William Lester

Different Ways to Personalize Learning

The classical way of teaching is very industrialized. Students file in, receive education in one format, and then leave being considered educated. Educators around the world like Ken Robinson have felt this way for a long time and in the past years we have seen some major changes that have allowed students to learn in different ways and in different formats.

It all started with multiple detailed questions, of which you'll find plenty of examples in this article. Questioning, guiding, and leading students until they found the answers. Then the advancement of lesson plans so that students would be tested to advance their problems solving skills, not just their knowledge. This was followed by the integration of different forms of technology to keep students "plugged in."

With these three phases we took education to the next level and raised our standards of education. However, the problem is that the novelty of technology in the classroom is starting to run out. It was interesting, but for those students who are now used to technology in the classroom it has become repetitive and for those who are not good with technology we are having trouble catching them up or they don’t seem to be engaged in the first place.

So, we thought the problem had been solved, but now there is a new one. How do we go about bridging the gap between these students? How do we help those who are behind, but at the same time challenge those who are ahead?

The great part is that we challenged students to find out who they are and for them to find ways in which learning will be interesting. Maybe that's what we should do. Here is a way in which you can guide your students to find out ways in which they enjoy learning and then to apply it.

What should we ask ourselves before developing a personalized learning program?

To guide students in the different ways in which they learn we have to first be honest with them. How do they enjoy learning? What are some different aspects of learning that they find more enjoyable than others? Do they enjoy more technology or less technology? Powerpoints or worksheets? Group discussions or experimental scenarios? How can students expect us to know how they want to learn unless we ask?

What is the efficient way to take a consensus of the enjoyable ways of learning?

It might be obvious that quickest way is to just ask before the unit starts, but how do we know that they know? Students tend to follow the trends so if you propose the question to the class they may go with their friend's decision, but if you write it out for them they may choose what they are familiar with or what sounds appealing. Not knowing what goes into each strategy, they may not know what exactly goes into each lesson. So, something that I have tried in my economics classroom is to try each strategy during a lesson. Everything from mock scenarios, group discussions, and PowerPoints to creative writing, arts, and worksheets. The key here is that I would allow a few minutes toward the end of class for all of the students to close their eyes to vote anonymously on how well they enjoyed the lesson. As a teacher we have many ways of taking a consensus, but personally I enjoy the thumbs up and down or on a scale of one to ten. I know there are teachers who have a classroom Facebook page so actually having the students "like" the strategy is a very creative idea. We now have a ranking of what strategies work and which students feel that the strategies work for them. For extra credit or another incentive you can always have students write about which their favorite was and why to help with your future was planning.

What do we do once we have a consensus?

This is where most of the teachers work comes in. Do we use only the most voted strategies or do we try to mix all of them into a unit? Personally, I believe that it is a mixture. Here is the thought I have and how I use it to apply the results:

  • Students tend to learn and retain more information when it is presented in an enjoyable way. I choose to teach the same content each day (or multiple days depending on the prep needed for the lesson) starting with the strategy that is liked the least and ending with the strategy that is liked the most.
  • I found that the least liked is PowerPoint and the most liked are mock scenarios and group discussions. So, I start the unit off by giving a PowerPoint presentation briefly describing each topic and idea that we will be covering during the unit. This is usually the hardest day of class from a teaching standpoint, because students tend to not be as engaged (no matter how excited I am).
  • The succeeding days went in order from what the classroom vote was and the lesson plans were adapted so that the students were called to apply what they have learned. Usually, the units lesson plans would go in this order, however some strategies would be used two days in a row due to time available during a unit. PowerPoint, arts, creative writing, worksheets, group discussion and mock scenario. The last days of the unit were usually spent with the mock scenario or reviewing before required tests at the end of each unit.

What is another way to personalize learning?

Another strategy that I have briefly tried is flipping the classroom. This requires students to pick a way in which they want to learn about the topic or subject that they have been assigned. I have seen some success with this strategy when students are given a rubric of what they will be graded on.

When teaching, the best thing we can do is be honest with the students. Students are becoming better at sniffing out the smoke and mirrors of how we hide teachable moments within out lesson plans. So why not be honest with them? Maybe students will respond more when they understand that each student takes in information and learns differently than the other.

Whatever strategy you decide to use and in whatever format you choose to present the information, make sure that you look out for those students who are left out and don't be afraid to take a chance with new strategies. Sometimes the most teachable moments are times when our lesson plans haven't worked. It shows that like the students, we are real people who overcome problems.

William Lester graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in secondary education. Over the years he has taught in the Dominican Republic, Kenya, South Korea, Arizona and throughout Europe. He has taught subjects ranging from English, math, history, economics, magic, and outdoor education. In the coming years Lester plans to teach economics in Turkey while earning a masters degree online in educational leadership and his mountain leadership certifications.


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