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Personalized Learning Requires Effective Teaching First,Technology Second

By Patrick Ledesma — July 15, 2012 5 min read

On Tuesday, July 10, the US Department of Education (ED) hosted “What Teachers Need to Know about Personalized Learning” as part of their Teacher Summer Seminars.

Richard Culatta, Deputy Director of the Office of Educational Technology, Matthew McCrea, Science Instructional Lead Teacher at G. James Gholson Middle School in Maryland, and I discussed our perspectives on promoting personalized learning in schools from the policy, classroom, and staff development perspective.

What is Personalized Learning?

ED describes Personalized Learning as:


  1. Adjusting the pace of instruction so that instruction is more individualized.
  2. Adjusting the learning approach so that instruction is differentiated.
  3. Leveraging student interests and experiences so that learning is more... personalized.

Richard emphasized the following points in his presentation:


  • The traditional teaching model treats all learners the same despite unique needs and strengths.
  • We need a new educational model that takes classroom learning beyond a one-size fits-all mentality.
  • Personalized Learning is not about technology, but technology helps.

Richard gave some examples of how technology empowers personalized learning from 1:1 computing, use of handheld devices, classroom response systems, and learning management systems.

Matthew shared the wonderful examples from his classroom including a blended learning model in 7th grade Algebra class with 1:1 laptops and a project based learning in 7/8 STEM class with 1:1 laptops.

More than Technology Required

From my perspective, with this new emphasis on Personalized Learning, any special education teacher understands that Personalized Learning is not new. It’s what is done everyday in special education classrooms where services and instructional delivery are designed from the needs of the individual.

This focus on Personalized Learning is exciting because we’ve combined the emphasis on individual needs and empowered this approach with the power of technology.

But, with our focus on technology, one should hope that educational leaders will not view the purchasing of devices as providing quick and easy solutions. More importantly, Personal Learning demands a shift in how lessons are designed, which requires certain levels of knowledge and skillsets.

I posed the following question to the teachers:

“Let’s say that a delivery truck shows up at your school and suddenly you have all these devices such as iPads, netbooks, classroom response systems, and learning and data management portals.... Will teachers in your school teach any differently?”

Teachers understand that change does not happen so quickly and easily.

Personalized Learning, like all other models of instruction that attempt to introduce innovation in schools, is about professional development and support.

Teachers need to have certain skills for Personalized Learning to use these technologies. It’s about pedagogy and content:

Personalized Learning requires that teachers should:

1) Know their students: Teachers should know their students ' interests, know their learning styles, and know their ability levels.

In Personalized Learning, the teacher needs to be personable to the students. Teachers who already do this will be prepared for that shift; teachers that do not have this knowledge may not see the value in the technology. In order to “leverage student interests, one must first know the interests of their students and know how to act on it.

2) Know their pedagogy and content: Teachers should be able to implement multiple paths to knowledge- having a variety of ways to help a diverse group of students learn rigorous standards. This means having more than one resource or activity to teach a lesson and meet a goal or objective. This means teachers should be able to differentiate instruction, find all opportunities for remediation to help struggling learners, and understand how to provide enrichment to challenge the advanced student.

Simply giving a teacher an iPad will not guarantee this level of expertise.

3) Manage student learning: As teachers will now have classrooms where multiple activities may be occurring at the same time, this requires a level of classroom management, data keeping, and use of a variety of assessments. Not to stereotype, but elementary school teachers are more familiar with managing a classroom with lots of movement and activities going on- those teachers who rely on lecture only may need additional resources and support, as well as seeing other teachers in their subject and grade level who have this level of flexibility.

4) Access available resources
These can be tremendous challenges if teachers work alone. There is no need for teachers to reinvent the wheel. A teacher should not have multiple preps for a single class period.

As Mathew suggested in his presentation, teachers should beg, borrow, and steal the great lessons whenever possible.

In this regard, district and schools will have to provide curriculum support and ensure that all teachers have the resources to focus on student learning.

Transforming the Teaching Profession

Ultimately, just as Personalized Learning transforms student learning, it can transform the teaching profession as opportunities will be created for teachers to be design the instructional resources and provide support for teachers in schools.

And in this regard, Personal Learning has exciting potential for both the student and the teacher.

It’s time. And with technology and our information-on-demand society creating opportunities for more students to learn academics outside of school through opportunities such as through Udemy, Khan Academy, and LearnZillion, perhaps this change is inevitable.

It’s time to harness the power of technology to start meeting the needs of the individual during the school day.

So, if that delivery truck appears at your school and delivers these technologies for Personalized Learning, are you ready?

For a similar discussion on Personalized Learning, join me on July 26 for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Webinar: The Role of Teaching in a Learner-Centered, Digitally Empowered Environment from 2:00-3:00PM.

Follow me on Twitter at @Patrick_Ledesma

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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