Kevin Parr

Personalized Learning: A View from the Factory Floor

Personalized learning seems like such a perfect model of teaching and learning. In fact, "student-driven, competency-based learning that can happen any time, anywhere" seems too good to be true. As teachers we read about schools implementing personalized learning and we immediately turn to utopian dreams of working there and teaching that way. Soon after, we realize we don't teach in that school and lament "if only ..." We pinpoint reasons why the personalized learning models portrayed in the articles would be impossible within the confines of our school or district still based on the factory model. In the interest of our students we must move beyond that kind of thinking. Fortunately, we can if we keep our ideals in mind and work with what we have. We simply need to shift the conversation from all the reasons why we can't completely personalize student learning, to how we can make learning more personal.

One way I have begun to make learning more personal for my students is through problem-based learning. While not completely student-driven, problem-based learning puts my students in the center even though I am still orchestrating the sequence of instruction with respect to my school and district guidelines. By planning unit-long "problems," I can introduce the task and student groups can "discover" the steps in the progression of learning (albeit matching a predetermined scope and sequence) they will need to solve the problem. Therefore, with each new skill students master they are one step closer to completing the end task. By having unit-long (instead of, say, week-long) problems the timeline is flexible enough to acknowledge that some students will require more time than others in mastering certain skills. Again, this is not truly personalized learning, it is simply a way I have found to make learning more personal for my students. Even so, I have experienced higher student engagement and have been more able to meet groups of students where they are in their learning paths.

So, yes, even as "factory employees" I believe we really can personalize education. What are you doing to personalize learning in your classroom or school?

Kevin Parr is a 4th grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Wenatchee, Washington. A native of Michigan, Parr earned his undergraduate degree in environmental science from Central Michigan University. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, he realized his passion for teaching and working with children. Parr earned his master's degree in elementary education from Johnson State College in Vermont in 2003. Connect with Parr on the ASCD EDge® social network, by e-mail at, through his blog, or on Twitter @mrkevinparr.

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