How to Personalize Learning (Without Remodeling Your School)

You don’t need to replace all the desks or build a new school to personalize learning for every child.

With a growing movement towards personalized learning, many schools are looking for ways to create better environments for learners. Some schools are spending a lot of money on building new spaces, remodeling existing ones, and bringing in modern furniture.

While there is nothing wrong with that, simply moving kids into a contemporary setting is not going to change the way we teach or the way they learn. Personalized learning is all about the learner and their individual needs. If you create a beautiful new space, yet continue to require students to move to Chapter Five after they complete Chapter Four, or to demonstrate their learning the same way as everyone else (e.g. a speech or a paper), then all you’ve accomplished is creating a beautiful new space for traditional, one-size-fits-all schooling.

When we think about the individual learner, many things can be done without a huge investment in furniture or remodeling.

Create a Flexible Environment

While you shouldn’t just chuck all your existing classroom furniture and replace it with the latest in powered, modular desks, you do need to think about how well your classroom environment supports personalized learning.

How can you move desks to allow for small group collaboration and conferencing? Are there places for students to work quietly through a problem or meet with you for feedback?

And it’s not just about the space. Rethinking the schedule of the day or the class period to allow for personalization creates opportunities to meet and collaborate. Is there time built into your day or week or period for learners to pitch an idea to their classmates, or connect with another adult to find out more about a project, or listen to classmates share what they’ve learned?

To further maximize your classroom time for flexibility, try flipping some of the content that all or many of your students need. Providing material and information in a short video the night before will maximize class time, allowing learners to work together or with the teacher to meet their individual goals.

Develop a Dynamic Learning Path

We don’t all get to the same place the same way or at the same time.

For true personalization, teachers must guide learners in creating their own learning path, complete with specific action steps, benchmarks, and resources. And the path must be the learner’s. Ownership is an essential quality of a successful learner.

Learning, too, has to be flexible. The path we take to reach our learning goals sometimes twists and turns, depending on success (or stumbling) along the way. A shift of interests or a new focus will alter the path as well. A dynamic learning path has to account for these fluctuations.

For example, a learner may realize that they want to try demonstrating their learning in an artistic creation instead of a slideshow. Or they may realize, along the path, that they are more interested in a career in law or politics than they ever imagined they would be. The path is always a winding one.

Allow for Individual Strengths and Styles

Just as we don’t all take the same path to our learning, we also bring a variety of strengths and learning styles to the learning process. An effective personalized learning environment needs to account for–and maximize–those differences.

A number of “personalized” learning tools on the market right now provide flexibility in reading levels. While that is a fantastic way to teach reading skills, it doesn’t allow learners to acquire new information in the way that suits their individual learning styles. This is where a teacher plays such a key role, as the more experienced learner, in matching up the right content with the right learning style.

But personalization isn’t limited to how learners get new information. When they are asked to demonstrate their learning, do we give them options for how they will do that? Much has been made over the past decades about the less-than-ideal, paper-and-pencil tests we too often use to assess student learning. Teachers, in their own classrooms, have the power to give students the choice of how they will convey the knowledge they’ve gained, whether that is through a performance, a Minecraft world, a paper, a presentation, or another well-matched assessment.

Provide Ongoing Feedback

For feedback to be effective, it must be consistent and varied. Teachers have long been frustrated by what big, one-shot standardized tests have done to their classroom and their students. Likewise, you can’t wait until the final exam to determine how a learner is doing and where they need to adjust their path.

Fortunately, providing ongoing and individualized feedback has become easier with technology. Many teachers use simple Google Forms for quick formative assessments and exit slips. A number of apps will do the same, providing useful information about each learner’s progress. If they’ve designed the classroom structure and schedule differently, teachers can spend more time one-on-one or in small groups evaluating and giving feedback to learners as they move down the path.

No doubt, there are some beautifully designed schools throughout the country that seek to create personalized learning spaces for modern-day students. But it does not require a referendum or a generous donor to rethink the way learning happens in your classroom for each and every student.

How have you personalized the learning environment in your classroom?