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Three Ways to Leverage Personalized Learning for Students

Last month, a video of a teacher greeting his North Carolina students went viral. It was shown on morning TV shows as well as on social media.

Mr. Barry White, Jr. literally stands outside his 5th grade classroom in Charlotte, and offers a unique gesture for greeting each of his students. Call it a glorified “high five” but all students are happy to wait in line so they can exchange their own, personally crafted handshake routine with their teacher. Every student feels special.

And, boy, are they engaged.

You might say, Mr. Barry White, Jr. is playing “chess not checkers” with his students, to cite one of our Habitudes® images. When anyone plays checkers, they treat their pieces all alike, because they’re all the same. When you play chess, you have to know what each piece can do; that they each have unique strengths and style. Bingo. When you play “checkers” with students, you treat them all alike, and get average output. When you play “chess” you learn the strengths and personality of each student and enable them to flourish.

That is a picture of what personalized learning is all about.


My friend, Pat Wyman, founder of How To Learn, writes, “personalized learning is both the education of today and the future. It is learner-centered and custom tailored to each individual student. The educational community worldwide is seeing the enormous benefits in personalized learning for every student, and new technologies make it possible for teachers to spend more time with each student individually. Teachers are able to guide and mentor students in areas that they’re most passionate about, and no longer need to set up classrooms and offer instruction in a one-size-fits-all fashion.”

Wow. What a difference from my days in school.

What Are Three Benefits We Can Leverage Today?

I’ve been reading a number of articles on “personalized learning” believing that “one-size-fits-all” was never the right way to bring out the best in kids. Students learn best on a “need to know” basis and in a style of their own. This pedagogy simply allows that to happen in class.

According to author Tara Garcia Mathewson, “Personalized learning has become one of the most talked-about strategies in education today. Public, private and charter schools across the country are experimenting with new approaches to personalized learning and figuring out how best to tailor instruction to the needs and desires of individual students.”

Even if you serve in a school that doesn’t yet align with this philosophy, you can begin to leverage the benefits of personalized learning, in your context. Inspired by what Ms. Garcia-Mathewson has written, below are three benefits and how you can leverage them right now:

1. Students get to own their education, taking charge of what inspires them.

More and more, educators are utilizing personalized learning platforms to enable them to connect with their individual students. The goal is to “unify on-line content with instructional and administrative work.” They’re designed to make personalizing instruction simple for educators.

Garcia notes that “California-based charter school network Summit Public Schools has made its personalized learning platform (developed in partnership with Facebook) available for free to schools that join Summit Basecamp. They must also go through an intensive week of training on the platform and the Summit approach to personalized learning. More than 130 schools now participate in the fast-growing Basecamp community.”

2. Students get instant feedback on their subjects until they master it.

For more than a century, schools have arranged classrooms with desks set in nicely fitted rows, each facing the front where the teacher downloads the curriculum, while the students are to sit quietly, writing down the information. This has never been the best way to engage students nor facilitate retention of the content. Learning is almost different in every other context, from video games to social media to athletic fields. So how can we take our current classroom and fix them into environments conducive to student learning today?

Creative teachers are finding ways to let more natural light into the room, to arrange chairs into smaller learning stations, as students cycle through areas for small group interaction, yet also individual (solo) on-line work. Both teacher and students discover what connects best for each student.

Again, Garcia tells us, “Schools are redesigning classrooms to have different kinds of seats so students can choose whether to be sitting, standing, balancing on balls, lounging or even sprawled out on the floor as they work.”

3. Students learn in preferred way, jumping ahead or taking longer if needed.

This step requires teachers to re-define their role. They are not “instructors” as much as “facilitators” of student-driven learning. Classroom management looks different as students “own” their learning and faculty become consultants.

Garcia tells us, “New Hampshire schools have been particularly free to explore this potential because high schools are no longer bound to the Carnegie unit in assigning credit. Whether a student masters material in 120 instructional periods or half as many, he or she can get credit for that progress, based on state regulations. Still, more than 10 years after the policy change, many schools remain committed to time-based systems, reflecting the challenge inherent in implementing such a change.”

Unlike most school districts who simply keep tract of the number of classroom hours and face time instructors get with students annually, learning becomes about competencies mastered by the students, even if it takes far fewer hours. It’s all about outcomes not inputs; it is competency-based education, not clocking in your hours. Wow. How refreshing.

Thomas Carruthers wrote, “A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” What if we played “chess” not “checkers” with our students?


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  • Traci Bray

    I agree with your post, but I have some reservations regarding ditching time-based learning. I’d home-schooled my son through eighth grade using a holistic and individual approach. He thrived. After spending four years in a traditional high school setting he was off to college where he continued to crush his academics, so much so that he graduated in five semesters. While he’d clearly mastered the material, upon graduation he realized that he wasn’t ready for adult life. I honestly believe the reason he wasn’t ready is because he skipped and fast-forwarded through the process of college.

    Education is more than topical mastery, isn’t it? Can’t the process of learning as a group be vital to kids experiencing opportunities to be patient with others who don’t get it as quickly as they do? Is school about more than subject matter competency and if it is, then how do we ensure students don’t blow through the vital life lessons afforded as part of the process?

    • Tim Elmore

      You make an excellent point. I agree with you—education is more than mere topical mastery. Far too many graduates excel at school but are unready for adult life. I think the answer is in the middle. I do believe in personalized learning to equip young people—but also to ensure we’ve added components that aid their social-emotional learning as well. In other words, the answer is not either traditional classroom learning vs personalized learning, but in both cases to make sure we’ve taught emotional intelligence and the value of the “process.” If we allow kids to skip through the process (as you mentioned) they likely won’t be ready for the grit and grind of adult life. Thanks so much for the reminder. You are spot on.

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