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Aurora Institute

Education Transformation: From One-Size-Fits-All to Student-Centered Learning – Part One

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick

Issue(s): State Policy, Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Susan Patrick

As I travel throughout the country and the world, I am excited by the work of a few tireless education pioneers and innovators who are shaping future education to transform learning for future generations of students by how well students demonstrate high levels of knowledge and skills through personalized pathways and their ability to show what they know in performance-based assessments.

The three areas that intersect to create the perfect storm for this education transformation are: personalization, blended learning and competency education.

The power of each moves us away from the monolithic, industrialized factory model of schooling and toward a rich, flexible learning environment in which students move through advancing mastery along learning pathways, grounded in curricula redesigned with strong standards and required skills but with the flexibility of personalized experiences and heightened student voices and choices.


Personalization theory pushes educators to think outside the box by emphasizing the need for learners to be involved in designing their own learning processes (Campbell & Robinson, 2007). In a personalized learning environment, learners have agency to set their own goals for learning, create a reflective process during their journey to attain those goals and be flexible enough to take their learning outside the confines of the traditional classroom.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (2006), there are five phases of personalized learning:

  • Assessment: Teacher and students work together in a formative manner to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  • Teaching and learning: Teachers and students select learning strategies.
  • Curriculum choice: Student chooses the curriculum, creating a pathway for student choice.
  • Radical departure from typical education models: Built on student progress, this phase provides teachers the flexibility to choose their own teaching strategies.
  • Education beyond the classroom: Using social and community connections, students personalize their surroundings (with the help of the teacher, when needed) to create their ideal learning environment.

Many educators surveyed for a recent report from the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) shared their understanding of how personalization can transform learning:

  • Personalization is an understanding that tapping into unique interests, individual styles and specific needs can make work and learning meaningful and authentic.
  • Personalization is asking each student, “What is best for you?”
  • Personalization is about relationships, knowing each individual student based on his or her academic and personal interests.
  • Personalization is students accessing a curriculum that meets their individual needs, reflects their zones of proximal development and gives them the opportunity to access resources to progress at their personal rates of learning.
  • Personalization is engaging students with personal learner plans in which contributions from students, parents, support staff and teachers provide a path for ubiquitous learning to address students’ individual needs, interests and learning styles.
  • Personalization is all students learning at their own individual paces using the tools that help them learn and augment their strengths.
  • Personalization is meeting learners where they are, determining where they need to be and finding and scaffolding the right zones of proximal development to get them there.

As can be seen by some of the responses from the field above, differentiation is part of personalizing learning, and it is essential in education.

Many practitioners look to meet each student’s needs via his or her zone of proximal development. Research supporting personalized learning includes Bloom’s classic 2 sigma learning studies, in which students who were tutored at a one-to-one ratio achieved scores two standard deviations above those of students who had learned in a traditional school setting of a 30-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio (Bloom, 1984). The implications of the 2 sigma learning studies push educators to think about the shifting role of the traditional teacher from provider of knowledge to a group of students to tutor of each and every student, offering personalized learning to each learner based on his/her mastery-learning trajectory.

Without personalization, there is a gap between the individual student, his or her learning and the support students need to succeed in a way that makes sense to their interests. Personalization allows students to take ownership of their learning, giving them the opportunity to feel valued, motivated, in control. It also changes the dynamic between the teacher and the student.

What does personalization look like? Personalized learning…

  • Is an education full of variety and choices.
  • Always involves a relationship between the teacher and the student, as well as a strong sense of community within the class as a whole.
  • Is a space where students have access to a wide range of subjects that meet their pathway needs and interests.
  • Is, within each subject, students’ right to access learning experiences that enable them to progress according to their ability levels.
  • Is an opportunity for students to make decisions about the direction of their learning; for example, they can pick the topic they are going to research for an assignment, the book for their book chats and how they want to write the procedures for their lab work.
  • Is a dynamic learning opportunity that provides students with content that addresses their personal learning needs based on their interests, parental input and teacher observation as well as assessment data, which is the most important element.
  • Is students managing their own work calendars and daily schedules to stay on track, so they are free to move through courses at their own paces and have individualized learning paths and intervention plans.
  • Is students using personal learning tools, such as mobile devices, to individualize their learning and improve communication within the school community.
  • Is the school community’s inclusion of multiple layers of support.
  • Is students interacting and collaborating with each other and with the content.
  • Emphasizes teachers interacting with the content, with students and with other teachers.
  • Necessitates social-emotional connections built between students and teachers as the foundation of their work together.
  • Means various starting points within content, varied amounts of guided practice and independent practice as needed.

Personalization is about many ideas. It is about…

  • Discovering students’ prior knowledge of and experience with the content they are about to learn and meeting them where they are.
  • Guiding students to make healthy academic decisions.
  • Developing learning communities that celebrate the individuality and contributions of each student.
  • Consolidating forms of student learning data so that they are useful for planning for personalized instruction.

To personalize learning is to encourage students to develop clear goals and expectations for achievement and to support them to make good decisions in a challenging and rigorous learning environment. It’s a space where teachers are allowed the time they need to work with students; design instruction that is rigorous, flexible and adaptable; and focus on critical thinking and meta-cognitive practices to develop stronger, deeper, independent learning.

Note: This blog originally excerpted from The Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal article, Education Transformation: from one-size-fits-all to Student-Centered Learning, written by Susan Patrick.