Personalized Learning: It's Not Just for Kids Anymore

Photo Credit: Steve Libralon

Photo Credit: Steve Libralon

By Elizabeth LeBlanc and Dr. Christopher Harrington

What elements of personalized learning are we using for students - but not with teachers? Inquiring minds want to know! As educators from across the field of K-12 and higher education, the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl) research team has experienced professional learning from a variety of perspectives. We have served as  teachers, trainers, instructional coaches, PLN leaders, supervisors, and program evaluators; we’ve been subjected to “drive-by” professional development and - at the opposite end of the spectrum - been energized by relevant, engaging, and meaningful professional development that contributes to a schoolwide or districtwide goal. As a team, the i4tl crew has designed professional learning in the form of full-day summits, yearlong blended learning experiences, communities of practice, and microcredentials. When it comes to professional development models - ones that move the needle, spur collective action towards common goals, and align to individuals’ personal goals as teachers and as leaders -  it is safe to say that it is a subject we feel passionately about. 


In the Institute’s 2018 research project, The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning, we studied over 60 schools and districts that have made the commitment to personalized learning in an effort to better understand the best practices as well as challenges of extending the promise of digital learning to every child. Education research tells us that teacher support is a linchpin of personalized learning program success; however, our own research has made clear that advancement and innovation in this area lags behind activities such as investment in technology, leadership, curriculum, and community engagement.

Personalization for All Learners

Data collected through the questionnaire, interviews, focus groups, and site visits also indicated that the structure and format of professional development (PD) for educators and practitioners within the schools and districts studied is evolving to look more and more like the personalized learning environments the schools are implementing for students.

Characteristics of Personalized PD

The relative extent to which each element was being implemented to a “great” degree by participating schools and districts is illustrated in the chart above. One to one coaching models were more than twice as likely to be part of a school or district’s teacher support model then elements such as formally recognized, mastery-based learning progressions for teachers.

The relative extent to which each element was being implemented to a “great” degree by participating schools and districts is illustrated in the chart above. One to one coaching models were more than twice as likely to be part of a school or district’s teacher support model then elements such as formally recognized, mastery-based learning progressions for teachers.

The i4tl team looked at actions such as the extent to which the PD models offered within schools and districts included: 

  • learning opportunities that allow for teacher voice and choice

  • teacher ownership of their learning and accountability for growth

  • a variety of learning formats based on individual teacher needs (such as independent learning, group learning, project-based learning, flexible timelines, etc.)

  • formal learning progressions that aligned to district-level goals

  • formal learning progressions that aligned to each individual teacher's supervision process and goals

  • the use of technology coaches who worked directly with teachers to design and deliver lessons

Are We Keeping Up?

 While some aspects of personalized learning for staff such as voice and choice, teacher agency, varied learning modalities, and formal learning progressions aligned to personal goals and objectives are outpacing implementation for students, in other areas, the application of personalized learning principles for educators lags well behind its application to student learning.

The graph below compares the extent to which characteristics of personalized learning have been included in the learning opportunities for both teachers and students in the schools studied. In some places, such as voice and choice and ownership, adoption is happening at similar levels for both stakeholder groups. Certain other elements of personalization for students, such as the development of multiple learning formats and of formal (generally standards-aligned) learning progressions across the schools and districts studied is ahead of their program development of the same elements for teachers. 

Personalization for Students and Teachers

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What Do Teachers Want? 

Teacher support in the form of professional development was an area that 75% of respondents reported as having “great” or “moderate” impact on the building of their personalized learning program. None of the actions studied garnered 50% of responses in the “to a great extent” category; “not at all” category responses were higher in this section as well, suggesting that PD activities are either: 

1) not happening to the degree that scheduling changes and technology changes are happening and/or 

2) rhat the professional development activities engaged in are not having a strong level of impact.

Teacher feedback in both the online questionnaire and in teacher focus groups suggests that a combination of both causes might be the case. 

The most highly effective strategy for developing the skill of teachers within a personalized learning environment was the use of coaches or specialists who work directly with teachers to design and/or deliver lessons. Seventy-four percent of the participants in this study reported that this type of focused PD was implemented to at least a “moderate” extent. The hands-on, job-embedded nature of this approach to professional development, according to teachers surveyed, helped build confidence and empowerment. 

Teachers also overwhelmingly voiced, both in the questionnaire and in focus groups, that they would benefit from even more targeted PD prior to program implementation. They expressed an additional need for consistently schedule time in the school day for collaboration and planning as they transitioned to a personalized learning model. 

In conclusion, while professional development and teacher support are recognized as important at the district and building level, what we are doing for teachers often falls short of what they need to feel prepared to teach (and learn) in a personalized learning setting. Giving teachers the same opportunities to demonstrate mastery, to have voice and choice over the where, when, and why of their learning, and having an array of options available for how teachers access and interact with professional development content are all first steps at building an ecosystem that truly values personalization for all learners.

***Note: The research study The Intersection of Personalization, Technology, and Leadership: Research into Customized Learning was published by the Institute for Teaching and Leading in partnership with Edgenuity, Inc. and EdSurge, Inc

About the Authors: 

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole child instruction, and blended learning. 


Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor atImmaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, includingiNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.