Opinion

Under the hood of personalized learning: A New Hampshire teacher of the year explains

Motivation, goal setting, project management

The demand for making the learning experience responsive to every student’s individual learning needs is accelerating.

Personalization is a growing focus for policy development, technology applications and educational marketing.

The idea itself is not new. Benjamin Bloom understood the value of personalization in 1967, when his research showed over 90 percent of all students could learn at high levels when provided with instruction that effectively met their particular learning needs.

Theodore and Nancy Sizer also understood the value of knowing students well, incorporating that tenet in their Coalition of Essential Schools Common Principles.

Today’s education and cognitive scientists affirm that every learner has a dynamic profile of strengths and challenges that impacts their learning journey.

Since its inception in 2002, Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2) has been committed to personalizing learning.

Related: Opinion How do teachers know if they are getting personalized learning right?

Providing the conditions that enable all individuals to become empowered with the knowledge and skills to use their voices effectively and with integrity in co-creating our public global world, MC2 intentionally focuses on students’ gifts and abilities, leveraging learners’ strengths while providing multiple strategies for addressing challenges.

Learning is rooted in emotion; the quality of relationships impacts the quality of the learning. MC2’s design supports the development of an orchestra of dedicated players – students, parents and families, teachers, school leaders, community partners – committed to understanding, coaching and challenging students to develop the will, knowledge and skill to achieve their aspirations.

Learning structures are used to guide students into assuming increasing responsibility for their learning progress, supporting them as “conductors-in-training” as they learn to tap the resources within and around them.

At MC2 advisory serves as the hub of a student’s learning career, coordinating communications and building relationships across the learning team, with the shared goal of supporting the student’s success.

Related: Opinion The tried-and-trued model of personalized learning that’s been around for 100 years

Every student’s learning team is led by a teacher/advisor and includes the student, parents/guardians (or an identified adult advocate), and other relevant adults. Through constant collaborations, they develop and update an assets-based learning profile for the student, identifying strategies for leveraging strengths and addressing challenges.

The learning team intentionally elevates student and parent voices through regular communications, working together to negotiate, monitor and support the student’s learning pace and progress.

Daily advisory procedures provide the structures for implementing the learning team’s goals. Students begin and end each day with their advisories. Through this advisory procedure, students learn how to manage their own learning, motivation, goal setting and project management.  Students are coached in self-assessment, reflection and self-advocacy through a daily reflective writing process, in which they review their goals for the day, discuss what worked and what didn’t work, and then identify next steps for their academic progress. Staff and families give daily feedback on these reflections.


Families also participate in their student’s quarterly Exhibition of Learning, during which the student reports and defends his or her  learning and progress over the duration of the quarter. These student-led presentations coach student voice and self-advocacy, with the family partnering in the assessment and goal-setting processes, negotiating expectations to balance student motivation with the appropriate level of challenge.

Related: Must a classroom be high-tech to make personalized learning work?

Transparent coaching in problem-solving, overcoming obstacles, respectfully handling confrontation and managing motivation are essential aspects of providing students with the self-awareness and accompanying skills to assume responsibility for designing and navigating learning and life experiences. To that end, MC2’s curriculum explicitly includes a set of “habits” which are taught, coached and assessed throughout all learning experiences.

Learning is always personal, and we each have a drive to be of significance. MC2’s academic competencies are designed to facilitate, encourage and ultimately require co-created applications of learning. Checklists of competencies hold high standards for student expectations while building in flexibility for how, when, where and why students learn and apply their learning.

Through a variety of project-based and experiential learning opportunities, ranging from interdisciplinary classes to work- and field-based learning experiences, students work with teachers and mentors to co-design personally meaningful work that incorporates curriculum standards while infusing global competencies.

Student-initiated learning experiences run the gamut from fundraisers for local animal shelters and food agencies, supporting community gardens and creating anti-bullying awareness campaigns to participating in local and international public service projects, developing a plan for decreasing human trafficking and applying for (and receiving) startup funding for an innovative emergency alert system.

As students become contributing participants in their education, their communities and the diverse global society we live in, they grow their individual and collective ability to shape the decisions that impact their lives. Learning for a purpose is deeper and longer lasting; leadership means taking responsibility for what matters to you, something every person, whether adult, child, or in between, can learn to do.

Growing students’ self-knowledge, effective decision making skills and readiness to seek and persevere with challenging learning experiences puts the tools for personalization in their hands, effectively empowering every student to become their own conductor, prepared to lead the symphony of their own life.

Kim Carter is executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation. A 1991 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and 1996 New Hampshire Media Educator of the Year, she has developed and applied her expertise designing and implementing educational programs and schools that elevate students as partners in the learning process, including Making Community Connections Charter School (MC2 School.

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Kim Carter

Kim Carter is executive director of the Q.E.D. Foundation. A 1991 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and 1996 New Hampshire Media Educator of the… See Archive