This is the first in a series of blogs to explore personalized learning. In the first installment, I share my own journey as a parent to understand why personalized learning should be a goal of PK-12 systems and how I came to believe that. The “evidence” for my parental belief is almost purely anecdotal and formed from supporting my own children in school. The next blogs will focus more on the evidence and data that convince me as a professional working in education policy that this shift is necessary. In subsequent blogs I plan to explore several education initiatives and programs aimed at personalized learning, such as Genius Hour, competency-based education practices, and project-based learning practices. I offer the following definition of personalized learning from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning as a jumping off point for my explorations:
Working Definition of Personalized Learning: Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn — to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.[i]
A Parent’s Perspective
I have one of those kids, a boy whose smile immediately makes all adults start looking around the room to find out what impending disaster he has just put into motion. He is head-strong, anxious about new things, loud, fidgety, disorganized, and usually dirty. He gets angry when things don’t go his way or he doesn’t understand something right away. He doesn’t listen to instructions well. AND he is utterly amazing – he’s smart, funny, kind, and irreverent in that way only a 6 year old with a big grin can pull off! He has a way of looking at the world that is all his own and it is pretty fantastic – although it can be a little overwhelming too. To top it off he’s kid #4 in my house and a twin!
I tell you this because he doesn’t fit nicely into the structures of our current K-12 classrooms. The entire set up of school rubs him the wrong way. Worksheets, circle time, sitting in a desk for very long, staying on his strip of tape on the floor – almost every activity is a struggle for him. He is a challenge to me and to our system – a challenge that I hope we can all approach with an eye towards making school work for kids like him.
I realize that to succeed he needs to learn some things that he may struggle with, such as cooperating with others, sharing his space, and listening. But as a professional having worked in several industries over my career, I also understand that a lot of the traits we might want to discipline out of him are the traits of strong workplace leaders. For example, in our leaders we look for the ability to think outside the box, for a person’s passion and dedication to her ideas, for the determination to try new things even if they are scary. And to be more productive in our work we do things like use standing desks because we get sick if we sit all day, we walk around our offices to burn off steam or let out a little energy, we arrange our work around the times we are most productive and avoid the times we are flagging or stressed when possible.
I am not suggesting that schools or even classrooms should all be restructured to provide the perfect learning environment for my guy. In fact, on the most selfish level that would not work for my other three children. They all have different needs and learn in slightly different ways:
One of them cares that he learns what he wants to learn, but he doesn’t care if it is what the teacher assigned. He is a challenge to me in his own way – super-bright, but without the persistence to do what he is asked and to complete tasks he finds somewhat boring.
One of them is a great student and a super-social person. She is a challenge to the system because she wants to learn so much and move so quickly that I worry about making enough opportunities available to her – although from kindergarten to 2nd grade her teachers have been wonderful guides.
One of them does well in school and usually works hard to please his teachers and parents. He struggles with being the youngest in his class and needs some social support to navigate school. He is one of those guys who internalizes the challenges he faces and so it is up to me and the system around him to try to figure out what is standing in his way and help him move past it.
They are very different learners with different needs, strengths, and areas for improvement. I have not yet visited a classroom where they would all thrive simultaneously. Yet I send them to school each day charged with the goal of learning.
For all these reasons I have come to believe that what we need is a system where we offer students opportunities to learn in many different ways – a system that supports and nurtures differences with the goal of success for every type of learner. This is more than simply differentiating work for students or offering programs such as talented and gifted or special educational services. This happens only with a systemic shift to our education system – a focus on what each student needs to be able to learn.
[i] Patrick, Susan, Kathryn Kennedy, and Allison Powell. (October 2013). Mean what you say: defining and integrating personalized, blended and competency education. International Association for K-12 Online Learning. Retrieved from: