Confidence for Personalized Learning


This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. When teachers help students develop the building block of Confidence, together they can build a foundation that supports personalized learning. It takes confidence for students to begin to own the learning experience and for teachers to transform their classrooms by sharing the learning experience with their students. This confidence in the classroom can be expressed in many different ways.

Qualities of Confidence

Motivation – Motivation is intertwined with confidence because when students are motivated, they will persist in solving problems even though they may be difficult. That motivation may arise from a sense of confidence in oneself because of one’s abilities, interests, and knowledge about a particular skill or concept. Motivation can also be related to a sense of safety within the learning environment so that students feel comfortable in taking risks or trying new things to show what they know. Motivation is connected to relationships that are purposefully developed within the classroom to achieve a willingness to listen to and accept new ideas. Teachers can influence motivation by inspiring students to think outside the box. This inspiration can come from high expectations that every student will achieve but also an innate understanding of what makes students tick. When teachers know what inspires students personally, they can use that understanding to help them become motivated to achieve, to explore, and to extend beyond the basics required for competency of a learning standard. A focus on test scores may only motivate some of the academically skilled students in the room. However, focusing on what students are capable of accomplishing individually and using that information to personalize their learning can motivate everyone.

Perseverance – So what causes students to persevere when they encounter difficulties in the classroom? Learning to view obstacles as surmountable challenges arises from confidence in one’s abilities. As teachers provide scaffolding for learning new things, they can help students develop the confidence necessary to persevere. Those supports along the way include providing explanations, asking questions, and modeling as students are learning new concepts. The teacher gradually introduces new information and helps students set new goals for accomplishing learning tasks. Teachers can also help students develop their own strategies that foster perseverance. Some of these strategies may include the following: organizing thoughts about a new topic; making a plan for undertaking a task; providing video feedback and suggestions; and reflecting about a task when it is completed. When those strategies become a regular part of learning, they provide an effective roadmap for confidence. When students experience success, they develop the sense of confidence necessary to persevere.

Risk-taking – Students need to feel confident about taking risks in order to engage in personalized learning. They need to be able to expect that sometimes they will make mistakes and learn from their failures as part of the learning process. Teachers can help students develop this capacity by embracing their own mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. When teachers make a mistake they need to own that mistake; show why they made a mistake; and model how they can learn from it. This helps students attempt new things; embrace new ways of learning; and understand that they are always a work in progress. Teachers should model that they’re willing to learn alongside and even from their students because students often have their own areas of expertise. Many students may know how to use the technology in the classroom better than their teachers, but they might not know how to learn with that technology. Collaboration in this way builds confidence. The teacher can show a willingness to learn from the students how to use those technology tools and devices for new learning opportunities. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is one way of demonstrating confidence.

High Expectations – When teachers maintain high expectations, they show that they believe in their students. The challenge of meeting and exceeding learning standards with a teacher with high expectations can be rewarding to students. In the personalized learning environment, one goal is to help students cultivate high expectations for themselves. Of course, because of students’ individual differences, teachers have to help them learn how to define success while still maintaining high expectations. Having high expectations involves more than solely maintaining a narrow range of success for every student. Teachers have to understand the challenges of each student and nurture a supportive environment built on collaboration. They have to scaffold supports for each child to experience success and then celebrate those successes as well as the mistakes made along the way. One of those supports may include providing sufficient time for students to process new information and answer questions. It is necessary for teachers to discover authentic ways that each student can experience success and make a positive contribution to the learning community. That raises students’ feelings of competence and affects the ways that the other students perceive them. In this way, not only do high expectations develop a sense of confidence, they also show students that their teachers really care about them. It develops mutual respect in the classroom. Students feel good about themselves, and classmates can be proud of and relate to the successes and failures of their peers

