Getting Started with Personalized Learning

Jill Thompson is currently an Associate Partner at Education Elements. Prior to working with Education Elements, she was the Director of Personalized Digital Learning at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). Follow her on twitter @edu_thompson

I often hear, “I love the philosophy of Personalized Learning (PL), but where do I start?”

I hate to break it to everyone but there is no how-to guide because every teacher is at a different point in their craft. There is no one right place to start. In this post I offer you some ideas of where you can get started but, again, there is no one right way.

“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.”

-Brian Herbert

What is Personalized Learning?

Let’s start off with understanding what PL is because PL looks different in every district.

The foundation of Personalized Learning is the same (across the board): classrooms are student-driven with an emphasis on student ownership of their learning. The role of the teacher is different but very much important as they are now the facilitator of learning verses the only one that holds the knowledge at the front of the room.

With that being said, let’s look at some ways you can get started with PL in your classroom:

1. Offer choice in your classroom

It does not have to be 10 choices, which is often the misconception, but try offering two. For example, if you are studying the theme of Identity in English, offer the students two articles or books to read around that theme. You can then still have a class discussion around the theme even though students read different material.

2. Use data to make changes in your instruction

As teachers we gather a lot of data, but we don’t often use it to change what we are doing in the classroom. Try giving a pre-assessment or an entrance ticket and use that data to drive your mini-lesson.

Ask yourself, does everyone need this lesson? Probably not, so let the students that have shown that they know the skill, go deeper and try exploring the concept on their own through a task. Then pull the small group that needs the mini-lesson.

I often hear, ‘but everyone needs this skill because it is a new concept/skill in ____ (fill in grade level).’

This does not mean that they don’t have background or that they don’t know how to do it. Stop making the assumption that everyone needs the same thing because it makes you as the teacher feel more comfortable.

Think about it in another way if you don’t believe me: how often have you sat in a workshop because the instructor has assumed that everyone needed to be trained on the same thing? How frustrated did you get? It is the same way for your students.

3. Try flexible seating

Let students pick where they sit and offer flexible seating options. This does not mean that you have to spend lots of money and redesign your classroom all at once.

Try allowing students the option to stand or sit while they learn. (Fast Fact: Did you know that you learn 10-percent more when you stand?) You can also swap out desks for tables or hold a ‘furniture drive’ and see if parents can donate used furniture such as bean bag chairs. You can also use sites like Donors Choose or Go Fund Me Education to redesign your classroom.

4. Allow students to goal set and reflect

You will be surprised at what students will admit about themselves when you give them the time and structure to do these things.

Allow students to think about their strengths and weaknesses as a learner. Have them set a goal for themselves and then later have them reflect on it. You can start with weekly goal setting and reflections, but most find it is so powerful that they have the students do it daily.

Start by making it a routine and stick to it. As the students are transitioning into the subject or class, have them set a goal and then — a few minutes before they transition again — end class with a reflection.

5. Get to know your students

Building relationships with your students and understanding what they like and dislike is a huge part of PL. Knowing your students allows for you to better meet their needs and interests.

Something I hear from secondary teachers is, “but I have 180 students!”

Yes, that is a lot and harder to do, but not impossible. You can do a few things to get to know your students (and it is never to late) such as create a survey for them to fill out or greet them at the door, slowly getting to know them.

When I taught 8th grade, I greeted them at the door before every block. I slowly learned something about each student and let that start the relationship. In the beginning, I had many students ‘blow me off’ but soon they realized I wasn’t going to stop and that I cared.

I too often watch some teachers not even acknowledging their students until the bell rings and then they go right into the lesson. It only takes a few minutes to stop and say good morning, and this can make the world of a difference to so many students.

6. Showing mastery

Allow students to pick how they show mastery of a concept. This allows students to use their higher order thinking skills. If students aren’t sure how to show mastery of a concept, have a list of options to guide them. Remember, PL is a new way for students to think as — most likely — they have previously been told what to do.

There are many more ways of getting started with PL, but hopefully one of the ideas above will help you. Here are also some tips with getting started:

  • Ask yourself, would I want to be a student in my own classroom? If the answer is yes, then why? Is there anything you can change to make it even better? If you aren’t sure, try asking your students. If the answer is no, then why? What is one thing you can change to make it better? Then try it.
  • Choose one area to try PL in. It can be any subject, grade level or a unit, but just pick one place to start in order to not overwhelm yourself. For example: start with math or with your block one class. You do not have to implement PL in everything you do right away; choosing an area and just one thing is a great way start. If it goes well, try the one small change in another class/subject.
  • Choose one small action step. Small action steps make the biggest impact. Take one small action step that changes your role as a teacher along the continuum. To learn more about the continuum, check out my blog post: The Shift in the Role of the Teacher.

I know I will have some readers that will say, yeah but ____ (fill in the blank with excuse), and you are right, there is always going to be a ‘yeah, but.’ The difference is knowing that you can find a solution to that excuse by trying something to change it.

For example, ‘yeah, but my district doesn’t “do” PL.’

That is okay. No one said you can’t in your classroom, so give it a try.

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Ashlie Funkhauser
Ashlie Funkhauser
6 years ago

This may seem a little unorthodox but I am in a graduate program and we have been asked to do a project on a topic of our choice. I chose personalized learning for my topic. One component of that project is to get an interview with a practitioner that we have located online. Please consider answering some interview questions for me and let me know if you are interested.

Allison Zmuda
Allison Zmuda
6 years ago

Happy to – if you want to connect with myself or Jill please let me know. Contact me at