PersonalizED :: A Guide to Personalizing Learning in the Classroom

By Dr. Mary Ellen Beaty O’Ferrall, Sara Henschell, Margaret Roth

Personalized learning is an instructional philosophy intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, and cultural backgrounds of individual students to create an environment and experience that best facilitates their learning (Glossary of Ed Reform, 2014). Personalized learning can be implemented with many techniques, through a combination of different methods, and successfully achieved through a variety of approaches. It can be implemented in ways that are fundamentally disruptive to the traditional classroom model, in ways that are within the traditional classroom model, with the use of technology, and without the use of  technology. This paper will outline a philosophy and method for designing personalized learning in the classroom that when realized will result in the creation of a personalized learning ecosystem.  


The aim of this paper is to provide educators teaching students of any grade level, content area, ability level, or school format, with an immediate access point, resource guide, and evidence necessary to initiate the transition to personalizing their classroom environments and experiences.

As former and current high-needs classroom educators and teacher educators, we have sought ways of using the structure of education as a means of getting past the pain points of skill level disparities, disengagement, poor attendance and low family involvement. We have implemented radical changes successfully in our classroom practices, but understand the limitations of classroom teachers working inside larger systems. Our framework is designed as a way to start sustainable change that coexists with current content and standards. 


The concept of personalized education is not new; but although a century has passed since it was conceived, it remains revolutionary. Helen Parkhurst first developed her educational theory in 1914. “[Parkhurst] conceives of schools as sociological laboratories where community life and community situations prevail. The children are the experimenters. The instructors are observers, who stand ready to serve the community as their special talents are needed (Dewey, 1914).” Forms in which this concept has manifested include: open classrooms, differentiation, special education, blended learning, gifted education, student-centered learning, bring-your-own-device, flipped classrooms. The iterative process through which student-centered education has evolved forms the basis that allows modern education to begin the creation of genuine personalized learning ecosystems. 

A recent equity study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence investigated the role that in-person human support took on in blended learning environments. Analyzing patterns of interaction throughout the study revealed “seven varieties of in-person human support that were frequent and notable (Pollock et al., 2014)” 

  • Humans as fixers and explainers of technology
  • Humans as digesters of content
  • Humans as explainers of content
  • Humans as extenders of content, towards application
  • Humans as providers of feedback and assessment 
  • Humans as regulators of behavior 
  • Humans as peer supporters

A core value of personalized learning is prizing the human interactions the learner experiences both inside and outside of the classroom environment in a way that facilitates and inspires higher level thinking and deeper understanding. By valuing connections between humans over quantitative measures, personalized learning builds the capacity for critical thought and agency in students, and redefines the role of the teacher as an active learner alongside them.


Typical classrooms are built to enforce the concept of the teacher as sole arbiter of knowledge - chairs in rows, desk at front, the eyes of the inhabitants of the chairs forward - the perfect format for traditional “education,” but perhaps not for meaningful learning. 

This format puts a premium on formal learning; however only 20% of learning is done formally; the rest is done informally through personal experience and exploration (Chatti et al., 2010). If we are keeping that personal experience out of the classroom, we are limiting the expanse of what can be taught and what can be learned.

This format of education has led  to a culture plagued by teachers as answer machines and checklists, as opposed to thought provokers, learning facilitators, and advocates for independent thought. It has stifled student self-reliance, capacity for critical thought, curiosity, and creativity, and ultimately has degraded the humanity of our students and our teachers.  


Personalization of learning is dependent on the creation of a student centric ecosystem within the classroom. This is established through equitable communication, increased flexibility and accessibility, positive integration of tools, and focus on the humanity of students and teachers of the community. The suggested framework minimally relies on institutional hardware or technology, but rather focuses on the use of tools that are native to students and their environment and that encourages student to teacher, teacher to student, and student to student communication.

We are not abandoning the response to intervention model, as most classroom teachers can’t realistically get away from this model as they are held accountable to the standards and systems their wider communities have put in place. Nor are we stating that all standards should be thrown away. Rather we are insisting that the scope of these standards can be expanded to include how students really learn, in and out of class, through the personalization of learning.