Continuous Practice – As with many extracurricular activities, continuous practice in the classroom develops and refines necessary skills and expertise. In the short term, that practice may sometimes feel tedious, but in the long term, it is essential for success. As noted above, success can lead to confidence in one’s abilities. Teachers can help students learn how to practice effectively by focusing on areas that need extra attention and development. In the personalized learning environment, how students should practice can vary depending on the individual. Typically in education, students are forced to practice by doing more of a challenging task, such as by completing rows of math problems. However, repetition and practice are not exactly equal. It may be more beneficial for a student to utilize other strengths as a different form of practice, and practice may be more beneficial if it comes from demonstrating success instead of simply repeating a task. For example, a student having difficulty with a particular math concept may practice that concept by creating a tutorial video that shows how to solve a few problems that utilize that same concept. That practice is more targeted to a student’s individual needs and encourages them to utilize strengths in creating a video or speaking in order to achieve eventual success.

Many students have become unaccustomed to showing their strengths and it takes a certain amount of confidence to express one’s own voice, ideas, abilities, and perceptions with others, especially as they are still figuring out the ways that they are unique. Developing a positive and supportive digital age learning ecosystem can encourage the confidence necessary for personalized learning.


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Creativity for Personalized Learning


This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. When teachers nurture the building block of Creativity for every student, they provide greater opportunities for personalized learning. Just as we expect every student to make academic progress in our schools and classrooms, the digital age requires that every individual utilize creativity to develop innovative solutions to problems and to generate unique products that demonstrate what they have learned.

Strategies for Nurturing Creativity

Celebrate Diversity – Because of different backgrounds and experiences, students, come to school with varying strengths and challenges. Teachers should welcome the variety of innovations and ideas that are fostered when creativity is purposefully encouraged within the personalized learning environment. This diversity strengthens the learning community as students learn more about the content, each other, their teacher, and themselves. The search for correct answers, in a misguided effort to prepare for standardized tests, can be detrimental to creative expression. Similarly, when teachers provide students with a specific set of directions, essentially a recipe, for completing an assigned project, they can also limit creativity, and this practice can result in a roomful of identical products – but may not result in any real learning. The only documented learning happening in those environments is a student’s ability to follow the instructions, which causes the design of the same product. Determining how to evaluate diverse activities and products can be challenging; therefore, teachers should collaborate with their students to design open-ended rubrics that focus more on the creative process and their developing skills.

Design a Makerspace – Many schools are designing makerspaces to facilitate the development of the skills and processes involved in creativity. At Ramsey Jr High School in Fort Smith, AR, the media center has been reimagined as a makerspace; they refer to it as their “Tinker Space.” The school has provided the students with a variety of craft supplies; 3D printers; engaging open-ended games; and resources that foster imagination. There are spaces for individual exploration and group collaboration. It has become a popular destination throughout the school day. In addition to providing a central makerspace in a school building, consider that every classroom could be a makerspace. Brainstorm what types of products could be generated in different subject areas. This influx of creativity and the freedom to create helps children demonstrate understanding of what they have learned about a concept by empowering them to utilize their personal strengths and abilities.

Integrate Technology – The use of technology can encourage new ways for students to be creative. Either with their own devices in a BYOT environment or with school-provided technology tools, students can create new ways to show what they know. For example, they can utilize the camera on a smartphone to demonstrate their learning in original ways. They could record a new way to solve a math problem; produce a modern adaptation of a work of literature; reenact a historical event; or capture a live science experiment. There are endless possibilities for learning with videos and photos. The important thing to remember is to have the students construct and own the different ways that they show their learning. Many schools are also using 3D printers in order for students to design and create new products. This process can help them develop their capabilities in math and science while also creating a new art form. Here are some suggestions for accessing a 3D printer in case you don’t have access to one at your school – How to Make 3D Printed Stuff without Owning a 3D Printer.

