Personalized Learning No More?

Words clipart cute kid“I’m not using the words ‘Personalized Learning’ after this session,” said Adam Garry, speaker of the iNacol presentation titled The Possibilities of Personalized Learning. With that title, you can see why he was kind of stuck using the words for at least another hour.

I knew immediately why he felt this way. There were many sessions at the conference with the words personalized learning in the title or description, but much of what was being presented wasn’t really personalized learning.

Blended, differentiated, individualized, and data-driven learning can all be options for a personalized learning experience, but they are not by themselves “personalized learning.”

Has personalized become an empty buzz word? Better question: what makes learning personalized? Answer: the student. Not the curriculum. Not even the teacher. The student.

How much voice does the student have in his or her learning experience? Is the student in the driver seat, setting the goals and choosing how to get there? This can range from selecting from a menu of options that meets the student’s needs, to the student taking the goals and designing a program from the ground up.

I call it personal agency, but I like how Adam summed it up: Voice and Choice.

In the personalized programs I have been part of, students enroll for many reasons, and with many different goals. Some are aiming for university admission and will need to make sure their program is designed for that, requiring more guidance from their coach and instructors. Meanwhile some want to gain specific skills or knowledge and might not even be interested in a diploma; they want to take, even design, the courses that make sense for their goals. For both of those scenarios, and many others, we are here to serve.

However, I am stuck with the question of whether or not we should continue calling it personalized learning. What else would we call it? Maybe we could create an acronym comprised of defining words (personal agency, empowerment, voice, choice, etc.); educators are very good at creating ever-changing lists of acronyms. Or should we just stick with the admittedly over-used terms personalized learning.

What do you think?

Click here for a chart showing how personalized is different from differentiated and individualized learning.


Connect with Tamra


Gplus  Google+ 

linkedin-icon  Linked In



My daughter wants to be Neil Gaiman, and I’m good with that.

Note Cass left me before taking off on her adventure, promising to not die.

Note Cass left me before taking off on her adventure, promising not to die.

My daughter Cass is traveling the country with a cat named Juan and a chicken named Vanna. I could blame Neil Gaiman, but it’s probably my fault.

Here’s what I think happened.  Over the years, I would frequently ask my daughters the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We would then talk about how they can be anything and many things, even all at once.  And how they could change their minds along the way. It was a question that would inspire smiles, sometimes giggles, and I enjoyed how the answers changed over the years. Physical therapist. Astronomer. Teacher (where’d they get THAT idea?). One of my favorite responses from my youngest daughter, Heather, was “Scooby Doo.”

One day, however, my daughter Cass gave this answer: “Neil Gaiman.” That was the one she finally stuck with into adulthood.  It reflects her varied interests and creative pursuits. She saw a video of Neil advising aspiring writers to go live life, so Cass is on the go, working various jobs and having adventures.  And writing. And hopefully meeting Neil at an upcoming event.

Cass is what Emilie Wapnick would call a multipotentialite – someone with varied interests and creative pursuits. Emilie recently gave a TED Talk on multipotentialities where she explained that “the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any interests — it’s that I had too many.” She described anxiety of the question, what do you want to be when you grow up (oops – sorry kids!).  However, she explains that this way of being doesn’t have to be a bad thing just because it doesn’t align with our current culture’s ideal of having one single true purpose.

It might even be in line with a reality that’s been around since the Baby Boomers who, per the USBLS, have held on average over 11 jobs in their lifetimes. Now the number of careers – not just jobs, but careers – is reaching the same level in our dynamic society. I know of people who have stayed in the same career so long that they found themselves among the long-term unemployed because their field of expertise or way of doing things disappeared.  Brian Fippinger of Q4 Consulting echoes this observation, and offers some great advice in his article The Job of a Lifetime No Longer Lasts a Lifetime.

The bottom line is that it is more important than ever to prepare students to be lifelong learners.  Being curious, exploring new pathways, and building a diverse resume can be a strategy for our modern world.  And when you ask them that question – as many of you will – use it as an opportunity to also discuss how life is really an adventure with lots of bends and forks in the road.

