Personalized learning. You hear the term more and more these days but have you really wrestled with what it means? After a year of exploration and the last week in a deep dive at a consultancy with Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, CA, I feel ready to share some insights.

Just as a doctor knows the lifestyle and genetics of a patient to provide the best treatment plan, a teacher much know the learning styles, abilities and interests of a student in order to help them develop a personalized learning path. In a personalized learning environment, students help design and direct the learning to achieve mastery of the standards and other outcomes defined by the learning organization.

This model is both loose and tight. Years ago when my husband and I were making decisions about our daughter’s education, we visited a Montessori school and I was struck by the activity all around me. At first glance, it seemed very loose with students doing a variety of activities that interested them. Looking deeper at the curriculum, I realized that the system was very tight. Carefully selected manipulatives and lessons were designed to provide students with voice and choice but were scaffolded to ensure that students were mastering learning objectives. Students used a weekly checklist to decide their path for the week and had frequent check-ins with the teachers to ensure that there were no gaps in their learning. The power of personalized learning appealed to us and we enrolled her in the program. The personalized approach allowed her to follow her passions and influenced the person that she is today. She was able to move around the classroom and school freely, come together with other students for collaborative learning, and pursue her personal interests with monthly projects and extracurricular activities. She was a self-directed learner and mastered the content that she needed to be successful.

Isn’t this what we want for all students? Blending learning with technology tools and resources in addition to project-based learning and face-to-face instruction allows us to provide our students with choice in the resources that they use to achieve mastery in a subject. Personalization doesn’t mean that every teacher is letting students do whatever they want. It means that everyone in the school organization is focusing on the same vision for student outcomes which allows for student choice in the path that they choose to learn content and showcase their learning to others.

You can’t personalize learning in your organization by purchasing a packaged program. Successful implementations including the Summit model include teacher-designed assessments and a mix of teacher-created and curated resources. Developing an effective model means that organizations will need to embrace a new model of how they use time to allow teachers to work on assessments and content. Ideally, content and assessments for the subject are built for the entire year so that students who need more practice can continue to work on a topic while students who’ve mastered content can move ahead or focus on another area of interest. As you begin to explore personalized learning, keep these key points in mind:

  • Students should set goals and help in the process of designing their learning path to achieve mastery of the content
  • Students should have an opportunity to connect the content with their interests and passions
  • Students need to learn how they learn and monitor and reflect on their own progress
  • Learning is blended with some personalization occurring through online learning and some learning occurring through project-based, collaborative learning
  • Formative assessment provides students with feedback about their progress
  • Teachers use data from a variety of assessment tools to monitor student learning and make adjustments as needed
  • Students need adequate time and space to work on their learning path
  • Students should be provided with a mix of tools and resources to best meet their learning needs
  • Be loose in how and when students learn the content but have tight alignment to standards and desired outcomes

Creating a personalized learning environment in your school takes a collective effort with everyone in the school working together to create a successful model. To begin your journey, read Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology by Peggy Grant and Dale Basye. Explore Summit’s model here and by visiting their site.



Learning can happen anywhere, but learning may happen better with the right classroom design. Research on learning shows that creativity and collaboration can be enhanced through the redesign of space. In Make Space: How to  Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft of Stanford University’s apply research-based design principles to show how an ordinary classroom space can be turned into a flexible, creative space. You can hear an interview with the authors on the Harvard Business Review blog.

Over the last year, I’ve learned about the design of learning space by visiting several schools and organizations that have redefined how space is used. At Summit Denali in Sunnyvale, CA, students work in an open space for personalized learning as well as collaborative projects. When you walk into the room, it’s hard to find the teachers because they’re acting as facilitators and aren’t teaching from the front of the room. Students work comfortably in a variety of seating areas and have the freedom to move around as needed. This student-centered, flexible learning environment facilitates collaboration and maximizes the use of space.

Using some of what I learned on site visits, I was able to work with a team this year to create space for our new R2 Innovates innovation incubator. In the tradition of the Stanford, we started with an old portable and transformed it into a space for innovation teams to collaborate and work. We purchased furniture that could easy be moved around to facilitate different types of group work and stocked the cabinets with lots of post-it notes. I worried that we purchased too many rolling whiteboards but realized quickly enough that our teams love to use the boards for brainstorming. The boards also act as movable dividers when several groups are working in the same space. Everyone who uses the space says that it inspires creativity and enables collaboration.


Some of the most exciting R2 Innovates projects that I’ve been involved with this year have involved the creation of space for active learning. Several of our innovation teams focused on redesigning and making new space for learners. The Summit Parkway Middle School Creative Commons team redesigned space in the media center as makerspace. Now that the students have 1:1 Chromebooks, she wanted to reclaim space that was previously used for desktop computers and turn it into an area where students can create and collaborate. Library Media Specialist Jennifer Lanier collaborated with a class at the school on the design and then the students pitched their idea to the principal.  Follow their blog to see the latest updates.


As you begin to design or redesign learning spaces, keep the following in mind:

  • Observe how people currently work in the space and interview them to find out what type of environment works best for them.
  • Work with others to brainstorm ideas for the space. Use a technique like 100 ideas in 10 minutes to get your initial list and then pick the most promising ideas.
  • Use rapid prototyping to put your idea into action. The first prototype can be very rough but will give you lots of information about next steps.
  • Refine your idea based on the reactions that you receive from the rapid prototype.
  • Implement and continue to get feedback, iterate, and scale!

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