approaches to learning.

  1. It is helpful to understand that personalized learning does not mean individualized student programs.
  2. It is important to decide what are the assured (non-negotiable) experiences, skills and content.
  3. Learning Brainstorming skills such as DOVE and SCAMPER helps teachers help students select a better range of topics and products.
  4. Teaching students to ask their own questions (The Right Question Institute) helps improve the process.
  5. It requires some tolerance on the part of the adults involved to be able to relinquish some control in order for students to have a genuine choice.

This work is definitely in your wheelhouse. Staff has benefited greatly from your sharing of work and strategies and materials and resources. Your leadership here has been noted and appreciated.

You are spot on with Control. This is where our conversations need to be: overcoming this hurdle/making this shift in our thinking: Teacher Centered to Student Driven.


Special Area teachers have unique opportunities and obstacles as they pursue personalized learning with their students. As an art educator, my overarching goal is to provide student artists with a repertoire of techniques and experiences, while facilitating the pursuit of their interests and curiosity, and the development of their unique individual voices and styles, within the common context of curriculum. While every lesson is designed to allow students freedom to individualize the problem and take ownership of their learning, forty minutes per week of instructional time challenges and requires us, as Specials teachers, to develop questioning strategies and frameworks for dialogue that allow us to get to know our students as their classroom teachers do, and to build the same rapport and trust.

Last year, we implemented a sketchbook project with Hawley’s fourth grade student artists. While we have always encouraged students to keep and share sketchbooks, last year we were able to provide a sketchbook/journal to every fourth grade student. This became a platform for initiating dialogue and continuing conversations beyond class time. Students recorded their responses to open-ended questions, brainstorming, thumbnail sketches, personal notes, and foundational drawings. They became comfortable sharing them with their teachers and peers, and using them as a springboard for initiating discussions. To extend this initiative, I would love to use the sketchbook/journal as an interdisciplinary tool that would allow students not only to link art learning to their lives, but to their learning throughout school through multidisciplinary projects. Google classroom could be used to extend this sharing electronically.

Personalized Learning lends itself beautifully to your discipline. Your description of what you encourage students to do is so engaging (interests, curiosity, voice, style, individualize). Less time with students (1x per week for 40 minutes) combined with a robust curriculum does create unique circumstances for us to consider. I look forward to it.

Interesting read! I can see how teachers may think individualization is personalized learning… and it seems to be a step in the right direction. I could see that being a medium between stepping out of one’s comfort zone and moving towards personalized learning with some retention of control.

I think that individualization can be used to support personalized learning, because there does need to be some context, some lesson, some skill that is central to a child’s exploration of it. For example, I can’t hand out mallet instruments to a class and ask them to improvise on a C Pentascale without first discussing the parameters and demonstrating to them what the process will look like. However, given a strong foundation, given some context and expectations, students are able to explore, communicate, adapt, create, refine, and explain what they have been learning.

I think sometimes I implement individualized learning to free myself up to meet with students alone and in small groups to be able to personalize learning for them. My third graders are currently learning how to take improvised phrases they create, notate them, and input them into notation software so be able to hear and see their work. As I meet with individuals, our conversation guides their next steps. This could be anywhere from harmonizing their motif to adding on to it, repeating it, re-writing it correctly with an emphasis on theory or notation, or how to come up with ideas. This requires one-on-one face time to encourage how the student will work towards their next steps.

Personalized learning is absolutely best practice, and I look forward to discussing what this looks like and how it continues to change in our PLC!

You touch upon some interesting concepts: strong foundation, given some context and expectations. Many people fear the release of control. But with context and an end game- the path taken gives options.

Your students are benefiting by you creating the environment in which students explore, communicate, adapt, create, refine, and explain. And they’ll do that naturally if they are interested in the learning.

Using that time to work in groups or 1:1 to provide individual, timely feedback is so valuable to them- keep on this path, your students are benefiting.

PE 1

This was a great article!

One of the important points shared by Allison is the difference between individualization versus personalized learning. As educators it’s critical to understand both.

As a physical education teacher, I’ll be honest….it’s challenging to move from the traditional large group model, to a model of personalized learning. I’ve been trying to use station work as one way for students to experience personalized learning. For example, if the activity is push-ups, I allow students to roll a set of dice to determine the number of repetitions. Also, I may set a minimum number of reps that students need to complete, but they can do as many as possible beyond that minimum.

What would help me personally, is getting information on how personalized learning works in the special area classroom (art, music, p.e., and library).

I’m looking forward to the journey understanding there’s going to be speed bumps along the way!

You are right, it is critical to understand both approaches and more importantly, when one is more effective or appropriate.

As we begin to explore the components of personalized learning it will help you with your shift from a teacher centered environment to student driven one. On one hand, PE is different- on the other hand, this is effective instructional practices/an approach.

PE 2 I think it is great to have students have a say in what they would rather study (within the confines of the curriculum). Personalized learning makes me wonder if I would have enjoyed school more if it was done then. It is human nature, anyone would be more interested/engaged in something they chose to do v. told to do. Seems so simple. The fitting it into our curriculum requirements is certainly the trick.

When I read this article, I am drawn to the student’s role outlined. A student “actively pursues authentic, complex problems that inspire.”

Sometimes the hardest part of creating personalized learning for students is not the actual work of putting together instructions or finding materials/technology, but rather thinking of that authentic problem to solve. I appreciate quiet moments when I can really think about what I’d like students to learn and then work backwards to find a creative manner in which they can learn it.

I know I have found gold when no one asks to use the bathroom and when I am left to walk around and work with groups/pairs/ individuals one on one.

And sometimes, it’s messy.

One example was “students lead conferences.” I could see that taking time to teach and model for students. But the benefits would be significant once they understood the process.