Connect with Tamra


linkedin-icon  Linked In




Pictures of Cass

Cass and her partner Dan dressed up for a special adventure.

Cass and her partner Dan dressed up for a special adventure.




Cass after participating in a Run or Dye marathon.

Cass after participating in a Run or Dye marathon.




Cass and her kitty Juan on the road.

Cass and her kitty Juan on the road.







Cass has been in 6 or 7 states her first year on the go.






















Self-Efficacy & Personal Agency: Move from Conformity to Empowerment

Photo by Gaelle Marcel

Ever hear about a student who can pay attention and have follow-through for projects of interest, but then fail to turn in the simplest homework assignment? What is said about this student? Not working to potential? Lacking consistent self-efficacy?

Does this sound like anybody you know?

Your self-efficacy is how effective you think you are in being able to accomplish a particular task or meet a goal. Educators often lament about low student self-efficacy and ask how to help students take personal responsibility for their own learning.

The problem is in the framing of the question. The unspoken part. The part about the expectation being that each of us should be effective at cramming ourselves into pre-defined boxes, conforming to expectations that might have nothing to do with our needs, desires, or even career goals. Think back to that student scenario. Perhaps not doing homework, and instead spending time engaged in other, meaningful tasks is exactly how some students “take personal responsibility for their own learning.” The students following the scripted program are seen as having high levels of self-efficacy. They are very effective at conforming.

Now, to be fair, if the script matches your needs, interests, and goals, then by all means, carry on. To personalize learning means to do so for all students, including those who would work well with a more traditional approach. We do not want to discriminate against one category in our efforts to meet the needs of all the others.

However, how do we know? How do we know if the box that has become comfortable is the “right” one for us, or the right one for a student we are serving? The answer: don’t stop at self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a means to something more. It is a strategy that can be used to successfully conform, but it can also be used toward higher level goals: empowerment, and – ultimately – personal agency. How can we get students in the driver seat in their education and, more importantly, their life? We need to remember that the goal is for students to each have a voice and a choice in all things pertaining to their selves and their own lives.

When mentoring teachers, I remind them that it’s not about us. It’s about them, the students. Don’t tell them what to think, but teach them to think – critically – and that means questioning everything. After all, what happens when you change your mind? Are you going to send all of your former students an update? Perhaps you can create a smart phone app for that? Of course not. Also, their world might not be your world; they need to be life-long learners who have been empowered to have full personal agency in their own lives – from their own bodies to their career choices.

Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Yes, the attitude as described above is really just that. However, the implementation can be challenging at times. It can take time to detox a student from previous experiences and social programming, and you can expect some flailing about or at least looks of suspicion when offering the driver seat to a student. That student might not even have a sense of direction, answering with “dunno” when asked what they want, and it can take awhile to discover and tap into something meaningful. Even if they get in the driver seat, they might not go anywhere at first. They need guidance; it is a process that is as self-paced as all other things the students might learn.

But know this: it can be done. It has been done. And we continue to do it. It’s an important part of preparing students for a future we cannot fully imagine, and it’s our best hope for that future being a good one.


Personalization, Differentiation, & Individualization: Defining Differences

Personalization, Differentiation, and Individualization – defining the differences. This is one of the topics in the book and training I am putting together. This chart does a nice job of outlining each term. However, one thing to remember is that 1. definitions change, and 2. regardless of the current “accepted” definition of a term, each individual will attach meaning based on personal experiences or teachings. When communicating with one another about ideas for education, this point is important to keep in mind to avoid misunderstandings while clearly presenting our ideas.  View the chart.

Why so pushy? And now what?

I am often asked the question, “So, how did you get into this?” I can answer that I was interested in this career since my earliest memories, and that I went into education intending to change it. But that’s not what people are looking for. What they’re really asking is, “Why so pushy?” How did I come up with these ideas, and then push so hard to implement them?

It happened in phases.

