Preparing Today’s Learners for Tomorrow’s Challenges: 6 Key Factors of Personalized Learning

By: Janet Pittock

Today’s learners have a wide variety of needs. We know from looking at assessment data that most classrooms contain learners whose abilities correspond to different points along the learning continuum. Students learn most effectively when they work in their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), that Goldilocks zone of “not too hard, not too easy, but just right” where they have enough challenge to keep them engaged, but not so much that they give up.

Personalized learning is neither a technology nor a tool; rather it is an approach—one designed to unlock the full potential of each learner. The teacher and the learner collaborate to drive learning and pinpoint individualized needs, plan the right instructional path, and design the learning curriculum. Personalizing learning is a process of making decisions to balance the trifecta of learning design, proficiency goals, and the practicalities of the classroom.

While we cannot predict the future for each of our students, we can predict that persistent, self-directed, life-long learners will be best positioned to prosper. Personalizing learning is essential to developing these skills in our learners.

Personalized Learning: Building a Bridge to Success

Moving from a traditional classroom organization to personalized learning can be a challenging journey. Teachers can play with making choices about six factors that impact the traditional to personalized continuum as they explore how these factors impact the learning experience. Professional social networking, ongoing professional development, and other opportunities for learning help educators evaluate impacts and meet the challenges along the way.

Personalized Learning: Six Factors

As educators collaborate with learners to co-create the learning environment, they make decisions. Optimizing personalized learning never involves making all-or-nothing decisions. Rather, every decision depends on the goal, considered together with the time and resources at hand.


1. Teacher-Directed vs. Learner-Centered: Who makes decisions and drives learning? The continuum for teacher-directed to student-centered learning presents opportunities to make decisions that impact learning design.

When learning is teacher-directed, educators leverage their expertise to make instructional decisions based on research and tradition. If the educator chooses whole-class instruction, the teacher can use the same trusted materials with all students, making planning and preparation efficient.

On the learner-centered end of the spectrum, educators collaborate with students to choose goals, methods, and experiences. This can be time-consuming, but research shows that the opportunity to support learners in making good decisions, accounting for learner interests and accommodating their needs can be work. This practice centers around building lifelong learning skills.

Optimizing personalized learning never involves making all-or-nothing decisions. Rather, every decision depends on the goal, considered together with the time and resources at hand.

2. One-Size-Fits-All vs. Variety of Learning Interactions: To which learning resources will the learners have access? Math educators and learners planning classroom strategies often find that incorporating a wide variety of practices into the instructional learning design can more effectively assist students in meeting academic goals.

Learners gain a richer understanding of math content when they encounter a variety of experiences centered on a concept. If a learner struggles during one mathematical experience, sometimes another approach can improve understanding. Instructional scaffolding should not be about repeating the same information louder or slower. Modifying assignments or lessons to afford students a different perspective and deeper access to the mathematics is more effective.

3. Technology to Enhance vs. Technology to Transform: There is no guarantee that incorporating technology into a math classroom will help deliver a more engaging and personalized experience for students. Analyzing and planning the use of technology through the lens of SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition) model can improve the changes for transformation.

4. Data Evaluates Learning vs. Data Impacts Learning: Is assessment used primarily for evaluation? Data-driven instruction sounds like a great idea, but what goes into fulfilling its promise of impacting learning beyond simply measuring achievement. Data gathered from assessments should help inform changes to support learning, decisions about revising curricula, and choices regarding learning opportunities.

5. Pacing-Chart-Driven vs. Competency-Driven: Do all learners move through the curriculum at the same time, regardless of proficiency? Educators balance addressing mandated grade-level content with addressing student readiness to learn. Providing the right instruction at the right time for each student and ensuring that learners show proficiency on high stakes assessments are persistent challenges for most educators.

Pacing charts help ensure that teachers throughout the school or district are covering material on high-stakes assessment in preparation for the tests. Competency-based instruction first assesses where a student needs to begin to acquire proficiency with a topic, and then supports the learner until he or she is proficient with the material. Learners move forward at their own pace.

6. Independence vs. Collaboration: Imagine a class where students use adaptive learning software to work on exactly the material they need, exactly when they need it. Did you imagine a roomful of students, each with headsets on, eyes glued to their devices? This scenario presents one of the objections to competency-based, personalized learning. On the other hand, traditional classrooms in which teachers instruct and students independently succeed or fail can be just as isolating.

Successful personalization allows learners to work independently when it makes sense while also providing experiences that enable learners to collaborate and communicate, building rich understandings and skills.

Improvements in technology and greater access to digital curriculum programs are making personalized instructional techniques scalable. Personalized experiences provide the opportunity for learners to achieve goals beyond acquiring content knowledge. Personalizing learning is a process rather than a program or technology. Today’s students live in a climate of constant sensory input—a rich mix of sound, video, written and visual information, and social media interactions. The fast-paced, visual, responsive environments they experience condition learners to expect rich, interactive learning events. Learners want to engage with experiential content that interests them, and they yearn for control over what and how they learn.

Janet Pittock is the Curriculum Director for McGraw Hill Education. With roots in elementary classrooms, Janet Pittock has a deep, personal commitment to personalizing learning environments to inspire and engage each student. Janet is a teacher, instructional architect, speaker, and volunteer for NCTM, NCSM, and TODOS.

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