October 30, 2019

Why I Built My Classroom Around Personalized Learning and How You Can Too

By CJ Ellsworth

The monotony of the traditional learning model was always difficult for me. As a student, I was constantly bored, and this boredom led to misbehavior and disruptions that further distanced me from school and learning. It was not until college that I began to understand how I actually learned—and that learning could be a positive piece of my daily life.

Not surprisingly, as a teacher, I struggled to implement a traditional learning model in my own classroom and sought out every opportunity to break from it. Some of these attempts failed, but more importantly, some were successful and led me down the road of personalized and student-centered learning. I have seen it make the difference for students who did not fit in a traditional learning model—students who, like me, struggled to find their place in education.

5 Strategies for Personalized Learning

When given the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning, I’ve seen so many students thrive and find a place that feels both comfortable and successful to them.

Last year, I applied to be an EdFellow to develop a project that I am excited to share now: “5 Strategies for Personalized Learning” explores what has worked best for me and my colleagues in a school focused on personalized learning. I’ve seen each of these strategies support students to find success in a setting that has too often felt like a failure. When given the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning, I’ve seen so many students thrive and find a place that feels both comfortable and successful to them.

Effectively implementing student-centered learning can be daunting without support, and my hope is that this resource can provide a stepping stone. In addition to the basic how-to, I outline the potential miscues and areas of struggle that teachers and students may face—and what can be done to mitigate them, focusing on five specific strategies:

1. The problem-based approach starts with a problem framed by the teacher to align with specific standards. Students have the autonomy to pursue a problem in any way that they find beneficial. They are allowed to struggle, which will help to increase their cognitive processing skills.

2. The point-based approach is one of my personal favorites; it allows students not only personalize to their class period for a single day but to plan their entire week. Students are presented with a menu of options that includes specific assignments, projects, or deliverables that they can mix and match as they choose.

3. The students-as-teachers approach elevates students’ role by asking them to teach a lesson, pushing them to dig deeper into content, often looking at the theory behind it in order to explain concepts, answer key questions, and address misconceptions.

4. The project-based approach allows students to be creative and work through the entire scope of creating and implementing a project. For example, a student passionate about theater could write a one-act play related to key learning goals, making the work more interesting and aligned to students’ passions.

5. The standards-based approach is popular and a great place to start with self-directed learning:  here, students work at their own pace while demonstrating mastery of the standards, allowing quick acceleration in some cases, and more support where it’s needed.

I hope this guide helps you identify new ways to increase the cognitive lift of the students in your classroom and enrich their experience in education. I also hope that it can spark new conversations between teachers about their classroom practices. To that end, I’m hosting a roundtable on Saturday, November 23rd at Common Roots where I hope you’ll join me to talk more about these strategies, share reflections on opportunities and barriers in each of our classrooms, and learn from each other. Learn more and RSVP here.

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