Ensure Access to Resources – It’s more difficult for students to be creative in classrooms where the access to the necessary materials is totally controlled by the teacher. The resources have to be available when students need to use them. This access applies to technology devices as well as to the supplies needed to create original products, such as paper, manipulatives, art supplies, and scientific equipment. Of course, this access should be negotiated by the teacher and students as part of the process of developing a learning community. It can be helpful to have specific times when students are encouraged to explore their own creative pursuits. This movement is often referred to as Genius Hour. One goal for this time is to provide students with an opportunity to explore topics they find interesting and to be self-directed in that exploration. Ideally, this active exploration can eventually to extend into all aspects of the curriculum and the learning environment.

Provide Adequate Time – Time is a necessary aspect of the creative process in personalized learning. Beginning with the initial stages of a project, students need time to brainstorm in order to generate new ideas and to develop a process for creating their products. Then students need the time to work collaboratively on those innovations. Students may need feedback at this point about next steps including alternative strategies and solutions. Teachers can offer this feedback without determining the exact steps students should follow by asking guiding questions that expose students to new possibilities. After students create their products, they also need time to reflect and to make any necessary changes to the process or product. Finally, students need a way to share their work with others by publishing or displaying what they have created. All of the above stages, help to personalize learning as students determine their own effective strategies. This process assists them as they approach new learning tasks involving creativity.

It can be challenging for teachers to provide the necessary time, access, and resources for creativity to flourish in their classrooms. They will need to determine how to integrate academic content and learning standards in order facilitate creative learning opportunities. Another way that teachers can nurture creativity is by being a good role model for their students. When teachers are enthusiastic innovators and inventors, they are showing their students that they value creativity. This modeling reveals the personal side of the teacher and helps in turn to personalize learning for students.

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Choice for Personalized Learning


This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Choice helps students to feel more personally connected to their learning. Making meaningful choices engages students in determining the processes and products involved in their learning. Facilitating student choice involves more than providing options for learning that are predetermined by the teacher that marginally differentiate the learning experience. In personalized learning, the choices are intrinsically significant for each student and assist learners in understanding unfamiliar content by making the material more attainable and relatable. There are particular interconnected qualities of effective choices that teachers should consider when designing learning opportunities.

Qualities of Choice

Relevant – Relevant choices can engage students in learning by empowering them to show what they know by using their own innate or acquired strengths and abilities. A choice is also relevant when it holds particular meaning for the student. This relevancy may be encompassed by the process, the product, and/or the content involved in the learning task. When choices are relevant to students, they may create products that showcase talents, such as particular skills with art or mathematics, or they may choose to focus on an aspect of the topic that they find especially interesting.

Authentic – When learning activities possess real world significance or meaning, they can provide authentic choices for students. These experiences enable students to select from various possible scenarios that will cause them to use specific skills, strategies, or content knowledge in order to solve real problems. Choices that encourage students to utilize what they have learned to delve into meaningful issues or problems and construct original solutions, can motivate students to persevere when tasks are difficult. Students will care more about a topic when they understand and appreciate its broader importance.

Competency-Based – Choices need to ensure that students will be able to show mastery of learning standards regardless of what task they choose to undertake. By completing a learning task, students should be able to demonstrate that they understand a particular concept or skill. Teachers and students need to design a variety of tasks that encompass the targeted learning standards, so that options are equivalent. After identifying the essential skills embedded within the standard, the teacher and student can collaboratively determine what processes or products could show understanding. Considering the complexity of learning tasks will also help teachers evaluate whether or not choices are comparable.

Student-Driven – Students have to learn how to make their own choices rather than solely relying on their teachers to decide for them. They may not be accustomed to making choices because most of their schooling has forced them to be passive learners. I have heard students ask, “Can you just choose for me?” By asking guiding questions, the teacher can help students learn how to choose learning tasks that they find motivating and yet involve the targeted learning standards. Students need to develop an awareness of their personal areas of strength and how to capitalize on those strengths in order to overcome their weaknesses.

