For Teachers, By a Teacher: A 'Crash Course' in Personalization

Paul France with one of his AltSchool students.

Personalization is permeating our society at large, and it’s no wonder that this need has penetrated education. In fact, one might argue that personalization is of the highest need in education, where our largest priority is to help each individual student maximize his or her full potential.

But this isn’t an easy charge. Helping all students reach their individual potential is much more easily said than done. It’s more complicated than buying an app or finding new curriculum. Instead, the art of personalizing education requires a delicate touch coupled with a firm knowledge of pedagogy and classroom process.

So how do we as teachers do it? How do we achieve personalization in a way that is not only cognizant of individual student needs, but also efficient and scalable for large classrooms and school systems?

Understand Standards and How to Unpack Them

One of the underpinnings of personalization is scaffolding instruction. While each child’s path differs, educators have still learned a great deal about “best practices” and trends in learning. Unpacking standards, whether they be Common Core or otherwise, can help teachers build rubrics and learning progressions that incorporate best practices while making paths accessible to students as well.

One of the most difficult things for me to teach is rounding whole numbers to my upper elementary students. While it seems like a routine skill, in order for students to truly understand this skill conceptually, it’s necessary for them to master identifying place values, understand the relationship between place values, and have a rudimentary understanding of what “half” of something represents. By knowing each of these components, I can diagnose specific learning needs, create ability groupings, and even create rubrics that help students self-assess.

Leverage the Flipped Classroom

Homework was always a nuisance for me when I taught in public school. I felt like I was prescribing homework simply to appease parents, meanwhile wasting my students’ time and mine (especially when I had to grade it).

By flipping my classroom, I was suddenly able to break through the four walls of the classroom, create meaningful homework, maximize my time, and even involve parents. The best part about flipping was, when the kids came in the following day, I could very easily assess their understanding with an entry slip, immediately create groups, and instruct to each of these groups within minutes.

Master Formative Assessment and Documentation Practices

Of course, none of this would be possible without a firm understanding of formative assessment. Learning does not have a definite beginning and a finite end; instead, learning is process-oriented, and the only way we can truly scaffold instruction and meet students on a personal level is by documenting their work samples and using them as formative assessments in an on-going and dynamic spiral of instruction.

Let’s go back to the rounding example. I had a student this year, specifically, who struggled with number sense, and by watching her conquer rounding problems and documenting her mistakes, I was able to eventually identify that she had misconceptions with the place value system and how ones turns into tens, and how tens turn into hundreds. This information was invaluable in scaffolding instruction in later days.

By knowing our students in this way, and by constantly using formative assessment to know them better, we can personalize their education one day at a time.

Build a Culture of Autonomy and Agency in Staff and Students

The impetus for personalized learning comes from the assumption that all children are different. As a result, the process of personalization cannot be formulaic.

The major components of personalized learning are understanding student interests, assessing for granular misconceptions, and knowing students needs and preferences for learning. There are simply too many variables for there to be a formulaic approach. For some schools, this will be quite a change and a challenge for administrators and coaches alike. But managing this change doesn’t require coercion and rigid mandates; it requires trust, autonomy, and agency in both teachers and students.

By fostering environments where educators can be vulnerable learners, we empower them, not only to see themselves in the learning process, but to own their learning experience as teacher-learners and eventually transfer that both implicitly and explicitly onto students. This sort of personalization is neither ephemeral nor superficial; instead, it fosters a sense of purposeful inquiry where both teachers and students feel motivated to self-assess and self-correct for the purpose of self-improvement--not compliance.

Next Steps

As I said before, this isn’t an easy charge. You may be wondering where to start, and only you can provide yourself with that answer. Here’s what I recommend: Choose something that resides within your zone of proximal development as a teacher-learner, use your colleagues, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Your risks and the mistakes will be well worth the return!

Paul France is a National Board Certified Educator and Reading Specialist at AltSchool in San Francisco, California. He also publishes his own blog, InspirED, where he documents inspiring stories from the classroom, as well as best practices and opinion pieces for empowering kids to be self-directed learners.

Editor's Note: Images above have been supplied by AltSchool.

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