I find that if I change some phraseology around, it helps me move forward. Example: I think about what I want students to learn vs. I ask students what they want to learn more about.

Look closely at those activities that you described as gold and I know you will find elements of Personalized Learning as well as Effective Teaching: voice, choice, movement, collaboration, plus meaningful, authentic and rigorous challenge.

It is messy and wonderful.

Leadership Teacher Reflection Principal’s Reflections
Lead Teacher Loved the article and found it to be inspirational. The reality, for me, is that we are still trying to perfect differentiation is some classes, while others are comfortably implementing an individualization model. This shift has been a process. Moving to personalized learning, where students are allowed to decide their learning path based upon what is interesting to them (“within the confines of the curriculum”) and how they want to demonstrate their learning, is going to require a lot of time, professional development, and support. The great news is, however, that the relationships between teachers and students that are central to successful personalized learning environments are established at Hawley. As stated in the article, this is the “heart of the next chapter of teaching and learning.” We aren’t there, but we are on our way.

Change is hard. Educational Leaders straddle letting those that get it go, supporting those that are trying, while getting the people resisting to understand the benefit (WHY are we doing this). We need to help them “see” it (literally and figuratively). Ironically, our approach should be the same as we ask of them (Personalized PD).

Our leadership team is focused and strong, of which you play a vital role. You have more of an impact on teachers than you think. Some rely heavily on us and we are starting to shift the learning to them (Hmmm, sounds familiar ;0)

Math/Science Specialist In the article, individualization is described as personalization of just one aspect of learning, the time and place. Individualizing, therefore, is a step in the right direction because it allows students to have more opportunity to determine their pace of learning and whether or not they care to continue it outside the confines of the classroom. However, if the topic, task, concept, or assignment is not relevant to the student, their motivation to dive deep into it and push themselves will be lacking. Personalization provides for student voice and choice throughout as much of the learning process as possible, from topic to task to process to product. This work will be inevitably more motivating for students to tackle as their natural curiosity and need for feedback will get them to push themselves.

Relevance certainly plays a key role as you mentioned. This dictates interest, engagement and motivation. We need to continue to help the staff recognize this as it will then have the same effect on their growth implementing personalized learning.

Our modeling new learning and strategies is also supportive: flipping faculty meetings, edcamp PD, personalizing PD, Twitter, Book Clubs, Google Doc chats, etc

Your efforts are noticed and commended.

Language Arts Consultant

This is an exciting time to be in education – exciting for students and teachers alike. Personalized learning is at the helm of new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning which drives this excitement for me. I already see shades of personalized learning during Reader’s and Writer’s workshops as teachers engage in conferences, providing tangible feedback to students in reading and writing.

My goal this year is to help students in the third grade classroom in which I co-teach reading, to set personal goals. It has been rewarding to see their investment in their progress and attainment of these goals. Recently, I was in a second grade classroom where students reflected on their own challenges as readers, set a goal based on their personal challenge, and then identified a strategy that would help them work towards meeting that goal. The excitement in the room was palpable.

An obstacle I face as we move in this direction involves time and follow-through. After the goals were set by the third graders, I followed up with students on their progress towards meeting that goal. For a time. But as one Unit of Study faded into another, our focus shifted, and goals weren’t discussed for a bit. Student goal setting is a teaching habit I’ve not yet cemented in my teaching practice; I am still working to figure out how to be more consistent with this.

I am eager to shift my own pedagogical thinking towards a personalized learning approach to teaching, and I look forward to growing through research and professional development in ways needed to do this well.

You certainly are touching upon key elements. The students reflecting on their work and writing goals is involving them in the process. That equaled excitement.

You speak of wanting to shift your thinking- follow that. You are a reflective practitioner and are looking for new ideas and strategies, therefore, you will continue moving farther toward making this more a part of your instructional practice. And through that- coaching others to do the same.

We also will continue to discuss and support each other during Instructional Council.

  • When independence/attention is low, how do you best manage all the balls in the air?

  • Where do you begin? It seems overwhelming.

  • Letting go of the control is hard, will everything get done?

  • How do you build it into the required curriculum and standards and assessments?

  • Can you provide a clear cut example? (Through the lens of different subjects and grade-levels).

  • Is this an all day, every day endeavor?

  • Are there elements or components that are more important or vary?

  • Does this replace something?

  • How do you give up control if students don’t take it?

  • What does it look like in today’s classroom (requirements, different learners, technology, materials)?

  • How does this encompass all students getting on board?

  • How do you balance student personal need and curriculum requirements?

  • Do we have the right resources/Are there right resources?

  • What would be the needed professional development?

  • What will be frontloaded/District support?

  • Can we see it?

  • How do common district/state assessments fit in?

  • How long of a time period a week and day do we donate to this endeavor?

  • How do we incorporate this into different subjects?

  • Elementary school teachers are responsible for all students in their class, in all subjects; how is it possible?

  • How can it look/work in specials when you only see students 1x per week?

  • Do we need to look at schedules and interdisciplinary projects to cover like needs?

  • Samples in the area?

  • To Admin (thanx)- You trust us, support us, let us move at our own pace, allow it to be messy/loud, give time to collaborate

  • Have to interactive model everything, and release a little at a time

  • Focus on the purpose and not the getting there.

  • It’s scary.

  • When interested= engaged.

  • When students are engaged/increased independence, I am freed up to work with students.

  • It is not an Add On, it is instruction.

  • Reduction in behavior problems.

  • Work completion increasing.

  • Increased student responsibility.

  • Increased student dialogue.

  • Definitely benefits and engages the students.

  • I enjoy teaching this way.

  • Students are taking chances/risks.


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