Student-Generated – There needs to be an opportunity for each student to develop a personalized learning path, and it would be impossible for a teacher to be able to be aware of every possible route when designing instruction. Therefore, it is necessary to involve students in the design process for personalized learning. By including an option to Choose Your Own among the list of available choices, students are able to tweak an existing task or to develop an original proposal that encourages innovation and individuality. Ultimately, a goal of personalized learning is for students to learn how to make their own choices for every activity as they are presented with learning standards so that they can design their own tasks to demonstrate their understanding.

It would be difficult for a teacher to design dynamic choices for students in isolation; therefore it may be helpful for teachers to collaborate with their colleagues to develop a variety of learning tasks. If teachers are to address the above qualities of effective choices for personalized learning, they have to have a good understanding of their students. This understanding arises from purposefully nurturing a learning community within the classroom. By regularly conferencing with students, teachers can help them set goals and make choices that are necessary for personalized learning. The teacher also needs to model how to make good choices for students and to share their own personal interests and strengths. Being the lead learner and an engaged participant are roles the teacher must practice in the personalized learning ecosystem.


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Critical Thinking for Personalized Learning

Critical Thinking

This post is part of a series about the Building Blocks for Personalized Learning. The building block of Critical Thinking helps to construct a firm foundation for personalized learning. In many classrooms, teachers don’t provide the time necessary for critical thinking in order to develop original solutions to problems. Many of the problems that are provided to students also have only one possible right or wrong answer and don’t encourage true critical thinking. When students are given the opportunity to utilize all of the resources available within a classroom (including their own ingenuity) to solve problems, they can be challenged to personally connect to their learning and construct new understanding.

Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking

Provide Time for Reflection – After being presented with unfamiliar content and ideas, students need time so that they can accommodate that new information within their previously developed schema of that topic. This process involves making sense of new concepts by constructing or reconstructing personal frameworks of thought. Solely telling students to accept the information and moving on to new content doesn’t enable them to work through this process. Students can reflect in a variety of ways, and an effective practice for reflection is for students to learn what ways best help them to make sense of new information. Some strategies could include drawing an illustration; creating a mind map or graphic to understand how concepts are interrelated; or restating information in your own words and making a recording for playback.

Ask Open-Ended Questions – Essential questions proposed at the beginning of a lesson can set the stage for new learning and helps students focus on the core components of a concept or process. This practice helps students answer why they should be learning this information and explains why they should give it their attention. Personalizing the questions will again help students become more connected to that content, so they should also learn how to ask their own questions about topics. Effective questioning for both teachers and students requires practice. Closed questions have one right or wrong answer, and it is virtually impossible to connect to those questions personally. Open questions provide students with opportunities to answer them in a variety of ways based on personal experiences and understandings. Encourage students to provide evidence to support their thinking as they answer open questions to reinforce the connection between personal experience and new content.

Design Rigorous Assignments – So much time in school is spent doing rote types of assignments and activities that involve answering closed questions – completing worksheets, taking notes, etc. Rigorous assignments are those that stretch student thinking with complexity, intricacy, and divergency. Even when teachers have students complete projects or hands-on activities, many of the steps for completing those assignments are pre-determined by the teacher and often stifle true critical thinking. Having students design their own strategies for showing their thinking adds rigor to an assignment. Exploring and discovering new processes for using tools (such as technology) can also add complexity to learning tasks – and promotes effective digital learning, rather than just digitized learning. This practice is often a struggle for many students, especially because many of them are unused to being asked to really think in school. Initially, teachers may have to model the process of critical thinking for students in order to scaffold steps for completing a rigorous assignment.

Expect Every Child to Contribute – When posing questions to students, teachers sometimes rely on the first few responses from a couple of students and proceed to additional concepts. Struggling or introverted students begin relying on others to answer all of the questions in class while they remain silent. This practice keeps them from thinking critically about the content. Every student needs to grapple with the information and contribute to the collective understanding of each concept. Using a student response system can provide each student with a voice and assist in sharing ideas. Likewise, synchronous and asynchronous participation in discussion forums can also serve to help students process their thinking about what they are learning. Even having students turn to each other and discuss new information or to answer an open question and then share their thinking with the class provides a greater opportunity for participation.

