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Personalized Learning in the Classroom

Despite your skilled efforts, you fall short of supporting full grade level mastery of standards for many of your students. Not because you aren’t trying hard enough, and certainly not because you don’t care.Most teachers say they personalize instruction for each student. I won’t argue with that. Teachers identify student abilities and learning styles and adapt instructional approaches to support these learners. But this isn’t personalized learning. Rather, this describes how educators adapt the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach to education for diverse groups of students. Educators recognize that our heavenly Father created learners as unique masterpieces, each with differing strengths, weaknesses, interests, and learning preferences. Yet in many schools we have one set curriculum to move through, one schedule students follow, and one method of assessment students must pass to be successful. Different learners achieve different results; we fail to succeed with all our students at the same level.

one confused kidThis traditional education model fails most students. Despite your skilled efforts, you fall short of supporting full grade level mastery of standards for many of your students. Not because you aren’t trying hard enough, and certainly not because you don’t care. The structure of our education model is the culprit, and we will continue to pour energy, time, and money into this with no significant benefit until we acknowledge the real problem.

Let’s illustrate the issues by considering a typical instructional lesson. You plan carefully, gather resources, teach the material, and give students multiple opportunities to practice what you’ve instructed. Perhaps you even intentionally present in varied formats, addressing audio, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles. Regardless of your excellence, the same result occurs. Some students are bored; they knew the material already or picked up the key points within the first few minutes. Others are overwhelmed, since they failed to grasp yesterday’s lesson upon which this one was built. Honestly, they’ve been struggling with content all year; the learning gaps stretch back years. Finally, some students found the lesson just about right, and they found success. They feel good about themselves and about you as their teacher.

No matter how brilliantly you teach, you cannot give the perfect learning experience to each student because the structure of school doesn’t allow it. You are constrained by the time allotted and the content that must be covered. This repeats period after period, day after day, year after year. No matter how brilliantly you teach, you cannot give the perfect learning experience to each student because the structure of school doesn’t allow it. You are constrained by the time allotted and the content that must be covered. You help students master enough to keep moving along. We’ve actually come to see this as normal. Some thrive, some struggle; nothing can be done about that. Struggling students need to work harder, with educators supporting them. As to those bored gifted students, teachers provide enrichment experiences to challenge them further. And we give thanks for those students that are right in the pocket, the ones that seem to be a good fit and enjoy our teaching.

No educator goes into teaching to fail. Skilled educators vary teaching styles, differentiate instruction, and work to reach each student where they are. But the system is against us.

To do better, we must recognize four fallacies that are in the way:

How do you change this, creating a learning environment in your classroom personalized to the learning styles and unique abilities and interests of your students? A full explanation would take far more space than I have, but here are four starting points:

There is so much more to know, but now it’s up to you to set the pace. What are you ready for? I recommend these websites: CompetencyWorks and KnowledgeWorks. And while researching, you may want to watch this great YouTube video: Let’s Teach for Mastery – not Test Scores.

Jim Scriven serves as education executive for the Northwest District-LCMS. His 30 years of Lutheran school ministry include serving in schools in Louisiana, Minnesota, California, and Alaska, first as a teacher, then a principal. Married for 31 years to his wonderful wife and partner in ministry, Judy (also a Lutheran educator, now serving as a childcare director), they have two adult children. Jim resides in Vancouver, Wash., across the river from the district office in Portland, Ore.

Photos © iStock/Dean Mitchell, pixdeluxe, dolgacho.