Technology Can Make Learning Personal

As I was trying to develop a question about ISTE Teacher Standard 2 I read it over a number of times. At one point it dawned on me that the standard was really about making learning personal for students. There is a lot of confusion out there about what that means. The terms differentiated, individualized and personalized learning are tossed around interchangeably but do they really mean the same thing? What are the differences between the terms and what does that mean in terms of choosing the right tool to help teachers make learning personal for their students?

I found a great article helpfully called Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning (Basye 2016) that was originally posted through ISTE. The author defines each area and I was intrigued to see that each of the standards in ISTE Teacher Standard 2 seem to be related. Perhaps purposefully, since the author also recently coauthored a book with Peggy Grant  called Personalized Learning: A Guide for Engaging Students with Technology.

The author defines Differentiated Learning as “a type of learning where instruction is tailored to meet the learning needs, preferences, and goals of individual students.” The overall goals for students in the classroom are the same but how a teacher adapts lessons or projects to help a student reach that goal is flexible. This seems to most closely related to Standard 2a: “Design or adapt relevant learning experiences that incorporate digital tools and resources to promote student learning and creativity.”  Digital tools make it easier for teachers to adapt due dates, rubrics, directions, and resources to respond to unique student needs without materially changing the overall project or outcomes for the whole class.

Individualized learning, on the other hand, is related to pacing. The goals for all students are the same but students have the ability to move through the learning at their own pace. This can be valuable to students on the ends of the learning spectrum who either work quickly and need enrichment or acceleration or for those who need to work more slowly through a task and need the ability to go back to structures like video or written instructions to revisit the learning as needed. Standard 2b: “Develop technology-enriched learning environments that enable all students to pursue their individual curiosities and become active participants in setting their own educational goals, managing their own learning, and assessing their own progress” seems to fit most closely with Individualized learning. Gamification and the plethora of online, adaptive curriculum available to teach students skills at their own pace show that this a area of huge growth in the education market right now. It’s hard to keep up with what’s new and dig down to find what really works.

Finally, the author makes the case that Personalized learning is really a combination of both. He defines it as “learning that is tailored to the preferences and interests of various learners, as well as instruction that is paced to a student’s unique needs.” Personalized learning also involves the student as an active participant in creating their learning. It brings together the best of what motivates and excites students with the teacher helping them learn how to get there. Standard 2c: “Customize and personalize learning activities to address students’ diverse learning styles, working strategies, and abilities using digital tools and resources” most closely speaks to personalized learning. This is a harder area to find pre-packaged technology for and relies more heavily on teacher created material.

There are a lot of possible tools, and more being added each day to personalize learning. They seem to come in categories:

Teacher Constructed through Learning Management Systems (Canvas, Schoology, Haiku, D2L, Google Classroom, 3D GameLab, etc.) that allow teachers to customize assignments, assign different due dates, allow for choice, host individual paths (modules), and offer opportunities for badging and game based elements. These tools allow for the most flexibility for a teacher that knows their students well enough to customize based on ability, interest and needs but they are the most time consuming for the teacher. They are not terribly student based unless a teacher builds in the flexibility for a student to make choices about learning paths or content. It’s not impossible to build in, just a lot of work. They do all allow for assessment to be built in that will give students either immediate feedback or robust feedback from peers or teachers.

Teacher Constructed through other digital  tools (Actively Learn, EdPuzzle, OwlEyes, Nearpod, NextLesson, SMART Lab, Kahoot, Desmos, etc.) There are far too many tools in this category to name here. These tools are kind of a hybrid. The structure is there but the content is created, or edited, by the teacher. It allow teachers to create content students can move through at their own pace but also to collect data about student’s knowledge. Teachers can customize with their own questions, insert supporting materials into reading passages or video or engage students in various tasks.These are still very teacher directed tools but could be used to support self paced learning.

Video Based Learning (Lynda, Kyte, AdobeTV, Atomic Learning, YouTube,, etc) These tools are generally skill based, online, video based tutorials. You can chose as much or as little as you need to learn, can test out and show mastery, provides choice and ability to customize. For purely individualized learning they are invaluable. Most of us already use YouTube to teach us many things but the rest of  these tools are curated, organized and updated regularly and can be used for students, and teachers, who are ready to learn on their own based on their own passions or interests.

Adaptive Content Based Learning (Dreambox, TenMarks, RazKids, Khan Academy, iReady, etc.) provide responsive, need based content, pretests, provide tutorials and hints, are algorithmic based and differentiated, provide data tracking, and adjusts to the learner or can be assigned by teacher. It seems to be the fastest growing market in education. The data can be invaluable to a classroom teacher but we can’t rely on these programs to do all the teaching. It should be used to support, individualize and help fill in gaps but not all students will learn well this way and teachers need to continually monitor the student’s growth and be responsive when students are struggling. This kind of learning also needs to be liberally mixed with real, collaborative, hands on projects that allow students to develop deeper learning and transfer their skills. Mixed with reflection and goal setting and regular problem based application they can be useful tools.

The final part of the ISTE Standard 2 “Provide students with multiple and varied formative and summative assessments aligned with content and technology standards, and use resulting data to inform learning and teaching” need to be woven through any kind of learning, differentiated, individualized or personalized. Without data, neither students nor teachers have a way of measuring success or determining growth. It’s vital that ongoing assessment be a part of any learning.

This may have clarified some of the differences between differentiated, individualized and personalized  for me but it may be harder to explain to teachers. Many use tools with students without any real purpose. I’ve seen students on multiplication practice websites long after they’ve mastered the skills either because the teacher doesn’t have a clear idea of the student’s capabilities, because they don’t know what should be next for the student or they haven’t really thought about the purpose of the tool and where it’s appropriateness lies in their instruction. I put together this infographic as a way to start the conversations about the differences but defining the purpose of the tools may be a more challenging conversation.