The Parent

Here’s what lit that fire. While fighting to keep other people’s kids from falling through the cracks, my own daughter was being dangled over a deep ravine. 

The call came from my daughter Cass’s speech therapist. Cass was born tongue-tied, had surgery at age three, and was wrapping up her speech therapy by first grade. The therapist informed me that Cass had been put into a special education reading program by her teacher, and the therapist was correct in suspecting that I hadn’t even been notified, let alone consulted.

“I don’t think she belongs there,” the therapist said.

I agreed. More than agreed, I worried. I saw what happened when kids were tracked into resource and similar education programs.

And I felt guilty. I was helping other people’s kids get “off track” to reach full potential. How could my own kid now be there? What did I fail to do as a parent?

I also felt betrayed. This was my school district, and I worked hard for them. I now had the parent perspective of being blindsided and somehow dismissed in major decisions regarding my child.

So why was Cass in there? Cass had been labeled ADHD and dyslexic by her teacher. Yes, Cass did have a high energy level, making rapid connections from one topic to another. And yes, let’s just say she is “visually gifted.” To top it off, sometimes she talked funny; speech therapy takes time. However, the reading class was doing nothing to address these traits. It was just a place to put her.

I had been enjoying the success of designing personalized learning programs for students and watching them grow – both academically and emotionally. I had just been trained in reading recovery methods, and I combined that with my learning styles research in an effort to help Cass.

I had two weeks.

Over winter break, I taught Cass to read using methods that worked for her. It required taking over the living room. We needed space and textured carpet for the whole body and tactile-touch approaches. Textured paper and medium point pens, writing with eyes closed. Elephant-nose letter writing in the air. Feeling the sounds as they were spoken by her, then by me.

It worked. After only two weeks, Cass was retested and transferred out of the special education reading class. We were then approached about having her tested for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Seriously.

She was tested the following year, scoring 99% on the assessment. By third grade she was reading at a college level. She started college at age 14.

A remarkable young woman, she gives me many reasons to be proud. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had the training I did. How differently might her path have been?

The Teacher

She is not an isolated case. With this experience in mind, I continued employing personalized education strategies, with encouraging results. My “enthusiasm” was not always matched by my colleagues, even the supportive ones. This changed one particular fall after the school received the test scores from the previous spring.

I taught six sections of middle school language arts, class sizes in the 40s, and I endeavored to tailor learning to be competency-based and adjusted to their learning styles. My principal, a very nice guy, told me that he believed that kids often learn in spite of us. In other words, he appreciated my efforts, but stop working so hard. It probably wouldn’t make that much difference.

The message changed next fall: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

The language arts department was called into a meeting to review the test scores from the last spring. Anger and anxiety dominated the room. The administrators were coming down hard on the group for the abysmal results. I was so confused. Sad. And more confused. Okay so maybe we didn’t spend much time on test-prep, opting for more authentic approaches. I had used formative assessments throughout the year, and I knew the kids were learning. At least, I thought I knew. Had I been wrong?

We were then provided with the details showing the scores for each grade level. Sixth grade scores dropped. Eighth grade dropped too. However, the seventh graders, my wonderful seventh graders, had such an increase that the school average as a whole didn’t drop. It flat lined, but it held steady. I thought the vice-principal was exaggerating when he said, “You single-handedly saved the school” – and I still do because test scores shouldn’t have that much power (but that’s a topic for another time).

However, the scores were impressive. My students gained between 10 and 30 percentile points on average depending on the category. Statistically staggering. “Resource” students became “regular” and “regular” became “honors” (much to the chagrin of some honors parents – but that’s yet another topic). It worked! But boy was I tired. I needed to make better use of technology to facilitate what I was doing. I had ideas of how that could happen, and I had the ear of the administration for sure.

However, those ideas came to a halt with the district’s response to legislation titled No Child Left Behind. They adopted a beautiful curriculum set that I was looking forward to implementing. However, it came with a lesson plan book that was pre-filled for the entire year. It also came with scripts. Yes, scripts of what to say. We were supposed to put the whole district on the same track to see how well the curriculum worked. If I did anything different, I would throw off the results of their study. But you already know how I feel about tracks. There’s also the issue of ethics. While I had one administrator suggesting that I could close my door and do my thing, a newer vice principal would come in and scold me.