Provide Multiple Ways to Show Understanding – Having every student utilize the same application or complete the same process to show their understanding can limit opportunities for critical thinking. Providing multiple ways to show understanding can enable students to think through the process or the application that better meets their individual needs or capitalizes on their personal strengths or interests. Again, it can be daunting for students to learn all of the possible ways that they could show what they know, but teachers can help facilitate this process by providing choices, modeling thinking, and being open to a variety of learning strategies. Engaging students in the process of developing a rubric for evaluating their thinking and assignments can also support personalized learning.

There are many more strategies for encouraging critical thinking in classrooms, but teachers can begin utilizing the five strategies described above for personalizing the learning experience for students. As with any strategy implemented with fidelity, on-going practice and support will also help both teachers and students develop more expertise in critical thinking.


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Building Blocks for Personalized Learning

Building Blocks of PL

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for eSchool News entitled, “The Advantages of the BYOT Classroom.” At the time, I was the Coordinator of Instructional Technology for Forsyth County Schools in Georgia, and the advantages that I listed were the qualities that I had observed in classrooms that effectively utilized Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) to transform teaching and learning opportunities with students’ personal technology tools.

Now, I’m collaborating with several schools and districts around the country that are beginning to implement Personalized Learning to better connect students with engaging academic content; to facilitate the development of digital age skills; and to utilize technology to provide access to anytime, anywhere learning. These benefits occur as districts, schools, and teachers recognize that students have unique strengths, needs, and interests that must be considered within the design of instruction. The methods for addressing student individuality may differ, but they include the same hallmarks of the BYOT classroom. In the illustration above, I refer to these as building blocks, as they collectively construct a firm foundation for personalized learning.

Within each of the blog posts linked below, I focused on the concepts included within the illustration of the building blocks to highlight why they are essential, foundational components for personalizing learning. I also included strategies or described necessary qualities for encouraging the development of each building block within your own personalized learning implementation plan.

Building Blocks for Personalized Learning Blog Posts


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Digital vs Digitized Learning

Digital vs Digitized Learning

As teachers begin to shift toward greater personalized learning experiences for students, their initial steps build upon what they already know from face-to-face instruction. Districts usually provide teachers with easy to use Learning Management Systems (LMS) that can facilitate new learning opportunities with technology. However, the greatest potential of learning with technology tools is that teachers and students can transform the traditional learning environment, processes, and products. Just providing teachers with an organizational tool, such as an LMS, will not lead to transformative practices. Teachers need on-going support if they are to truly transform their classrooms into ecosystems for digital age learning.

A Model for Redefining Learning

The SAMR Model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura provides a guideline for explaining the digital transformation. The four levels within this model are Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. At the Substitution level, teachers merely replace the traditional methods of instruction with digital tools, so instead of reading a printed textbook, the students are printing out their own pages from an online textbook. Instruction is at the Augmentation level when the use of technology benefits a commonly performed task, such as, having students submit their work within an online dropbox instead of having to turn papers in to their teacher in the classroom. At the Modification level, there is a significant change between what happen’s in the traditional face-to-face classroom and the digital age learning ecosystem. An example of this type of instruction is to design an authentic project and to share it in order to receive immediate feedback from others. Finally, instruction reaches the level of Redefinition when something is created that could not exist without the use of technology tools, resources, and access. Furthermore, the ideas and products are also student-generated.

Digitized Learning

Digitized learning encompasses the first two levels of the SAMR Model – Substitution and Augmentation. Compare the Assignments in the above illustration. The Digitized Learning Assignment has the students reading from an online textbook instead of a printed textbook. Rather than writing answers to the chapter questions on paper, the students are writing answers in a document file on a computer. They are told exactly what to create for their end product – a slide show that lists facts of information. Then they are submitting these products within an online dropbox. There are some benefits to this instruction. Namely, all of the student work can be organized online, and they can access the required information and complete the Assignment asynchronously. However, the level of instruction involved requires no creativity or critical thinking.