Basye, D. (2016, October 23). Personalized vs. differentiated vs. indivdualized learning. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from


Better Metacognition Through Reflection

As teachers we use every tool in our toolbox to facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity (ISTE Teacher Standard 1) . We often model innovative thinking for our students, we strive to foster creativity by giving students choices and encouraging them to follow their passions and we create real world opportunities for them to collaborate and problems solve with others.

The one area of the standard that I think is often neglected is 1c: Promote student reflection using collaborative tools to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning and creative process. Reflection is an easy thing to run out of time for. It’s usually something that we plan for at the end of the lesson in the form of an exit ticket or a quick quiz or short essay question. Most of the time it’s used as formative assessment to see whether the students understood what we thought we taught them. It can help guide our lesson planning for the next day, which is valuable, but I would argue that those types of activities are not true reflection.

Reflection is a metacognitive process. In an article called Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking  the author (Rogers 2002) distilled it down to four important criteria:

  1. Reflection is a meaning-making process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. It is the thread that makes continuity of learning possible, and ensures the progress of the individual and, ultimately, society. It is a means to, essentially, moral ends.
  2. Reflection is a systematic, rigorous, disciplined way of thinking, with it’s roots in scientific inquiry.
  3. Reflection needs to happen in community, in interaction with others.
  4. Reflection requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others.

To me it’s not just about what you learned but how you learned it, what strategies you learned to do that thinking, what you learned about how you learn as a student, and thinking ahead to where you might use that type of thinking in other contexts.  Formative assessment is essential but often only touches on surface learning. Metacognition (thinking about your thinking) can be a useful tool for developing in students the ability to think deeply, develop and apply strategies to their learning, and encourage the transfer of learning skills and content to other disciplines as well as. There is too much information for anyone to know so it’s important we teach our students the metacognitive strategies that will allow them to learn in any situation, and become more independent, self directed learners.

In John Hattie’s (2009) Visible Learning he developed a list of teaching and learning strategies that he listed by effect size. If you look at even the top 20 on his list you’ll see at least 6 that I believe are related in some way to the reflective process of thinking.  

Hattie Ranking of Effect Sizes
From: with my own emphasis.

Cognitive task analysis, conceptual change programs, and concept mapping are all tools that help students visualize their learning and think more deeply about how they learn. Self-reporting grades allows students to measure themselves against criteria and expectations and analyze their own effort and understanding in the learning process. Gathering feedback from peers and teachers and asking their own questions can help them celebrate their successes and also learn to set goals for themselves to make improvements. All of these create a sense of agency for students. They have ownership and buy in to the learning process because they know and can articulate the effort and strategies they put into learning.

As a classroom teacher I used a number of different paper and pencil processes to help students track their own data, set goals and to give feedback. Most were unwieldy, were prone to being “lost” and were a paper management nightmare. I wish I had found a product like SowntoGrow earlier.  I heard about at a recent EdSurge event in Issaquah. I liked it and had shared it with the teachers I work with. One teacher took me up on it and took a look. She loves it and has been using it with her students.

The tool allows a teacher to create activities and assign them to students. You can set success criteria based  on completion or set mastery levels and you can set “learning cycles”, which is basically the time frame of the activity. What I like is the student view. Students first rate how they are feeling about the activity with various sad, neutral and smiley faces. This will make it accessible for even younger users. They get feedback with some quotes to help encourage them. Then they set goals based on the score they want to achieve. The teacher would need to do some pre teaching to help students learn to set goals. When the activity is completed the student can go back in and add their score and again rate how they are feeling and then there is space to reflect on what they learned and what they might do differently next time if they want to improve. The teacher then gets a dashboard where they can see all the students reflections and give them feedback.

What I’ve seen happen with tools like discussions in Canvas is that even quieter students will be willing to reflect, sometimes in some very profound ways, even if they won’t raise a hand or speak up in class. Online is a safe place for some kids and they know only the teacher will see their thinking. This tool also supports the growth mindset we want to reinforce with our students. They get to celebrate and get feedback on their goals and they have a place to refer back to in order to see their progress over time.

It feels like a tool that, in many ways addresses all four of the criteria for what defines reflection. It allows a student to set, measure and track goals and gives them a journal-like space to think and write about what they did well, what they could do to improve and what they learned. Teachers could provide prompts at first to encourage students to think deeply about their learning process. There is a certain amount of structure to the Sown to Grow reflection process that can help students think about the stages of their learning and to see growth and change happen over time. The community piece currently only happens with feedback from teachers but additional tools like online discussions could be woven into parts of the reflective process to develop the larger community piece. Finally, the process of reflection that also supports growth mindset thinking will help foster a sense of “I haven’t learned it..yet” in students that, along with the other pieces of this tool like pre and post data tracking and self reporting of attitudes towards learning, will support a positive attitude toward learning as a process, not an endpoint.

Reflection needs to be a part of a teacher’s process as well. Last year I built reflection into the final session of the class I teach. Each participant presents an IGNITE session to the class as their final reflection the year. An IGNITE is presentation of 5 minutes using only 20 slides to tell your story. It’s a chance to think about how their thinking has changed over the course of the year as part of our cohort of learners. Last year’s presentations were amazing and very thoughtful. I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s final projects next week.


Waack, S. (2014, March). Hattie effect size list – 195 Influences Related To Achievement . Retrieved April 11, 2017, from

Rogers, C. (2002). Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842-866. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from