A Clearer Vision for Personalized Learning

Guest Collaboration: Michael Mohammad with Allison Zmuda

Allison: Mike and I have never met in person, but we exchange information and ideas with one another to grow our own expertise in personalized learning. Mike wrote a blog post awhile back that hit me like a ton of bricks: the results of a survey that reflects how teachers feel about personalized learning. I considered what happens when personalized learning is identified as an initiative where everyone is expected to “do it” without clarity around what they are doing or why.

So Mike and I decided to collaborate on a series of blog posts based on the good work his school district is doing and challenges that are surfacing along the way.

Before Mike takes over, let me clarify a few points relevant to folks just starting the journey and who are already immersed in it.

  1. Personalized learning is a means to an end … not the end. The goal is not to develop personalized learning profiles or purchase software platforms so that students can independently work through a set of topics or to have genius hour once a week. The goal is for every student to become self-directed learners through the design and development of their learning experiences.
  2. There is no one way to “do” personalized learning. Personalized learning is a progressively student-driven model where students pursue aspirations, investigate problems, design solutions, chase curiosities, and create performances. While illustrative examples always help, it doesn’t save a teacher from wrestling with the same basic question: how do I work to teach the “curriculum” and honor the students in front of me?
  3. Teaching is an innovative, evolving practice. When personalized learning is expected for every teacher — making it “the initiative” for the next few years — “fatigue mindset” (this is one more thing on top of an already impossible job) can crush even the best of intentions. Personalized learning does not need to be an initiative at all. We all want to have more engaged, joyful, rich, and challenging classroom experiences. Therefore, a personalized learning teacher mindset is akin to an entrepreneur, an artist, or an engineer: a dynamic spiral where we design, take action, evaluate results until the idea is fully realized or another idea springs up as a worthy pursuit. Gone are the days of polishing a series of lesson plans or assignments until they are “student-proof” — we want the influence of how students are imagining the topic, problem or idea to be part of the development.
  4. Clarifying “the why” is not something you grow out of or move on from. People need to have that vision not just in the first 12 months when they are dipping their toe in the water. Pioneers/early adopters also need a different level of support than teachers who are reluctant and need answers to their candid and valid concerns before diving in. Addressing “yes, buts” and worries openly and collectively is as important to growing personalized learning practice. The leadership around personalized learning starts by listening with understanding and empathy. questioning and problem posing, and thinking flexibly. This is why personalized learning and habits of mind go hand in hand; we are growing a culture of innovation and self-discovery that is as good for educators as it is for students.

Mike: As an educator we often are inundated with movements and initiatives. I so often hear that initiatives are like pendulums. If you thought one was gone, wait long enough and it’ll be back. Because of this belief, educators can sometimes turn a blind eye to movements. One such movement is personalizing learning in the classroom. By misunderstanding personalization as an initiative may cause educators to lose sight of the fact that personalization is not a checklist to be done but a vehicle to help educators and student meet a shared vision.

Four years ago, a group of educators from my district we gathered in a meeting room and asked how we would like to change our classrooms to improve student learning. We were asked to think big. Over the course of 4 months, we mapped out a proposal of the change we wanted to make. This process included site visits to innovative schools in our area as well as discussions with educational thought leaders. Our proposals were then submitted to be considered by our central administration. You can find my original proposal here. It turns out that all 14 proposals were accepted for implementation and were fully funded.

These pockets of innovation were never branded as personalized learning environments until later that year. Each classroom had a different vision for how they would improve learning in the classrooms. The commonality was that they put more ownership for the learning in the hands of the students. So, I always find it interesting when some people see a personalized learning environment as fitting a single model.

It’s been three years since those first classrooms began instruction and the phrase “Personalized Learning” entered our district’s lexicon. A few weeks ago our teachers’ union asked staff to complete a survey and they posed a question surrounding the district’s vision for implementing personalized learning.


In addition, to the aggregated results, there were specific comments. These comments helped illuminate the fact that there are some gaps that need to be closed in our staff’s understandings the personalized learning framework. As a address some of these comments, it is not to diminish the validity of the statements but to highlight misunderstandings that need to be addressed through communication and professional development.


Let me step back for a moment and state a key vision of our district is to be “A Great Place to Learn”. The vision statement pertaining to this goal is to “foster authentic student engagement by connecting students to their learning in meaningful ways to master content and skills, inspire growth and risk-taking, and achieve at the highest level.” This is the vision of learning in our district. Our vision as to personalizing learning in the district is to achieve that goal. So, I would argue that the vision of the district is to implement the personalized learning framework in order to reach that goal. Personalized learning is not the vision, it is a methodology to achieve the vision. The path or the framing of what personalized learning is will take us deeper to the heart of the question.


If we break down the vision for learning in the district, I think we can better understand the why of personalizing learning. At the heart of our vision is making meaningful connections between student lives and the content and skills they encounter in their classes. To personalize learning is to understand that each student will find the classroom content meaningful in different ways. One connection will not fit all students. Our vision looks to create “authentic engagement” not simply compliance. That is a large change from where many classrooms, mine included, currently stand. In order to inspire risk-taking, classroom environments must be designed to allow students to fail without penalty. To treat failure as a learning opportunity.

With these goals in mind, I am drawn to see connections to key elements of personalized learning:

  • Learner profiles and customized learning paths with student voice and student choice help students make authentic connections.
  • Proficiency based progress encourages risk-taking in the classroom and ensure mastery
  • Personal learner goals help student see a growth model of learning


I view this survey question as specifically having two distinct questions. Competent would imply knowledge of the personalized learning framework including the why, what, and how. Prepared would imply having the time to put a plan into place. This led me to question where the disconnect was in the past 3 years as we have had 3 additional cohorts of educators go through the process of designing a proposal for their ideal classroom. The comments some made clarifying their voice helped clarify my this divide.


