Select Page

by Andrew Ferguson
MS Principal
American International School of Johannesburg

“Much more than a prediction of some standardized pre-formatted lesson plan of what is next for a student, personalized learning is complex and variable where teachers, students, and mentors in the process pay attention to multiple measures and high standards coming from school and world at-large.  This is deeper learning that includes academics, social/emotional, and 21st century skills.”  Elliot Washor

Despite some of the uncertainty that I know accompanies the launch of our student e-portfolio initiative, I am excited about this step we are taking to empower our students to document and showcase their learning across disciplines while using the transdisciplinary skills as an anchor for showing what they know and what they can do.   My ultimate hope as this all unfolds is that our students will embrace the freedom they have to make their portfolios their own and that they will truly create something personal that represents their passions, their hopes, their dreams, their goals, their areas of academic strength and areas for continues growth.   As I look into the crystal ball a year or two from now, I am also excited to envision a portfolio of one of our current 6th graders and what that portfolio might look like when they are with us as an 8th grader.   If it all works, and I feel confident that through trial and error it will, the representation of learning and growth for that 8th grader could be pretty awesome.

A portfolio that is personal to the students speaks loudly to me (and I hope it will to them) because I have been spending a lot of time thinking and reading about personalized learning and one of things that is continually referenced in my reading about this topic is the power of the portable, electronic portfolio that is student owned and generated. In a school where personalized learning is an established way of doing things, each student should have a “learner profile,” or a record documenting his or her academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals.  With guidance and coaching from teachers, students should use this evidence to create a personal learning path that encourages them to set and manage their individual academic goals.  As well, learning should be differentiated and flexible and structured in a way to support the students in their work towards these goals.

Personalized learning is not a new “buzzword” but in many schools, structures and systems are just now being put in place to truly encourage student to own their learning.   In my reading about the topic, I have also been drawn the results of a few studies conducted several years back.  One, a collaborative symposium with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), produced a comprehensive report that identified several key traits that need to be in place in schools for learning to be personalized including:

  • Flexibility in how, what, when, and where students learn
  • Project-based, authentic
  • Student-driven learning path with learning plans tailored to meet individual student needs.
  • Competency-based progression/path

The other study was conducted by the Hanover Research Institute on “Best Practices in Personalized Learning Environments.”  Among other things, the study identified similar, essential traits and also focused on what is needed to shift schools from more traditional learning environments to more personalized ones.  I enjoyed looking at a simple comparative table from the report, a snippet that I include below.

Traditional Learning versus Personalized Learning:

Traditional Personalized
Fixed place, school based Anywhere and everywhere
One size fits all instruction Differentiated
Physical/Face-to-face learning Blended learning platform
Industrial age, assembly line, common pace instructional model Knowledge age, individualized, variable pace learning model
Limited and locked student report card Portable electronic student portfolio


Having shared all of this, I would expect that most of you, like me, get a little (or a lot) nervous when looking at these lists or tables.  For learning to become more personalized, it requires some radical shifts in the way that many schools currently conduct their day to day business.  True personalized learning calls for a “rethinking and redesign” of schools, which could require them to overhaul traditional classroom structures, schedules, and curriculum.  The role of the teacher would change too.  In an effective personalized learning model, teachers’ roles are more like those of coaches or facilitators than content providers.

All that said, it is also important to note that the jury on how personalized learning is defined and/or implemented is still out in some cases.   I think that there are critical questions that need to be addressed such as:

  • How much of a role does technology play in a personalized learning environment? Certainly, there are amazing tech resources that are available to make learning personalized.  One has to look no further than something like the Khan Academy and other flipped classroom tools to see how technology could be used to help personalize learning.  However, I wouldn’t want technology to the only tool used to personalize learning.  In my opinion, school and learning are still both very much human endeavours, involving lots of face-to-face time and interaction with others.  True personalized learning is interdependent and “relationship” oriented. A balance between personalized learning through computer and personalized learning with other people has to be struck to make it successful as far as I am concerned.
  • What role do standards and benchmarks play in personalized learning? In my opinion a big one!  I think that when some people hear the term “personalized learning,” they think that students are free to choose what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.  Not true.  Standards and academic rigor still play a major role in personalized learning environments.  What is “personal” is how students can demonstrate how they know the standards and when they do demonstrate that they know them, what happens next.  In personalized learning, demonstrating proficiency or mastery of standards does not mean that those students then have to wait around for everyone else to do the same before they can move forward.  That is something that frankly, I don’t think happens enough in schools.
  • What is the role of the teacher in a “personalized” learning environment? I think that this relates to my first question about the role of technology.   Teachers must play a vital role in personalizing learning for their students.   While acknowledging that in personalized learning, teachers take on more of a guide or coaching role, they must also know each of their students as learners and as people.  They must be committed to using multiple measures of data to understand each of their students as learners and be committed to putting that data to work.  Above all, teachers must focus on the relationships they establish with each and every one of their students.  To be successful, personalized learning is not only about personalizing the acquisition of knowledge, but also about the relationship between teachers and students.

Here is a great link to a blog I read regularly from Larry Ferlazzo that has even more links to the many, many opinions about personalized learning.  There is a lot to digest in there, but some very good resources should you want to learn more.

I will conclude this week’s post by stating that, despite some of the burning questions and the naysayers, the concept of personalized learning is here to stay and I think will become a growing trend in education including here at AISJ.   There are schools out there that are already personalizing learning in great ways.  I would challenge our school to do the same.  Upon reading some of the links offered up this week, ask yourself if what you are doing in your classroom is personalizing learning for your students.  If you read and identify things that you could be trying, do so.  Be a risk-taker!  Personalized learning also means teachers need to be taking the steps to personalize their own teaching and not doing what everyone else is.  If you identify some of the essential qualities of personalized learning that you are already doing, keep doing them AND share this out with others.  The relationships that are so essential for personalized learning with students to take hold are also needed for teacher to teacher as well.

I leave you with several more links for your reading pleasure should you want to learn more.  The ASCD link entitled “No Two Are Quite Alike” is highly recommended.  It comes from one of my educational heroes, Ted Sizer.  As you will see, Ted was thinking about personalized learning almost twenty years ago.  Enjoy.