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When learning is personalized, schools help students assess their own interests and talents, create a plan for achieving their personal goals, and demonstrate what they know and can do using a variety of media and clear standards—all with the close support of teachers and mentors. When students feel personally connected to what they are learning they become engaged and self-motivated because school has a tangible meaning to them.

Personalized learning and a personalized environment are easily confused. Although complementary elements of an effective small school, they are distinct. A personalized environment describes the structures (such as advisories, cohorts and looping) that provide opportunities for students to be known well by their teachers and other school staff. But how teachers gather and apply that knowledge is what makes learning personalized. When teachers and mentors establish supportive, non-threatening relationships with students they come to know students’ talents, backgrounds, self-concepts, aspirations, strengths and priorities. Teachers personalize learning by integrating what they know about students’ lives, strengths and priorities into challenging curriculum and projects. Personalized learning experiences are not necessarily unique to each individual student; however, they reflect themes, issues, concerns, and questions that are real to students.

The structure of a small school is well suited to creating a personalized environment, but teachers may need training on how to translate relationships with students into personalized instruction. Some approaches to personalized learning include:

  • Differentiated instruction. Differentiated instruction is a broad term that refers to a variety of classroom practices that accommodate differences in students’ learning styles, interests and prior knowledge. There are many myths about differentiated instruction—that it is mainly for students with learning deficits, that it does not work in classrooms where students have to master information for high-stakes tests, that it means dividing the class into ability groups, that a teacher will have to write a lesson plan to fit each student or that brighter students will be asked to teach others. All these myths are just that, myths. Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that maximizes learning by meeting each student where he or she is.

    When differentiating instruction, teachers focus on broad concepts that provide a common framework for all students and then guide students as they take increasing responsibility for in-depth work that is centered on their strengths and interests. Teachers use initial and ongoing assessments to gauge students’ abilities and progress, and scaffold content for varying needs and interests. Differentiated instruction is a dynamic process—teachers organize and reorganize students into working groups, adjust complexity of instruction, and provide multiple methods and materials for students to explore content and build new skills. Differentiated instruction is a way to personalize learning, to recognize what makes students unique and to guide them toward building on their strengths and become independent learners.

  • Negotiated curriculum. Students want to examine their available options and set a path for both their daily and long-term plans. In high schools where learning is personalized, students exercise “voice and choice” and work with teachers to negotiate curriculum. Strategies such as internships, service learning, career-related learning experiences, and project-based learning give students opportunities to define learning goals, and determine relevant academic topics and themes. When students have choices in how they demonstrate their learning (such as through exhibitions, performance, or research papers) they assume a greater sense of accountability for their work. And when they are directly involved in defining the criteria for assessment (such as working with teachers and peers to   design rubrics), they embark on their work with a deep, personal understanding of the standards for success.

  • Personal learning plans. Personal learning plans help students to articulate academic and personal goals and craft learning experiences (both in and outside of the classroom) that reflect their individual strengths and interests, and prepare them for post-high school education. For example, a student with a passion for working with animals might develop a learning plan that includes a sequence of relevant science classes, enrollment in a community college math class, an internship with a veterinarian, and a community service project with the Humane Society. Students work collaboratively with teachers and parents to develop their plans, which they periodically revise and update. Personal learning plans empower students to reflect on and articulate what is important to them, and then structure learning that reflects their unique identity and perspective. The involvement of adults ensures that this happens without sacrificing high standards for achievement.

    Personal learning plans engage students in taking responsibility for their learning and build students’ confidence that their work will prepare them for leading successful adult lives. In a subject-based curriculum, knowledge of facts is often presented with no reference to the adult world. Through personal learning plans students incorporate learning experiences in the classroom and in the community with their interests. When learning is personalized students can readily answer the question “Why do I need to know this?”

Review this element on the Oregon Small Schools Initiative School Change Rubric Self-Assessment Tool.

This text is based on Oregon Small Schools Initiative fieldwork and the synthesis of ideas from the following source(s):

National Association of Secondary School Principals, The Education Alliance. (2004). Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals. Available: Click Here

Benjamin, Amy. (2002). Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Middle and High School Teachers. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education. Available: Click Here

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development. Available: Click Here

Personalization: Making Every School A Small School

Breaking Ranks II: Appendix 2: The Personalized Learning Plan

Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for Middle and High School Teachers

The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners