Personalized Learning


Differentiated instruction has recently been garnering much attention in public schools.  Because of this, the topic of personalized learning interested me a great deal.  I realize that differentiated instruction and personalized learning are a bit different.  In a nutshell, differentiated instruction is  about adjusting how content is delivered and how students demonstrate mastery based on their individual needs, and individualized instruction adjusts the pace at which students progress through the same material.  According to the School Improvement Network (2015), personalized learning is “the whole enchilada” or stated more clearly, “Differentiated instruction and individualized learning are subsets of personalized learning…”  Therefore, exploration of personalized learning is very beneficial to a deeper, richer understanding of how to tailor the instruction in my classroom to each child.  Doing so sounds wonderful on the surface, but the devil is definitely in the details so to speak.  Trying to tailor instruction to meet the needs of each student in a class can be daunting to say the least.  For instance, I teach classes of thirty-five high school students who range from talented and gifted to those several years behind grade-level expectations, from students with prison ankle bracelets to those enrolled in AP classes.  Personalized learning is not as simple as it sounds, so I am very interested in exploring this topic further.  To this end, I selected two fairly different articles from my research on the subject.

The first article that I chose was “An Operationalized Understanding of Personalized Learning” (Basham, Hall, Carter Jr, & Stahl, 2016).  This article focuses primarily on learning how students with disabilities fair in classrooms utilizing personalized learning as well as how personalized learning is operationalized, or put into action, in the classroom..  Since I teach a large variety of students with special needs, I was especially interested in this aspect of the research.  Basham et al. (2016) conducted fifty different observations during an eighteen month period in an urban district undergoing reforms (121).  The researchers compiled data from their observations to identify how personalized learning was being operationalized in the classroom.  Furthermore, Basham et al compared the growth that “regular” education and special education students made during the the study.  They then used a variety of statistical tests and generalized linear mixed modeling (GLMM) “used to identify the variables that significantly contribute to meeting at least 1-year growth (yes/no), accounting for dependency of observations” (130).

The researchers discovered that personalized learning was operationalized in a number of ways.  For this student, some of the most interesting aspects of these classrooms were that they were consistently “highly self-regulated environments” that relied on “transparent, continual, and actionable data” and that “integrated learner voice” (133-134).  They also noted that these classrooms allowed for multiple paths to demonstrate understanding (134).  These methods describe what many would consider an ideal classroom.  This is further supported by the student data which demonstrated that students with special needs not only did not fall further behind their peers, but they also succeeded.  Basham et al explain, “In fact, there is some indication that learners with disabilities cannot only be successful but thrive in personalized learning environments” (132).  For example, students with disabilities showed higher rates of obtaining 1-year and even 2-year growth than students not in special education (132).

The second article that I selected was “Personalized Workplace Learning: An Exploratory Study on Digital Badging Within a Teacher Professional Development Program” (Gamrat, Zimmerman, Dudek, & Peck, 2014).  This article held particular interest for me, as my academic research interests center on how technology and current education trends impact professional development for teachers.  In this study, thirty-six teachers were involved in a multi-site case study where teachers embarked on what Gamrat et al (2014) termed “Teacher Learning Journeys” or TLJ (1136). Teachers were given access to over sixty online learning modules.  They could earn stamps by successfully completing a module, or they could earn badges by completing “additional reflection and work to connect PD activity content to their workplace” (1142).  Over the course of three months, these 36 teachers earned 133 stamps and 21 badges (1142).  Gamrat et al discovered that teachers utilized their TLJ to engage in professional development that was germane to the success of their students and what they were teaching in their classrooms (1143).  Furthermore, the researchers state, “Teachers used TLJ system flexibility to set personalized PD goals” (1144).  I struggled with envying the opportunity given to these teachers, as I have never been asked what type of professional development I needed.  It has always just been fed to me like some sort of pill which is supposed to cure whatever problems the district thinks its teachers have, but secretly we all know it is just a placebo.

Much of what Culatta said in his TED talk seemed to resonate in these articles.  With Basham et al (2016), one sees that students in both “regular” education and special education not only succeed but can actually thrive in environments where they are more fully engaged in their learning and evaluation.  In Gamrat et al (2014), one sees that teachers (when given the opportunity) will develop meaningful goals and engage in professional development that enriches the instruction in their classrooms.  Gamrat expressed concern that technologies not simply be used to repackage staus quo teaching and learning but to create something new that pushes education out of its box and into the future.  Here, I think we see the realization of his hopes.

However, as mentioned earlier, the old saying that the devil is in the details rings true here as well.  In Basham et al, the entire district was on board and had a central purpose of not just improving but revolutionizing how they were meeting the needs of their students.  Getting an entire district on the same page and going in the same direction is not always so easily accomplished.  Furthermore, the students had incredible access to technology.  Few schools in the United States are able to boast the 1:1 ratio student to personal data device that Culatta envisioned.  In my own school for example, we have three computer labs for 3,500 students and over 150 teachers.  We do have a number of laptop carts, but these were out of commission for the first semester, because they needed “updates.”  Obviously, our technological infrastructure is woefully inadequate.  In Gamrat et al, the teachers were allowed to generate their own professional development goals and pursue their own paths regarding what professional development they engaged in.  As I have alluded to before, having been in teaching since 1998, I can honestly say that professional development has always  been prescribed with little to no flexibility.

Obviously, we have far to go to meet the vision that Culatta thinks has already arrived.  Perhaps it has, but schools have a long way to go to catch up… if that is even possible in a field as rapidly changing as technology. This is where I think that research into Maker Education has true potential.  Often times in education we try so desperately to make big changes overnight when the inertia of something as gargantuan as American public education can rarely be overcome so quickly.  Maker education provides teachers a way to create hands-on highly personalized learning experiences for their students with a bit of effort and faith for very little money.  I am very curious to see how my students would succeed in a classroom environment that is much more self-directed.  Maker Education does seem still to target primarily teachers and students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  However, with further research, I feel that I could find ways to infuse my lessons more with such opportunities.  Will my students be more successful with a traditional approach to language teaching, or will they achieve higher levels of fluency and intercultural competence through Maker Education?  I think this would be a worthwhile topic for an action research project.  I am interested to see what changes it might bring to teaching and learning in my classroom.


Basham, J. D., Hall, T. E., Carter, R. A., Jr., & Stahl, W. M. (2016). An Operationalized understanding of personalized learning. Journal of special education technology, 31(3), 126-136. doi:10.1177/0162643416660835

Gamrat, C., Zimmerman, H. T., Dudek, J., & Peck, K. (2014). Personalized workplace learning: An exploratory study on digital badging within a teacher professional development program. British journal of technology, 45(6), 1136-1148. doi:10.1111

School Improvement Network. (2015, June 24). Personalized Learning vs. Differentiated Instruction: Understanding the Difference. Retrieved January 25, 2017, from


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