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There seems to be confusion around the term “Personalized Learning” and what is and what is not personalized learning.

Teachers are always asking us what does it look like and what happens in their role. The first thing we say is that the room sounds like a coffee shop. There is a hum with many people talking softly in different parts of the classroom. You don’t hear one person talking. Yet, in most traditional classrooms, the teacher is doing most of the talking.

The traditional classroom is all most of us know or experienced as learners ourselves. To know what it might look like in a personalized learning environment, teachers have to see and hear what it looks like.

Related: Private groups step in to show teachers how to use technology in the classroom

We wanted to share three examples of classrooms and media centers that are on their journey to personalize learning:

“EPiC’s learning environment includes 1:1 iPads, flexible learning spaces, community partnerships, personalized learning paths, and real world work. The teachers and learners are a catalyst to help people see that change is good.”

EPiC Elementary in Liberty Public Schools, Missouri is an innovative, personalized, project-based learning community infused with technology designed to inspire learners to be creative and think big! Michelle Schmitz, principal at EPiC, shared how learners use real tools and materials to collaboratively construct real world applications of their knowledge. Their learning environment focuses on three areas for all learners: Equipping Learners, Engaging Communities, and Empowering Creativity.

EPiC’s learning environment includes 1:1 iPads, flexible learning spaces, community partnerships, personalized learning paths, and real world work. The teachers and learners are a catalyst to help people see that change is good. Matching the learners experience to the outside world is necessary and engaging the learner is imperative!

Teachers’ roles are changing at EPiC. Learners are taking more responsibility in their roles in the projects.

John Parker is Digital Learning Specialist at Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina where they have embarked on a journey that is designed to transform their school library media centers into flexible learning spaces that are earmarked by designs that encourage choice and voice for our students. At the core of this endeavor is a focus on access and the ability to create, make and produce items that reflect learners’ interests.

As a first step, they began with ideas and used them to define the space. Searching questions such as “What types of activities will define this flexible space?” were used to escape the constraints of the physical space and get beyond our own set of normal limitations. To further refine the process, more specific questions were used and generated by the media coordinators. Careful attention was paid to the alignment of these questions with their guiding principles. Some questions that emerged were:

  • What features should be incorporated to improve the ability to use resources?
  • What features need to be added to support project-based activity?
  • What types of specialized software or hardware should be available? What is available?
  • What new types of furniture might you need to add or replace?
  • What space(s) are you underusing?

The activities were used to create an activity map for each media center that later identified components of those spaces and finally located them within the larger space. The media coordinators then conducted a school-based focus group and revised the plan according to stakeholder input. After negotiated outcomes and revisions, a road map for implementation was created that included measurable goals and even a budget timeline in some instances.

Related: U.S. schools have more computers than ever, but what are they doing with that (expensive) technology?

The process yielded plans, but it also enabled people to view their roles differently in light of best practices and their learners. There is excitement in being part of something that has the capacity to change teaching and learning in every school, child and home in Buncombe county.

Sarah Downing-Ford as a seventh grade teacher and coach at Massabesic Middle School in Waterboro, Maine shared:

For so many years, learners would receive grades and not know where they came from, what assignments led up to them, how they would be assessed. Now they’re involved in not only creating the units and deciding how they will assess themselves, but also how they will assess each other.”

Personalized learning, especially in larger schools systems, can be tricky. If a middle school ELA teacher has 90 learners and 28 measurement topics (with about 5 levels for each) … doing the math equals = unmanageable. For a teacher to manage all learning might drive them to the nut house after one trimester. However, if learners are given the tools and understanding of how to navigate the measurement topics and learning goals independently (and with assistance), the task becomes less daunting.

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If you asked her class what it looked like in September and compared it to what it looked like in June, they would probably say that it transformed from organized chaos to unorganized responsibility. They recount the beginning of the year as confusing, not understanding why we were doing what we were and feeling lost. Luckily, as the year progressed, they started to see, and own, their education in a way that they hadn’t before. They started to understand how assignments tied to a learning target and how the learning target tied to the report card. When we start to give some of these pieces to learners, many things can happen.

Assignments and assessments are logged, and checked off when all targets assigned to it have been met. Learners also track their progress through all of the 28 measurement topics (by level) on individual charts. They can see where there have been gaps in their learning and the areas they need to work on.

Personalized learning environments look different everywhere you go. This is because each teacher, learner, administrator and school community is different and unique. If you start on this journey, you will also find that it depends on how your learners learn best and if you encourage their voice and choice in the classroom. Your classroom and school will be different. You will notice the hum and, as Sarah mentioned, the unorganized responsibility of your learners. It’s a very exciting place to be!

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey are co-founders of Personalize Learning LLC and co-authors of Make Learning Personal.

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