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9 Barriers to Personalized Learning And How We May Work Around Them

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I didn’t know I was doing personalized learning when I first changed the way I taught.  It wasn’t until I wrote about it in a blog post and someone gave me the name and description that it clicked.  It made sense really; I wanted students to have a voice, have choice, and to be re-ignited passionate learners within my classroom, all tenets of the personalized learning philosophy.  For me it was a no brainer; why not teach in a such a way that students would want to be part of the learning?  Why not teach in such a way that students became experts and have a place alongside the teacher?  Yet, wherever I go resistance remains for personalized learning.  In fact, some educators or districts are quite against it, but for many different reasons.  I cannot be alone in seeing this resistance, so I thought a discussion of what those barriers may be and how you can approach a discussion to work around them would be in order.

Barrier:  It’s one more thing to do.  We are faced with seemingly more tasks every single year as teachers, from major ones  forced upon us to the little ones we cannot wait to do because we were inspired.   When will we ever find the time to do personalized learning as well?

Discussion Point:  Personalized Learning should not be an add-on but a replacement.  So if you are already doing something, change it with a lens of personalized learning.  Can you add choice into a pre-existing project?   Can students show mastery in a multitude of ways?  Embrace personalized learning as a way to become a better educator by sharing more control with the students, keep it manageable for you and integrate in a natural way to alleviate the feeling of one more thing being added to the to-do list.

Barrier:  It is overwhelming.  It is easy to see why personalized learning can be viewed as overwhelming.  Often those who discuss its merits have been doing it for years and has framed their whole classroom around it.  Their personalized learning initiatives is a long list of to-done’s.

Discussion Point:  One small step at a time.   When discussing personalized learning focus on how to start, what to do in the beginning, and the small changes that can make a big difference.  Certainly keep the end-point in mind, but don’t worry about it yet.  Worry about where you are right now and how you will start your journey, not when you are going to get to the end.

Barrier:  It will be chaotic.  We often envision chaos when we stop doing a one path to the learning  format for students and that when students are given choice they will not know what to do.

Discussion Point:  Personalized learning does not mean giving up control, but rather that control is shared with the students.  It also means multiple paths to mastery, but these are planned out either by yourself or in conjunction with your students.  Yet, you know yourself best; what can you give up control of and what can you not.  You are also a member of this learning community so if there are certain things that need to stay in order, such as an assignment being done a certain way, or students sitting in a particular way, it is okay to hold onto that.  Find the things that you can let go of, invite student input into the process, and grow together.

Barrier:  My subject matter won’t work.  Personalized learning means hands-on and project based; how do you do  that in English, Spanish or any other class?

Discussion Point:  Personalized learning can be implemented into any classroom, the lens just has to switch.  I had a lot easier time giving choice in social studies and science because a lot of our learning was hands-on, project based.  So when I switched to just teaching English, I had to change my way of thinking.  Personalized Learning in my English class means students have choice in how they show mastery (different project choices), when they show mastery (timeline), and often how they work within the classroom (classroom setup/management).

Barrier:  It will be replaced with another idea soon.  Education is a long list of new ideas and change is the one constant we have.

Discussion Point:  Personalized Learning really just means great teaching and great teaching will not be replaced with a new idea.  So while new initiatives are bound to come, the ideas of personalized learning helping you be a better teacher remain because it speaks to student autonomy and re-igniting a passion for learning.

Barrier:  I don’t want to  integrate more technology or don’t have access.  Technology inequity is a real problem.  So is technology fear.   Some teachers want to feel comfortable with the technology they bring in before students use it, and others will never be able to get the things they wish they could.

Discussion Point: Personalized learning is not about the technology.  Personalized learning is about creating an education process that takes into account the needs and desires of each child, while still working through the set curriculum.  Technology is a tool that can be used in this process but not a central tenet.  I started out with 4 computers in my room for 26 students.  We naturally did not incorporate a lot of technology and we didn’t need to.  Choices involved the things we did have and students bringing in things from home if they wanted to.  We made it work with what we had.