Digital Learning

To prepare students for an ever-increasing digital world, they need to engage in robust digital learning experiences. In the Digital Learning Assignment in the above illustration, the students are reviewing a variety of multimedia content so that they can learn from multiple resources and points of view. They are asked to reflect on that information to develop an opinion and to create a product that defends their opinions based on evidence. This requires a high level of critical thinking. They have to share their product for feedback and to incorporate that feedback into a finished, published version of their project – providing them with a more authentic audience for their endeavors. By focusing on this type of assignment, the digital learning is more likely to reach the Modification or the Redefinition levels of instruction.

Next Steps…

Review some of the learning experiences that your are providing for your students that involve technology. Consider what level of the SAMR Model are you addressing with your instructional tasks. One simple way of moving to more truly digital learning experiences, instead of solely digitizing learning, is to provide open-ended assignments that encourage students to make choices. Until they have more practice and experience, students often prefer digitized learning activities because they require less effort, and we have taught them how to succeed by following basic directions. Districts and schools can assist teachers by providing the necessary digital resources, a sustainable digital curriculum, consistent professional learning, and achievable expectations. Likewise, multiple opportunities for on-going feedback, support, and collaboration with a variety of digital tools and content can help your students become effective and creative digital learners.

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The Issue of Equity in Learning Opportunities

A Scenario of Inequity

When discussing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), the issue of equity is always a concern; however, schools have many issues with equity regarding learning opportunities. Teachers within a school may utilize different teaching methods and strategies, so students may utilize different resources for different purposes. Some teachers choose to use project-based learning to engage students with content at school. Other teachers work especially hard to create and nurture a caring learning community, and they understand what motivates and inspires their students to learn regardless of the obstacles in their lives. Schools often have varying availability and access to digital tools and resources. This access might be due to the resources students already have in their lives and that they bring from home, but sometimes it’s due to the ingenuity and vision of the school leadership to pursue every available avenue to ensure student success.

A Shift in Thinking – Sharing Ownership of the Learning

When schools encourage students to bring their own technology tools and devices, they have new ways for connecting with each other, their teachers, and content. Some schools provide students with technology resources within their classroom for collaboration or provide devices with a one-to-one implementation. Regardless of the methods used to ensure students have technology tools, digital resources, and access, students need to share in the ownership of their learning experience within their learning community. This shift often requires that teachers empower students in the learning process. Teachers have to be willing to try new things with technology tools and understand that students may be the best “just in time” experts to explain about a new concept, solve a technical issue, or ask engaging questions. Teachers don’t have to specify how a project should be undertaken and completed. Instead teachers can offer choices and provide guidance for each student to find ways to share his or her own unique voice in order to show what they know.

A Scenario of Inequity

One of the most inequitable learning scenarios occurs when students go to school and discover that they have the teacher that doesn’t choose to use technology; or doesn’t choose to engage in project-based learning; or doesn’t choose to ask engaging questions. Meanwhile, their peers may end up in classrooms with teachers that employ digital learning and personalize the learning process. All students need to develop digital age skills to be successful in an ever-increasing digital world.

Ensuring Equity in Schools

One way of ensuring equity at schools is by guaranteeing that each teacher has access to a sustainable equitable digital curriculum as a foundation for personalized learning. Some teachers will be late adopters of technology, but if they have access to a repository of resources populated with lesson plans and learning activities designed by more capable trailblazers they may be more willing to try new strategies. Consistent modeling, support from school leaders, coaching, and quality professional learning can be the tools that these teachers need for success. By providing teachers with access to sustainable digital resources, in addition to helping them develop personal goals and achievable expectations, schools can become closer to providing an equitable learning experience for students.