The creation of a personalized learning ecosystem in the classroom is dependent on the implementation of systems that remove teacher-centric structures and transfer ownership to students thus increasing the capacities for agency, responsibility, control, and empowerment, and fundamentally change the experience of learning for the student as “no matter how solid and thought provoking the curriculum may be, when the voice of the student is deemphasized or forgotten, learning suffers (Powell, 2014).

There is no one-sized-fits-all model for this and it depends more on state-of-mind and intention to be successful. A teacher must want to teach to the specific needs and desires of the students in their classroom, and the students must be sufficiently supported and empowered to want to learn in this ecosystem.

In order to do this, we have constructed a basic framework for implementing personalized  learning that focus on five elements of framework design to effect change.


The elements of classroom practice that must be changed to create a personalized learning ecosystem in any classroom model or learning environment are: 

  • Roles of People in the Classroom 
  • Communication
  • Content Decentralization
  • Feedback 
  • Data and Evaluation


The roles of people in the classroom must be designed through attention to both physical structure and emotional structure. Deliberate thought needs to be put into the construction of space and purpose in space in order to effectively create an environment for personalized learning (Reich 2014). Changes can be made to each of these aspects through decentralization. 

Roles can be changed physically by simple alterations in classroom setup. The classroom should not have a single fixed focal point but rather spaces for different learning objectives including spaces for collaboration, spaces for focus, and spaces for thought and process. Elements of distraction and unnecessary visuals should be removed. Elements that enhance focus and encourage creativity should be included. The environment must be flexible for reconfiguration. Organization must be maintained in the space at all times. 

Focus on alterations that flatten classroom structure will enhance the positive emotional experiences of teachers and students. All members of the classroom ecosystem must be able to access knowledge, learn from each other, teach each other, feel valued as learners, take responsibility for their learning, and hold value in the knowledge they are gaining and the experiences they are sharing with others.  

Questions to consider when designing the roles of people in the classroom to personalize learning include: 

What are the role of all members in a classroom? 

How is the space being deliberately designed to support the roles of people in the room? 

How can the classroom focus more on students and student choice?

How are you going to facilitate different types of learning happening at one time in the same room? 

Where is the teacher’s desk? 

Where are the students’ focal points directed? 

There are many factors that affect how the relationships and roles of the people in the room are going to work and it is essential that they are each evaluated for their physical and emotional impacts on learning.


Communication must have aspects that are quantitative, such as shared data and standards, and qualitative, such as explanation of why tasks are important, what will be gained from lessons, and an understanding for the expectations of product outcomes. 

Modern methods of communication must be employed to ensure clear expectations of students, communication with families, and in peer groups within the in the learning ecosystem. Tools such as mobile applications make regular communication to parents and students viable on a mass scale. 

Classroom communities will have to place a premium on students and teachers asking questions and finding answers. Modeling is key. Some students will need direct instruction on how to ask questions and additional frameworks set up to help foster their student to student interactions. 

With reflection on the process, teachers can design changes that will result in greater accountability through increased knowledge. Examples of changes that can be made are as easy as putting lesson plans online or making a student calendar that lists what reading, assignments, and concepts are covered in a unit. 

Questions to consider when designing communication to personalize learning in the classroom include :: 

How are you managing communication in your classroom?

How often are you communicating?  

How is it effective ?

How can you make is more effective? 

What tools are you going to use to simplify this routine and create process?

The more simple, accessible, convenient, frequent, and consistent the communication process is between all members of the learning ecosystem is, the greater success personalized learning can have.


Adding supports and extension to classroom content are the keys to making sure that students have the information that is relevant to their needs as learners. The process of decentralizing content will require the teacher to gradually release power until the teacher is more of a coach, providing feedback and pushback, getting students to improve the quality and depth of thought, writing, and conversation over time (Pollock, et al., 2014). 

By decentralizing content, students can help themselves informally to experience information and further their learning. Additionally, this provides the teacher with seamless opportunities to address skill deficits and provide extension for students who require more information for deeper investigation of content. 