Barrier:  I won’t be a good teacher.  It is hard to change the way we teach because we may already be teaching really well.

Discussion Point:  Change is hard for all of us, but modeling risks for students is instrumental in their learning journey.  I am uncomfortable every time I make a big decision about the way I teach or something we will do, but I think the discomfort makes me a more thoughtful practitioner.  By sharing and modeling this for students, I am showing them that I take risks and that sometimes those risks pay off and other times they don’t.  We have to grow to evolve and sometimes that means even leaving behind things that were just fine.  Besides, our students change every year, so should we.

Barrier:  I have to do the same as all the other teachers in my subject or grade level.  We don’t want students to be a part of an educational lottery where the quality of their education hinges on which teacher they get, so sometimes uniformity and in turn, conformity, is preached above all else.

Discussion Point:  Have what other teachers do as one of the choices for students.  This brilliant idea was shared at the task force meeting I was a part of in my district.  Instead of dismissing what other teachers are doing, simply make it on e of the paths that students can take.  That way you are also catering to the myriad of ways that students learn.  You may learn best in a hands-on project based environment, whereas others may learn best with a read/reflect/discuss with a test at the end pathway.  make room for all of your learners and include the ways of other teachers in your room.

Barrier:  Parents/administrators/community will be upset.  When we are faced with unknowns our first instinct may be to revolt.

Discussion Point:  School should look different than when we were students.  Yet communication, understanding and examples are vital when integrating more personalized learning into your classroom our school.  Any change is hard for parents who want to try to help their children, so make sure you are communicating the why and the how behind your changes whatever they may be.  If administration is wary bring them in to see the change, show them other classrooms, and explain your motivation.  Tell them you will do a trial period and you can discuss and evaluate.  Just like you are asking others to be open to change, be open to frank discussion yourself.

Moving toward personalized learning has been one of the most significant changes I ever did in my educational journey, but it wasn’t always smooth.  I have faced many of these barrier myself but now love being in a district that has it as part of its vision.  Wherever you are in your journey, or even if you haven’t started, don’t be discouraged by the barriers that may face you.  Reach out, connect with others who are on the same journey, and find the support you need to be successful.  I am here to help if you need it.

If you want to see 6 things you can change to start your personalized learning journey, read this.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

10 thoughts on “9 Barriers to Personalized Learning And How We May Work Around Them”

  1. Hi Pernille, I enjoyed reading your piece. For me the best moments as a student were when I saw teachers trying to do something they were uncomfortable with. I particularly remember one teacher who decided to lead my class to complete an IT qualification.

    Early on it became clear that her knowledge and comfort with IT was significantly less than ours. Brilliantly, she stopped doing the ‘stand up and talk’ lessons -they really weren’t working- and made herself useful to us by doing everything she could to facilitate our completion of this qualification by; understanding marking guidelines, finding and providing good resources, keeping us right in terms of timings and organizing conference/industry visits. All the while we got on with our projects and our own learning.

    This is just a small example of one of the very few moments I saw any teacher stretch their comfort zone in front of us students. My class supported and helped her because she wasn’t trying to know everything but instead searched for her own way of helping us in our goal of getting the qualification.

    By her shear bravery she’s been an example to me for many years after that class. She did what most don’t; she tried something new and scary and faced the challenge of adapting on the fly to make it work.

    If you are a teacher in two minds about trying something in your classroom, please try! It doesn’t matter if what you do works or not… it’s you being genuine that students see and admire. You’ll get support from them.

    1. That’s a great teacher, She showed the following–1. It’s ok to fail—don’t give up! 2. Teamwork will get things done. 3. She made great emotional connections with your class by making herself vulnerable, and all of you took her under your wings and shared knowledge.

  2. I especially appreciate the section about modeling risks for your students. Trying something new and acknowledging that it may or may not work out is essential to any pursuit in life. This does not synch well, however, with the inflexible model of leadership that many of our school are operating under. We can’t expect students to take risks when we are unwilling to do so.

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