Differentiated, Personalized, or Personal?

A few years ago I decided to switch my word choice from differentiated to personalized learning. The switch was made because I found that some teachers were differentiating their lesson plans when they didn’t yet know who their students were. In other words they were planning for a higher group and a lower group or deciding to offer three novels that their students could select from to complete an assignment, having decided on the three before knowing anything about their students’ interest (I continually faced this problem personally when colleges that I taught for wanted a 15 week syllabus of learning activities and assignments before I met my students).

I found the word personalized helped me to communicate a vision of a teacher making instructional decisions much more based on knowing her students. The teacher having done a pre-assessment, designs appropriate learning tasks to maximize student learning gains from effort they invest in a learning task. I was envisioning increased student choice and control as a result of teachers’ investment in personalization. Technology, as I saw it, created more possibilities for extending personalization.

I focused teachers’ and PLCs’ planning on the question:or the largest number of students to spend the maximum amount of time engaged in the most valuable learning tasks for them?

For me, that meant ever increasing empowerment of the student to be deciding not just “how” to learn but also “what” to learn.


A recent reading of Alfie Kohn’s blog,  Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning, has me considering my words again. Kohn suggests:

Personalized Learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores.

 Personal learning entails working with each student to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interest

 Kohn quotes Will Richardson, “Personalized Learning is something that we do to kids: Personal Learning is something they do for themselves.”


I like the language of intellectual tasks that reflect students’ unique needs and interests. Notice how that phrase connects with these interesting examples describing teaching and learning:

George Couros—“So if we want to get to this idea of “empowering” our students, we are not going to have to be the “sage on the stage” or the “guide at the side”, but “architects of meaningful learning opportunities”.  Understanding our students, their interests, abilities, and strengths, will help us better design learning that gets them to, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, a state of “flow“. (The Principal of Change- George Couros

   Alexa Schlechter, a 10th grade  English teacher, had her students  immersed in a teenage story about murder set in the 1990s, detailed in blog posts and communicated in audio: Serial,  the hit podcast from the producers of This American Life. After spending months listening to Serial and talking about it as a class, Schlechter, knowing her students, realized a two-hour sit-down final was pointless, irrelevant and an inaccurate gauge of all the learning that had taken place throughout the year. So Alexa pursued an end-of-year assessment in the form of a podcast (Details here).

Dan Meyer provided another great way to consider the role of a teacher in making learning more personal. He posed this question:

“If [x] is aspirin, then how do I create the headache?” .

Meyer suggested that teachers think of themselves as someone who sells aspirin and realize that the best customer for your aspirin is someone who is in pain. Not a lot of pain. Not a migraine….just a little headache.

So teachers design headaches for students:  “disequilibrium.” “cognitive conflict.”  “intellectual need.”  A student’s headache makes it personal.


Eliza Minnucci, a kindergarten teacher in Quechee,Vermont spends one day a week with her students outside — for the entire school day. It’s called Forest Monday.

There are very few rules in the woods. Take care of yourself, take care of others, don’t wander too far away; that’s pretty much it. The goal is to let kids experience independence and help them learn the self-regulation skills that are so important to becoming a successful adult.

 “It’s 33 degrees out. He’s sitting in water. And he’s going to figure out whether that becomes uncomfortable or not. I don’t need to make a rule for him. He’s going to figure that out. This is a place where he can learn to take care of himself.”

 Minnucci was inspired by the Forrest Kindergarten in Switzerland where the forest is the  classroom. (video )

 As a teacher I want to be pushing for ever increasing personal learning experiences for my students. As school leaders and instructional coaches, we should be asking, “How are we making teacher learning personal?” Are we engaging teachers in intellectual tasks that reflect their unique needs and interest?

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One Response to “ Differentiated, Personalized, or Personal? ”

  1. Antonia Petrone Says:

    Steve your post is great! I appreciated every word.
    I strongly believe the best results are obtained through personal learning.
    Adults learning a second language can also benefit from a personal approach.
    Hands on experience showed me how. But you are never there, you always have something to reach for. Let’s continue to care!
    Love Dan Meyer’s consideration.
    Thanks again for your always value added posts!

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