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What is a personalized learning plan?

Jenny FultonMarch 28, 2019

girl student taking notes at her desk

Diversity and inclusion. Differentiated instruction and the Common Core. Learning differences and standardized tests. We live in a time in which these conflicting ideas coexist within an educational setting. How is that even possible?

The problem

Reconciling diversity with a single definition or measure of achievement is easier said than done. How do you take 30 or more students with different interests, personalities, and learning styles put them in the same classroom with one teacher, and somehow get them to meet the same federally accepted objectives on a standardized test at the same acceptable time? Moreover, how do you simultaneously manage the diverse educational needs of each student?

Moving towards a solution

Interestingly, this is not a new problem. The issue of figuring out how to best meet each individual student’s needs within their learning environment has been around for at least a hundred years.

One of the earliest known plans was implemented in the 1880s by Colorado Superintendent Preston Search, who developed a methodology that allowed students to move through the educational process at their own pace.

As this idea of personalized education progressed through the 20th century, it gave birth to such developments as:

  • John Dewey’s push for centering education around the child rather than the curriculum
  • Sidney Pressey’s invention of the “teaching machine,” the first standardized testing mechanism that began as a way to personalize learning
  • Fred Keller’s Personal System of Instruction (PSI)
  • Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development.”

You can read more about the history of personalized learning here.

The most recent solution

In the current state of education, the emphasis is on the terms “personalized learning” and “personalized learning plans.” Beginning in 2009, organizations such as School of One utilized technology to better enable each student to learn and progress in their own way, at their own pace.

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Photo credit: Tirachard Kumtanom

What is personalized learning?

With all of the talk and ideas floating around, what exactly is personalized learning? Well, that gets a bit tricky. Since the concept in its modern application is still relatively new, its definition has not yet been refined or universally agreed upon.

One definition, according to the 2016 National Technology Education Plan by the U.S. Department of Education, is “instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.”

Broken down, this definition essentially covers five areas of the educational process that are all centered around the student’s needs and interests:

  • Objectives (what the student is expected to learn).
  • Pace (the speed at which the student progresses).
  • Instructional Approach (how the student is taught).
  • Content (what the student is taught).
  • Learning Activities (how the student practices the skills).

Personalized learning is currently being applied in educational settings through such means as personalized curriculum and blended learning strategies. In addition to these approaches, this idea is also being realized through the use of personalized learning plans.

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Photo credit: Snapwire

What is a PLP (personalized learning plan)?

According to an issue brief by the U.S. Department of Education, a personalized learning plan (PLP) is “a formalized process that involves high school students setting learning goals based on personal, academic and career interest with the close support of school personnel or other individuals that can include teachers, school counselors, and parents.”

It helps to understand this concept and definition by breaking it down into the “5 Ws and an H.”

1. Whom is it for?

  • Students in middle school and high school  
  • Parents, teachers, and school counselors whose role is to assist each student in reaching his/her goal.

2. What is it?

  • A formal process
  • It guides students in setting achievable goals
  • Is based on their self-recognized strengths, weaknesses, interests, and career aspirations.
  • Includes a place for students to list their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and career aspirations
  • Includes a place for them to list their short- and long-term academic goals
  • Includes a place for the student and teacher to list the action steps needed to reach those goals.

3. When should you use it?

  • Initiated at the beginning of the year
  • Continues throughout the year with periodic evaluations and check-ins

*Notes: There is always the possibility of adjusting the plan to better fit the needs of the student, so a PLP is by no means set in stone.

4. Where does designated PLP coursework happen?

  • At the student’s school
  • Online
  • At other educational venues, such as colleges that offer dual-enrollment classes

5. Why should you consider using it?

  • Allows students to think through and have a say in their educational process
  • Motivates students to take responsibility for their learning
  • Motivates students to invest their time and energy in the process
  • Removes the burden of having one definition of success for all students
  • Bases success upon the individually met goals of each student.

6. How do you create one (and use it)?

You can use a template to create personalized learning plans; you can find three examples of learning plans here.

Awareness is the most important skill you need in order to utilize PLPs in the classroom setting. As the teacher, you should fully understand the strengths, needs, and goals of your students.  This awareness enables you to better monitor and adapt whole-class instruction time to ensure that everyone’s goals are being met.

Specialized computer programs can assist you in meeting the needs and levels of each student by taking them through adequately paced lessons.

You can use Classcraft’s personalized learning (Quests) feature to blend your existing lesson plans with fun choose-your-own-adventures. You’ll save time and support the unique needs of every student.

The future of personalized education

Given the history of personalized learning strategies and the amount of funding being poured into their development (with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg being among the more prominent names to invest in this model of instruction), it doesn’t look as though this idea is going to disappear any time soon. And although PLPs are bound to have their own kinks to be worked out, they also have great potential to replace our heavy reliance on standardized testing as a measure of student success. But of course, we still have a long ways to go before then.

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