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March 1, 2017

A Personalized Approach to Equity


Five elements of personalized learning can lead to more equitable outcomes for all students.

Instructional Strategies
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Are the following initiatives examples of personalized learning? Why or why not?

  • At Revere High School in Massachusetts, the director of humanities surveys students about their interests so faculty can design high-interest English language arts electives. As a result of this year's survey, the school will offer a literature and film class based on The Walking Dead and a course called Black Lit Matters, which will focus on the relationship of black literature to contemporary questions of race in America.

  • In a math classroom at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, Rhode Island, students are provided with tools and taught a range of learning strategies for problem solving. For example, students might use manipulatives to visualize problems or follow a protocol to guide collaborative problem solving. The teacher helps them learn how to assess and make choices in their learning experiences and guides them in setting future goals. Students then apply the strategies and reflection skills repeatedly, while receiving teacher feedback and support.

  • At New Haven Academy in Connecticut, seniors complete a capstone activity called the Social Action Project. This component of the academic program is an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned during their high school careers—and specifically in the school's Facing History and Ourselves courses—to an area of interest in the community. The students take a course called Choosing to Participate in which they design, plan, implement, reflect on, and present their projects.

  • Noble High School in South Berwick, Maine, has incorporated an academic support block into the weekly schedule and has included it as a component of their advisory program. Students meet with their advisor to choose where and how to spend their academic support block for the week. These decisions are based on a review of the student's current work completion, overall grades, and teacher and student input.

Defining Personalized Learning

Each of these examples could be considered personalized learning—it depends on your goals for personalization and the strategies you choose to get there. Some educators employ technology to personalize learning by allowing students to move at their own pace through content. Others define personalized learning by the extent to which students choose and design their own learning experiences or by how well instruction integrates real-world application and project-based learning. In our minds, what matters about personalized learning is where it gets us: The tools and methods we use must help educators better meet the needs of all learners and create more equitable outcomes.

True personalized learning facilitates more equitable outcomes by promoting success for more students. By designing classroom practices that embrace individual differences, personalization can add depth to the learning experiences of all students. Both achievement gaps and opportunity gaps have been documented for students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, and students living in poverty. Any definition of personalized learning that omits an explicit equity focus has the potential to amplify inequities for these students.

Drawing on our experiences coaching schools to use personalized learning to become more equitable, we have found five essential elements that help schools strike the difficult balance between providing flexibility for individuals and ensuring consistent outcomes for all students:

  • Learning focuses on a few common standards that apply to all students.

  • Students have regular opportunities to engage in higher-order thinking and transfer their learning.

  • Feedback and reflection are routinely incorporated into learning experiences.

  • A system of varied supports and extensions exists to help all students succeed.

  • Students have choice in designing the content, pathways, and products of learning.

In our discussion of each element, we point to practices that balance both personalization and equitable outcomes. We end by reviewing how the schools described earlier in this article use personalization to benefit all learners.

Common Standards

When we think about teaching and learning in a standards-based system, we must consider the number of standards and whether the standards are appropriately rigorous. The movement in recent years to create new sets of standards, such as the Common Core State Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, the National Core Arts Standards, and the C3 Framework for Social Studies, has certainly aimed to address the issue of rigorous, shared expectations.

These frameworks haven't, however, adequately addressed concerns about the increasing number of standards. When we have too many standards, it hinders teachers' ability to personalize learning. Educators make different decisions about what and how much to prioritize: Some try to cover all standards for all students, others select the highest-leverage standards (sometimes called "power standards"), and yet others focus on standards they think students are most likely to achieve. Expectations for student learning vary from classroom to classroom, resulting in equity gaps.

The solution to identify a small set of essential standards at the school or district level and shared expectations for student performance, both of which support the work of making teaching and learning more systematic and less episodic. Educators can work together to identify state and national standards that target high-priority skills and knowledge that all students should master. With a system in which every lesson, unit, and assessment has a reasonable number of clear outcomes established, standards can promote both equity and personalization.

Higher-Order Thinking and Transfer

If we're aiming for deep learning for all students, it's important to consider how and when we will measure that learning. Information about how quickly students move through content or whether they know it by a specific date might be readily accessible. However, research by Benjamin Bloom shows "that speed does not equal ability, and that there are no universally fast or slow learners" (Rose, 2015). The more salient measurement seems to be whether students have learned something well enough to use it in a new situation. In other words, can they transfer and apply what they have learned?

With a focused set of standards that emphasize higher-order thinking, we can adjust conventional classroom routines to give students repeated experiences that enable them to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. This implies far more than a teacher adjusting her questioning techniques to include higher-order questions. As Wiggins (2010) explains, "Transfer doesn't just happen as a result of a typical regimen of teaching and testing, no matter how rigorous the course of study. Transfer happens only when we aggressively teach and test for understandings that are applied in situations." Focusing on transfer rather than pace requires us to create opportunities for students to spiral back to key skills over time. Not only does this approach provide students with opportunities to apply their learning, but it also acknowledges that students will learn at different rates.

Feedback and Reflection

The most important part of the instructional cycle has proven time and time again to be the formative assessment process that teachers and students use to gauge progress and refine both instruction and learning (Black and Wiliam, 2010). Teachers must provide clear, descriptive feedback for formative assessment to be effective, but students must also have a significant role in the process. By consistently building in routines for students to reflect on their goals, progress, and strategies, teachers are better able to personalize instruction by collaborating with students on their learning. Together, teachers and students can unpack learning standards and expectations, assess exemplars of student work, practice core skills, attempt drafts, and revise work. For their part, students can set goals, self-assess their progress, and provide feedback and encouragement to peers.