I increasingly felt the urge to jump ship. And I did, right into the charter schools and other opportunities to continue developing personalized learning approaches. I earned the nickname “curriculum guru” and enjoyed invitations to review products and approaches. The homeschool families I mentored and my own daughters were excellent guinea pigs, and we would discuss ideas for a dream school.

The Administrator

In looking for options for my youngest daughter Heather, I began writing down what that model program might look like based on my previous experiences and reviewing hundreds of studies. I also tapped back into my previous experiences, from piloting a personalized learning program for “at risk” kids in 1997 to helping start a state-wide online school in 2006. What worked? More importantly, what didn’t?

I couldn’t find a school that met all of the criteria. The day finally came to gather all of my research, resources, and contacts with other change agents, and create a model school. I had been synthesizing everything I learned and created the Personalized Education Philosophy as part of a university course. I began connecting with key people I worked with in the past, including one who I took on as a business partner since he had a degree in business and experience as an administrator in personalized learning programs. With a small group of educators passionate about the philosophy’s tenets, we implemented a learning model based on the philosophy to create Christa McAuliffe School of Arts & Sciences.

Okay, so that is definitely the short version of the story. It went through many steps, required slaying dragons in the form of unethical administrators, criminal CFOs, and really confused school boards. In spite of these extra challenges, we created a private school in 2009 so we could maintain quality control to show how the model worked, and we then opened our doors to public schools to use what we created so that all students could potentially benefit.

We were the “freaks” during that initial accreditation review, but the piles of research and some supportive people who believed in us resulted in them taking a chance on us, and I will be forever grateful for that. By the year of re-accreditation, the school had been named in the top 5 of online diploma-granting schools, and it was spotlighted in a booklet put out by iNacol as a model program for personalized learning. From freaks to a model program, the school had arrived. I had my large-scale proof of concept, and it was helping so many people. However, as is typical, the program also felt a stuttering in the momentum in that it had gone as far as it could go in this way.

So now what?

The Patient

Well first there was therapy. Some things had happened that belong in a different post than here. Vaguely-speaking, a combination of a near-death situation that took months to heal from, combined with a personal betrayal of somebody who was sabotaging the work of several people including mine, put me in the “caterpillar as goo” phase of metamorphosis. It was painful. And beautiful. To get through it, I had to also address a childhood that left me with complex PTSD. This led to a post-traumatic strength that I could never have experienced had I not gone through this double-whammy life event.

I am grateful.

However, one does not get to the other side of such a thing without being unchanged, and this has made me all the more “pushy” – at least when it comes to things that matter to me.

The Facilitator

It became clear that the next step was for me to return “out in the world” to catch up with the latest, and it was amazing how many invites I received to gatherings the moment I hinted at doing this – from big education conferences to a consultant meeting on using VR technology for PTSD. With so many options, what should I do?

I took a deep breath and reflected on what makes my heart sing.

I’m eager to be in the service of helping others who have a gift or idea to share. This has included mentoring people in instructional design of their own courses and programs; providing teacher training in personalized learning; and – coming full circle to something close to my heart – supporting homeschooling parents.

It can be beyond the field of education though.

Broadly-speaking, I enjoy facilitating others in finding their voices, healing as needed, and in creating their own paths to their own dreams – especially when this is an individual or group actualizing a potential unique to them.  It’s not about “education” so much as about empowering personal agency, self-expression, and self-actualization – hopefully in a way that makes the world a better place.

It also means being a little less pushy; perhaps gentle nudging is better, or advising while stepping back and allowing others come into a knowing on their own. It is their journey, after all.

Here’s to you and your journey!


Original version published February 2, 2013. Updated with new information. 

Read an update on my daughter Cass:

My Daughter Wants to be Neil Gaiman, and I’m Good with That

1 2 3 4