This can come in the form of office hours, structured student study groups, cloud based content resources, and student and teacher curated wikis. Selecting several ways of decentralizing content is the best way of providing for the varying needs of different learners.

Questions to consider when decentralizing content to personalize learning in the classroom include :: 

Where does the content live? 

Who has access to it? 

When do they have access to it? 

How is the content scaffolded to meet student needs?

What tools are you using to share and curate content? 

The decentralization of content should provide all members of the personalized learning ecosystem, teachers and students, with opportunities for personal exploration, engagement in peer to peer interaction, with any necessary direct instruction being prepared and delivered by varying members of the community.


The key to effectively creating a personalized learning ecosystem is providing students with regular, varied and meaningful feedback that promotes and pushes student growth. Feedback must come from all members of the classroom community and be facilitated between all members of the classroom community - student to student, student to teacher, and teacher to student. 

The process becomes natural once all members of the classroom community have learned to give and receive feedback. This capacity can be built through students giving feedback in peer groups and through self reflection. Students can learn how to use feedback to create positive growth in their work.

Questions to consider when designing feedback methods to personalize learning in the classroom include :: 

How are you providing feedback?

How often are students getting feedback? 

Who is providing it? 

What tools are you using to manage feedback? 

Feedback must be meaningful in that it can be acted on, reflected on, and achievable, and it must hold value within the community.


The last key element to effective implementation of personalized learning in the classroom is the ability to collect and show documentation of the process of learning through the shared collection of data and evaluation.

It is key to capture the process from start to finish, saving drafts, comments, conversations, and revisions in a place that is accessible by student, teacher, family and school leadership. 

This can be accomplished through the collection of artifacts of effective student feedback, reflection and communication, and other elements of qualitative data and quantitative data including student project portfolios, electronic folders taking screenshots of student interactions on message boards. Students must be included in this process and understand the value of documenting their learning over time. By involving students in the collection of data and the process of evaluating that data over time, ownership, agency, and self-worth of students is increased.

Quantitative data is a part of most standard classroom curriculums, and is still relevant to personalized learning environments. Students should have access to these measures, be included in the design of evaluation metrics and assignments, and in the evaluation process.

Questions to consider when designing data and evaluation methods to personalize learning in the classroom include :: 

What qualitative measure are you tracking?  

What quantitative measures are you tracking?

Who has access to the data? 

What tools are you using to track, communicate and collect data? 

Who is involved in the creation of evaluation methods?

Ultimately, students deserve access to their own data. If it is to mean anything at all, they need to understand where they are at and where they need to be, which will enable teachers as facilitators to empower them to take responsibility for their own learning and continue to strengthen the the personalized learning ecosystem.


When framing the way in which teaching and learning will and can occur, we must remember at the very root what it is that we are trying to do. 

“Teach means ‘to show how.’ You can teach someone, or someone can teach you. Learn means ‘to find out about something.’ A person must learn things for himself. Someone else may teach him, but he must do the learning for himself (Stoddard, 1952).” 

At the end of this current school year, a student who participated in this framework wrote a  letter reflection on the experience.  

He said, “I didn’t know that I was allowed to have opinions and thoughts about so many things. I have all these ideas that go through my head and now I know I can think about them and do something  about them for myself.”


Mary Ellen Beaty-O’Ferrall, Ph.D, is an associate clinical professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Her teaching and research focuses on literacy, urban school partnerships, and service learning.

Sara Henschell is an urban educator in Baltimore City focused on school reform. The current theory focus she is exploring is individualized education and the tech tools that can help effectively facilitate it. Currently, she teaches Journalism, Advanced Placement Literature and a project-based English remediation course and is dual-certified in the state of Maryland to teach Secondary English and Special Education.

Margaret Roth is the COO and of An Estuary. She is the former Director of Operations for  the Johns Hopkins University Office of Experiential Education. Additionally, Margaret is the Co-founder of EdTechWomen, organizer of Edcamp Baltimore, and member of the Edcamp Foundation Partners Program Committee.



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