For this type of formative assessment to work, teachers often must spend time teaching reflection skills. This can sometimes put teachers in a bind because of the pressure to cover the curriculum quickly. However, if we take the research on metacognition seriously, reflection cannot be treated as an add-on to learning: It is the glue that makes learning stick.

Supports and Extensions

Once we commit to the goal of equity, we should consider what supports will be necessary for a variety of learners to reach common ends, especially because we know they won't all learn at the same rate or in the same way. Historically, schools often saw supports as "extras" and relegated them to before- and after-school programs or required students to miss activities and electives for extra work. In other cases, schools relied on students to request support. In schools that effectively personalize for equity, supports are more varied and more systematically incorporated into common learning time. When students know they will be supported to reach high standards, they are more persistent; this is particularly true for students of color (Ferguson, 2008).

The challenge is to expand our thinking about supports. First, support can be provided both for students who have great facility with a skill or material and for those who find it challenging. Second, support for learning isn't merely extra time with the teacher, more practice problems, or writing another paper. Support can take the form of centers with hands-on ways to learn, opportunities for peer tutoring, extended study of a concept, engaging projects, or a just-in-time review of foundational concepts. Most schools that are successful in addressing inequitable outcomes see supports as a both/and—that is, both in the classroom and through schoolwide structures to support student learning, and both as a way to help students close gaps and as a way to help students extend learning.


Where possible, students should have choice over the content they study, the learning processes they use, and the methods they employ to present their knowledge. To be clear, choice where possible does not mean unlimited choice, and it does not mean zero choice. Unlimited choices are usually not helpful to students and can mask low-quality or low-challenge work under the guise of personalization. At the other extreme, sometimes adults caution against too much choice and end up shutting down options that could easily be available to students.

The key consideration to keep in mind is what standards students will demonstrate mastery of through their choices. If, for example, students need to show their understanding of the Pythagorean theorem, they can choose to demonstrate their knowledge by completing a series of authentic problems or presenting to the class. However, in this case, there cannot be choice about the content. Conversely, if students need to demonstrate their oral communication skills, then they must make a presentation to a group, but what they present on could depend on their interests.

The Elements in Action

Returning to the opening school examples, we see the varied ways that these elements can support personalization for equity.

The example from Revere High School demonstrates that by being responsive to student opinions about topics of interest, teachers can increase engagement and commitment to learning. A school doesn't need to build new courses to be responsive, of course—similar options can be used in required courses when students choose an assignment topic or choose between several texts to read. It's worth underscoring that students must routinely experience choice to learn to use it well. If the only choices students make are about which courses to enroll in, they are unlikely to develop good skills for making harder choices in the future.

Similarly, in the math classroom at Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, consistent routines help students make—and reflect on—choices. The teacher introduces different problem-solving strategies. She repeatedly asks her students to practice them and decide which strategies to use to solve problems. The teacher provides common resources (the strategies), but personalizes the learning experience by helping each student choose tools and transfer those skills in new situations. Students achieve common ends—solving a problem—by taking different paths to the solution. The teacher promotes reflection and metacognition not only about the math problems, but also about the students as math learners.

The Social Action Project at New Haven Academy demonstrates how clear standards revisited over time allow students repeated opportunities to practice and apply their learning. For example, one humanities standard relates to questioning ("developing compelling and supporting questions that reflect enduring issues in history") and another to evidence ("gathering relevant information from multiple sources, representing a wide range of views"). These standards are taught and scaffolded in grades 9–11; students apply those skills in their projects during their senior year.

Even though all students must complete a project to graduate, each student makes specific choices about his or her project. Teachers can adjust assignments and supports for individuals on the basis of need, such as scheduling frequent check-ins for time management or providing feedback on research questions. Because the school requires seniors to plan and execute a long-term project, students and teachers consistently reflect on what's going well and what needs adjustment. The intersection of these elements personalizes each student's learning experience without changing the learning goals and expectations.

At Noble High School, advisors meet with students to review where they should go to get academic support, making this block much more targeted and structured than a traditional study hall. This system gives students the opportunity to reflect and plan independently—with a safety net. In addition, teachers at Noble meet in teams multiple times a week to discuss students' work, examine student data, and plan interventions. This approach ensures that teachers regularly provide support to students in day-to-day lessons and acknowledges that if we truly value the different ways and rates at which students learn, we must follow a more systematic approach.

Toward More Equitable Outcomes

Personalized learning has great potential to help schools better address the needs of a wide range of learners. Whether personalization fulfills this promise depends on whether we are able to be both systematic and flexible.

If we expect all learners to meet a small number of common standards and engage in higher-order thinking and transfer, while also allowing them choice, providing support, and prompting reflection, then we can attain more equitable outcomes. In doing so, we directly confront some of the school practices that have led to an inequitable and depersonalized learning experience for too many students—varied expectations, rigid methods of assessment that focus primarily on lower-order skills, inadequate support, and little to no choice and engagement. The good news is this: It's being done, educators can do more, and with more equitable schools, we can contribute to a more equitable society.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2010). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81–90.

Ferguson, R. F. (2008). Helping students of color meet high standards. In M. Pollack (Ed.), Everyday antiracism: Getting real about race in school (pp. 78–81). New York: The New Press.

Rose, T. (2015). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. New York: HarperOne.

Wiggins, G. (2010, March 27). What is transfer? [blog post]. Retrieved from Big Ideas

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