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March 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 6

Five Dispositions for Personalization

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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: © 2010 Susie Fitzhugh
I really think I could do a better job showing you what I know with three video shorts than with two quizzes and a video project," insisted Leon. He wasn't the first student in my video production class to argue for adjusting how his grade was calculated, but he was pretty insistent about connecting his request to the real issue: demonstrating his learning.
After my conversations with Leon and a handful of other students, I hit on the idea of starting the next semester's video production class by having the class identify different ways they could demonstrate course knowledge and skills. We then negotiated together what would be required and what would be optional. For example, every student had to complete a final 5- to 10-minute video production that included a minimum of specific shots and techniques and was accompanied by a storyboard and self-assessment. Beyond that requirement, each student negotiated an individual agreement with me, detailing the mix of assignments through which he or she would be assessed and receive credit for the course.
Although it wasn't my first foray into "personalizing learning" for students, that 1994 video class was transformative for me. The students not only changed what I took into consideration when planning instruction for the course, but they also changed how I perceived my role in designing learning. Throughout my many semesters and years of teaching since then, students have been my partners in learning. They've shaped my understanding and practice as much as I hope I have shaped theirs.

The Emerging Shape of Personalized Learning

In the September 1999 issue of Educational Leadership, echoing Theodore Sizer and Nancy Sizer, editor Marge Scherer introduced the issue's personalized learning theme by stating that "creating schools and classrooms where adults know students well seems essential."
During the nearly 20 years since that statement appeared, much of the talk about personalizing learning in public education has focused on the role of technology. Look no further than the federal government's 2010 Race to the Top initiative, with its focus on funding "personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student" (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.). Recent efforts by Silicon Valley-based philanthropies have further reinforced this view of technology as the means to personalization.
Although technological developments in the last two decades have certainly shaped the potential of personalization across society, clarifying and expanding the purposes—and the practices—of personalized learning has been a slowly emerging process. But significant developments suggest a promising trend.
For example, in 2013, iNACOL, an international organization advancing competency-based blended and online learning, published this crowd-sourced definition of personalization: "Tailoring learning for each student's strengths, needs, and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when, and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible" (Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013, p. 4). This definition highlights the growing demands for adapting learning to learners rather than the other way around. And in 2013, Vermont enacted Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative, which requires school districts to "work with every student in grades 7–12 in an ongoing personalized learning planning process." Vague as this mandate is, it effectively made Vermont the first state to legislate personalization in secondary schools.
One of the most succinct positions on personalized learning, and one that circles back to the Sizers' call to "know students well," comes from Education Reimagined, an initiative focused on learner-centered education. The group's internal Practitioner's Lexicon (2016) states that "by personalized, we mean that the learning experience is made responsive to the learner's individual needs and strengths." This sentence cuts to the heart of the issue, precisely identifying the two most important elements in the practice of personalization: the learner and the learning experience.

Designing to the Edges

The idea that adults need to know students well to support learning effectively has been a central tenet of countless movements and reform efforts in education over the centuries. Socrates advocated for it, as did Confucius, Dewey, and even Robin Williams's character in the movie Dead Poets Society. Throughout the history of education, our best teachers have intuitively understood that the better we know our students, the better we can match our instruction to their learning needs. Knowing we're acting on ancient professional wisdom can help us push back against claims that we can "teach to the middle" or use "one-size-fits-all" approaches we know don't work.
What then does personalization require of teachers, particularly those of us who resist the empty-vessel myth? If every student is responding to learning opportunities differently and needs to have a personalized learning plan to optimize his or her development, does it necessarily follow that we must create individual lesson plans for each student?
Thankfully, no. Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, uses an apt analogy in his 2013 TedX talk, "The Myth of Average." He cites the U.S. Air Force's realization that their planes' standardized designs included cockpits that, despite decades of usage, didn't fit anyone perfectly. The Air Force sent its suppliers back to the drawing board, with the charge to "design to the edges." One result was the adjustable seats we take for granted in our cars today.
As with adjustable seats, personalization requires giving learners the tools, coupled with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions, to manage themselves and their learning environments. The agreements I negotiated with my video students, which drew from a menu of choices for demonstrating learning, were an example of designing to the edges. Over the years, my students have helped me learn that personalization is ultimately about designing stepping stones that build students' confidence and competence, enabling them to gradually assume responsibility for their own adjustments.
Designing learning experiences that are responsive to learners' needs requires not just knowing learners well, but also being willing to learn from them. Research is clear that motivation and engagement in learning correlate to choice, control, challenge, and collaborative opportunities (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012). This is good news; although it's our responsibility as teachers to cultivate conditions that make personalization possible, personalization itself is something we do with our learners.

Five Dispositions

Building shared responsibility for learning experiences requires both teachers and students to develop the following five dispositions.

1. Curiosity About Students' Learning

In the busyness of classrooms, it's only natural that we direct most of our attention to what we are looking to find, such as evidence that students know a particular fact or can use a particular skill. Curiosity takes root when, in the course of not finding what they're looking for in students' work, teachers pay attention to what they are seeing and hearing—and become inquisitive about the differences. When teachers try to understand learners, not just their learning, they identify patterns that help uncover a learner's strengths as well as challenges, which helps individualize learning efforts.
Teachers can cultivate curiosity by building a repertoire of open-ended questions that uncover students' thoughts and emotions. Curiosity-provoking questions can be as simple as the perennial "Why?", as direct as "How did you feel?", and as provocative as "What surprised you?" (For more ideas, see "Making Questions Flow" by Rothstein, Santana, and Minigan in the September 2015 issue of Educational Leadership.) Pose these questions so regularly that students start to ask them before you can.