Every teacher in the district has a different experience with PD related to personalized learning. There are those who went through the first cohort in 2013. Over three years later, there are educators in the district who may never have received focused training to define what personalized learning is. Yet, all teaching staff in the district are required to complete and implement a personalized learning plan this year. So, even among those who believe they are competent in their understanding of personalized learning, they have not received the required time/training to be able to personalize learning in their classroom.


Now this is really tough to hear.

Why would any educator take a risk if they didn’t feel like they were in a supportive environment? Much like we need a classroom environment which supports student risk-taking, the same needs to be true for educators. Personalized learning begins with teachers choosing to bring change to their classrooms and feel that they are being supported.

Sometimes that support is simply a compliment from an administrator. Some of the best support I have received advancing my risk-taking was the ability to take a day to visit other classrooms outside of my building. This requires communication to staff that this type of professional development is valuable and supported.

Teachers don’t like spending time away from their classrooms or losing prep time. But, knowing that they building administration is open to teachers taking on this professional field trip is important. But again, support can simply be the time to spend finding ways to personalize instruction in the classrooms.


This is really a brave statement.

Many times, teachers will simply accept what is passed down from administration and implement it because that is what is being asked of them. How is this any different than the compliant student doing what is being asked of them because the grade is what matters most?

The question I have for this comment is, what is the disagreement with? Is it with some element of the vision of learning in the district or an element of the personalized learning framework?

I would be surprised to find any teacher who would not want every student to find an authentic connection to the content, skill, or habit of mind they are being asked to demonstrate in the classroom. What I do see a lot of resistance to is the idea of proficiency-based progress and what it entails. Specifically, a major sticking point is flexible time and pace. As educators, we feel like we are doing our students a great disservice by allowing them to miss deadlines without any form of penalty.

We have many students who take advantage of this and let assignments lapse and pile up. I think this requires a greater redesign of what is “due” and what it means to not meet a deadline. This is a bigger can of worms than I should open here. But, personalizing learning doesn’t mean that everyone needs to do the same work to demonstrate mastery. Learning opportunities need to be driven by what is needed to achieve mastery.

If mastery has not been demonstrated, the grade will reflect this. The grade though is not tied to an an assessment with an arbitrary due date, but to ability to demonstrate mastery.


If there was one comment that caused me the most distress, it was this one.

It clearly demonstrates a failure to communicate the fundamental principles of personalizing learning. There are many misconceptions surrounding what is required to allow students to personalize their learning. Many involve the idea that there is a lack of structure in a personalized learning environment. I think the difference is that the structure is no longer dictated by the teacher but is co-designed by student and teacher.

Therefore, every student may be doing his/her own thing. In a meaningful implementation, though, each student has an idea of what their individual goals (daily and longer) are and where they are on their way to achieving them. An environment where students are working on their own and aren’t reflecting on progress towards individual goals does lack some of the keys tenants of giving students autonomy and agency.

Just as big a misconception is that, in order for students to personalize their learning, they need expensive tools. I do have to come clean here. When I came up with my vision three years ago, I was given a cart of iPads for my class. My district made a big monetary investment in my classroom. Since then, they have invested even more money. This has gone to more tech tools and desks. So by now, anyone who visits my classroom and looks around sees lots of different stuff.

This stuff has allowed me to be much more efficient in how I personalize instruction in my classroom. It has also allowed me to incorporate quite a bit of digital literacy into my classroom. But, it is not the technology or the furniture that is at the core of the personalized learning model in my classroom. They key elements of personalized learning can be accomplished without a 1:1 initiative or modular seating in the classroom.

Personal learner profiles don’t need to be digital documents that are created by students on computers. The important element of a learner profile is that a student is asked to think about who they are as a learner, their interests, and aspiration. This document is then used to help the student find an way to become engaged with the content by removing obstacles to learning and building bridges to passions and aspiration.

I have some great tech tools to capture student voice. But, paper exit tickets and response cards to collect student feedback is a great way to get the voice of those who are less open in class discussions. Another of our district visions is to be “A Great Place to Work.” The vision for this is to “emphasize the development and performance of each staff member while working collaboratively to achieve a greater outcome for all students.” All districts need to take the time to realize that these two visions do not live in isolation. You can’t achieve one without the other.


Student Choice in engagement and assessment doesn’t mean students who don’t take a test need to create an elaborate digital product. The purpose of choice in assessment is to remove obstacles to for demonstration of mastery. If a student is not taking a paper and pencil test, the alternative doesn’t have to be a convoluted challenge. Allowing students to design a way to demonstrate mastery based on what resources are available to them doesn’t require extra funding. It simply requires an open mind and a clear understanding of what the instructional outcomes being assessed are.

The resource that is essential to a well implemented personalized learning environment is not money. It is time. Time to communicate the common vision for all learners. Time to set forth what the elements of personalized learning are at their core. Time to make sure the content and skills of every course are clearly defined. Time to craft instruction that allows all learners to find a path towards finding relevance in the instruction to ensure authentic engagement. Time to reflect on the progress and recognize when plans need to be modified to address unforeseen challenges.

I take great pride in the fact that my district leadership has recognized that these numbers identify a large learning gap in our district. I am looking forward to tapping into my passion for personalizing learning in the classroom as we move forward to find ways to close these gaps.


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