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Teachers Aid

How to address the challenges of personalized learning implementations.
By Andy Jacks and Hamish Brewer
Principal, September 2019. Volume 99, Number 1.

There are pitfalls to personalized learning that can derail its successful implementation. Teachers and administrators may not understand what the approach should look like, and their visions for success might not be aligned. While adjusted to each individual student, instruction must continue to be standards-based and align with state and district learning goals.

Teachers must have strong classroom management skills and not get overwhelmed by the variety of activities needed. Teachers must also use informal assessments to learn about their students’ strengths, needs, and preferences. Teachers—and especially new teachers—can find these tasks difficult.

Another challenge is that schools often focus more on the purchasing and implementation of new devices than on instructional goals and classroom setup. There are a variety of ways educators can incorporate personalized learning into their instructional practices by designing meaningful, authentic activities that give students a reason to be engaged.

This kind of personalization doesn’t have to include technology. Ask students how they want to learn and how they would like to show mastery of what they learned. Help students create clear learning goals based on where they are and where they need and want to be.

When asked, educators offered a variety of viewpoints on what personalized learning means to their instruction. Here are a few of their comments:

On ownership: “Helping students create a learner profile that includes interests, strengths, learning styles, etc. [can] help them take ownership.”
—Jeremy Engebretson, @jengebretson75

On getting students involved: “Find ways to foster student agency. This will empower students to take ownership of their learning and use their voices to advocate for what they need. When students are involved in goal-setting and planning, their education becomes more personalized.”
—Dawn Childress, @dawnchildress

On self-directed assessment: “Now that we have studied [a topic], how would you like to show me that you understand? Here are a couple of choices, or maybe you have your own idea.”
—Rebecca Lugo, @rlugo0320

On establishing goals: “Learning contracts, individual goal-setting with learning plans, small-group instruction, passion projects/Genius Hour, service learning to solve authentic problems.”
—Jenn Simeone Daddio, @daddione

On attaining goals: “Let students talk with you and learn to own their goals. This can include data tracking and student-led conferences, but it is more—it is having personal goals to attain and to celebrate with each learner. I have never seen anything that matters more.”
—Wanda Shelton, @sheltonwc74

When in doubt, keep it simple. Donna Stofko, elementary math coordinator at Prince William County (Virginia) Schools, uses an old-fashioned file box with an expandable folder for each student and a folder for each subject. That’s where she keeps anecdotal notes, differentiation tasks, and work samples. “It’s always better when teachers do this rather than [use] a computer,” she says.

Andy Jacks and Hamish Brewer are principals in Prince William County, Virginia, and fellows of NAESP’s Center for Innovative Leadership.

Do you have personalized learning strategies you want to share with your colleagues? Submit your ideas on NAESP’s Center for Innovative Leadership web page, and we might feature you in an upcoming video podcast interview. Visit


Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, view NAESP's reprint policy.

BrewerJacks_SO19.pdf950.46 KB