Personalized learning in the context of a person, not a school


Jun 9, 2016

Personalized learning is the current big buzz in education. Everyone is trying to figure out how best to personalize the learning experience for each and every child.

I applaud this effort. Like many others, I think customizing learning more deeply to match students’ interests, needs, and aspirations is what we should be doing to prepare today’s children for success in an ever-shifting, technology-fueled society and workplace. In particular, the disruptive rise of online and blended learning has made the concept of anytime, anywhere customized learning plausible. With that said, I think much of this work is falling short, as the aim of most efforts I see around personalization focuses exclusively within the contexts of a classroom or school.

Instead of starting with the school as the focus, what if you started with the learner? What are the attributes of this learner? What experiences has she had to date? What are her strengths and gaps? What interests and passions does she pursue? What are her expectations and those of her family for her learning? Who are the supportive peers and adults in her life? And then, after knowing her more deeply, what if we looked at the broader landscape to see which learning opportunities and supports would best match her needs at this stage in her life in order to prepare her for what lies ahead? These learning opportunities and supports could be housed in schools, but they may also be found in cultural institutions, libraries, businesses, educator cooperatives, online, or in a multitude of other community-based locations.

Our work at ReSchool Colorado takes this learner-focused approach. In the system we are designing, instead of opting into a school, a learner will opt into a new entity called an Advocate Network. The primary role of the Learner Advocate is to help the learner, in collaboration with her family or guardian, to navigate the learning ecosystem in service of her personalized goals through the coordination of experiences, resources, and people. Schools and classrooms are very much a part of this vision but they aren’t the only path. Instead, just as we encounter in our adults lives, we envision a more personalized, modernized, and diversified system of learning that is anchored in a cohesive learning framework. We used the word “network” purposefully, as we envision the learner and family being deeply connected to those within their Advocate Network while also making important connections beyond their advocate group to a more expansive set of people and perspectives. In other words, as my colleagues at the Christensen Institute have written, we may be witnessing disruption not only of traditional teacher-led instruction, but also the networks and webs of support that have typically limited how students navigate the system.

For all of you engaged in redesigning learning, I urge you to consider expanding your thinking and strategies beyond schools and classrooms in order to truly personalize learning and close the opportunity gap. Opening up a larger landscape of learning for all students, including those whose families have been historically unable to access or afford much (if any) learning outside the context of school, will greatly expand the number of young people who are skilled, connected, and capable of navigating their complex lives and world with growing confidence.

Amy Anderson

Amy is the director of ReSchool Colorado, an expansive initiative of the Donnell-Kay Foundation to design and launch an inspirational, world class education system that coordinates people and resources in new, dynamic ways around each and every learner.

  • Great article. Great thinking. I do believe we need to expand personalized learning to include team based project based learning outside the classroom as well. The truth is that learning is as much collaborative as ‘personalized’ these days. With the guidance of a teacher-facilitator, students can use PBL methods to analyze and solve authentic issues in the community, using community resources. I call it ‘portable PBL.’

  • The future of personalized learning is being invented as we speak/write/connect. Much of this is explored in Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools. With a few more thoughtful educators and leaders understanding why we have and cling to our archaic one-size-fits-all system, we can start building!!

  • Amy,

    Thank you for this post as it resonates deeply with my core beliefs, based on my own experiences as a student, educator, administrator, and currently as a systems-level leader.

    What if it wasn’t necessary to ask “What if you started with the learner?”…

    Over the past 20+ years Big Picture Learning has launched a sustainable international network of schools (including two right in Colorado) that are very closely aligned to what it is that you are proposing. Students in Big Picture Learning schools work closely over multiple years with an “Advisor” who acts in a fiduciary way similar to how you describe the “advocate network.” To learn more please see –

    And please consider this an open invitation to check out Mapleton Early College High School –

    and Durango Big Picture High School –

  • margery ginsberg

    Amy, I think your network is focusing on early childhood right now. I wonder if anyone on your team has written a scenario or case study? Sounds like your group has been learning a lot!