2. Eagerness for Inquiry

Being disposed toward genuine inquiry about learning leads educators to systematically gather data before they hypothesize about patterns in a learner's performance—and the causes of any problems. Good inquiry requires structures for surfacing and testing assumptions so that an inquirer avoids the confirmation bias trap—the tendency to pay attention only to information that confirms what we believe. Inquiry can also counter fundamental attribution error, a tendency, when pinpointing the causes of behavior or problems, to focus on the person involved and their personality more than on factors outside that person's control.
The School Reform Initiative's protocols for looking at student work can be used for cultivating inquiry in classrooms and professional learning communities. Seize opportunities to analyze information about learning with students to help them take ownership of learning. Make thinking routines like Project Zero's "Visible Thinking" part of daily practice. Here's a suggestion: Whenever you hear or think the words always or never, have students help you gather data—tallying observations, administering surveys, and so on—to test the claims these words imply.

3. Willingness to Collaborate

Working as partners in the learning process allows teachers and students to access multiple perspectives, build and test rich repertoires of strategies, and problem solve and celebrate together—all of which build students' capacity to pursue their own learning goals. Most important, collaborating with our learners builds a culture of learning. It builds growth mindsets.
Any good idea will likely become better when done with students, rather than for students. Students can take the lead on all the practices listed in this article, and will often add rich, creative variations. You might develop a set of group agreements for how to work together. Identify and rotate key roles for classroom activities: timekeeper, recorder, process manager, and so on.

4. Good Communication

One of the most effective tools teachers have for building understanding is high-quality communication. By definition, communication requires checks for understanding. You can foster solid communication by using student-friendly language to communicate learning targets; employing exit slips to check on students' understanding and ability to make meaning; and building in reflective practice by asking students to identify their personal learning goals, the progress they're making, and challenges they're encountering. Feedback is one of the most useful strategies at any teacher's disposal, especially two-way feedback.
You can use sticky notes to provide quick personalized feedback. As students work, I circulate around the room, observing and listening, and giving individual students brief notes to reinforce one student's use of strategy or to offer a guiding question to help another student refocus on the learning target. My sticky notes offer gentle guiding nudges without interrupting learners' work flow or group processes. Students frequently save their sticky notes, using them later as artifacts for reflecting on their learning progress.

5. Empathy

Given the diversity of students today, we can't rely on cultural similarities with students to help us imagine ourselves in their shoes. Building empathy across differences requires that we open ourselves to backgrounds and experiences that may be substantially different from our own.
Just as literature can help us vicariously experience lives far removed from our own, so can listening to one another's perspectives and feelings build our capacity to know one another across a diversity of ages, cultures, genders, languages, and the myriad of other differences that can get in the way of true empathy. To nurture students' empathy, try practices like having students write and share interior monologues representing what a particular character in history or literature might have been thinking at a certain time (Bigelow & Christensen, 2001).
Asking questions and listening carefully to students' answers helps me check my assumptions and recalibrate my observations. For instance, Aisha often seemed to be off task in group work, preferring to socialize more than to engage in learning tasks. When we had our scheduled check-in, I asked her what she thought was working well with her group. She replied, "I like that we have the chance to get to know each other and talk about how we get things done. Cyndi showed me an app she uses to track her projects, and I'm doing better at keeping up now." As she described Cyndi's help, I realized that Aisha's "socializing" was an integral part of how she strategized for success.

Putting It All Together

Build a shared classroom culture of personalization by practicing curiosity, inquiry, collaboration, communication, and empathy—together with students. You might launch a project to understand everyone's learning strengths and challenges by using a resource like the Learner Sketch Tool. Have students and teachers share their learning profiles, comparing diverse images of strengths and challenges and finding similarities and distinctions. Talk with students in a spirit of inquiry about what it means to be the same and different. Encourage different perspectives, practice learning together, and celebrate diversity within community.
Ultimately, personalization shifts the teacher's role to one of scaffolding empowerment. As I learned with my video production students, when teachers and students practice these dispositions, they create a positive reinforcement cycle, making personalization a shared responsibility and building a community where everyone's strengths add value.

EL Online

For a discussion of building a better understanding of students' learning needs, see the online article "Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match" by Kathleen McClaskey.


Bigelow, I., & Christensen, L. (2001). Promoting social imagination through interior monologues. The Quarterly, 23(1). Retrieved from

Education Reimagined. (2016). Practitioner's lexicon: What is meant by key terminology [Pamphlet]. Washington, DC: Author.

Patrick, S., Kennedy, K., & Powell, A. (2013, October). Mean what you say: Defining and integrating personalized, blended, and competency education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Retrieved from iNACOL.

Rose, T. (2013). The myth of average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty [TED talk]. Retrieved from

Scherer, M. (1999). Perspectives: The students are watching. Educational Leadership, 57(1), 5.

Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice. Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Race to the Top district competition draft/background. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

End Notes

1 To investigate resources for strengthening collaboration, visit Inside the Collaborative Classroom. For additional resources to help build empathy in your classroom, explore A Toolkit for Promoting Empathy in Schools.

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