The idea of creating environments that are learner-centered sounds attractive. However, developing a culture around learners and building systems to support learner-centered environments takes time and a process.

The idea of creating environments that are learner-centered sounds attractive. However, developing a culture around learners and building systems to support learner-centered environments takes time and a process. Most teachers join the teaching profession to make a difference in children’s lives. Then reality sets in with their daily practices when they realize that most educational systems block the process. To initiate and move the process, key stakeholders need to start with a shared meaning of what learner-centered is all about. We call it “Personalized Learning.”

The Buzz

Recently, educational companies have described “Personalized Learning” by framing their products to be all that schools need to personalize learning. When you look closer at their messaging, it is more about the technology personalizing the learning instead of the learner taking responsibility for their learning. Personalizing learning is not something that someone does TO a learner. It is about learners owning their learning and teachers guiding the process. When this happens teacher and learner roles change and that impacts the school culture.

Learning is Personal.

The Confusion

The confusion around personalized learning exploded in 2010 with the release of the National Education Technology Plan that defined the terms: Individualization, Differentiation and Personalization. All three terms were identified in the plan as “instruction.” Each term meant what teachers were to do to the learning needs of learners.

  • Individualization refers to instruction paced to learning needs of different learners.
  • Differentiation refers to instruction tailored to learning preferences of different learners.
  • Personalization refers to instruction paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences and tailored to the specific interests of different learners.

This was also the year that we, Barbara and Kathleen, were introduced to each other by a mutual friend who encouraged us to bring our individual practices of personalized learning together. We realized that we first had to do something about defining the terms. We both believed that personalized learning is about the learner and about the learner driving their learning, NOT focusing on instruction.

Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization (PDI) Chart

We decided to compare the three terms above in a Personalization vs Differentiation vs Individualization (PDI) chart. Differentiation and Individualization are teacher-centered. Personalization is learner-centered. In teacher-centered environments, the teacher tends to be the hardest working person in the classroom. Under learner-centered environments, learners take control of their learning and are challenged to work harder than their teacher.

Individualization is usually where the teacher accommodates learning needs for each learner. Differentiation means the teacher adjusts learning needs for groups of learners. Personalization means each learner connects learning with their interests, talents, passions and aspirations.

The PDI chart is used as a guide, with prompts as conversation starters, especially for schools that want to build a common language around the term “Personalized Learning.”

Learners NOT Students

You will notice that we do not use the word “student” when talking about learners. All of us were born curious and open to learning or we wouldn’t walk or talk. We were not born students — we were born learners. Our first experiences of learning were through play and discovery.

If you consider anyone who is learning at any age and anywhere a “learner,” then you give the responsibility for the learning to the learner. When the institution or anyone who is teaching students are accountable for the learning — not the learners — the responsibility falls on the teachers for what “students” learn. Doesn’t this seem backwards? Where is the incentive and motivation to learn if all the responsibility is on the teacher? If you change the thinking behind the terms, then using the term “learners” makes more sense. (Read more)

We were not born students — we were born learners.

Universal Design for Learning for All Learners

We believe Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the foundation of personalized learning. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed UDL which was about reducing or eliminating the barriers in the curriculum that keep learners from learning; it was not about learners overcoming their barriers.

UDL is based on decades of brain research and neuroscience of individual differences, human variability and how we learn. UDL can assist teachers in planning universally-designed lessons that reduce barriers to learning as well as optimizing levels of challenge and support to meet the needs of all learners from the start. UDL informs the design of the environment so that it is flexible enough to address the variability of all learners. It is time to rethink how we design learning environments that support the full range of learners in our classrooms.

The Process

When learners have a voice and choice in their learning, teachers change the way they teach. When we first introduced this to teachers, they scratched their heads and wondered how they would make this change. We came up with a process that helps teachers dip their toes into personalized learning by reducing some of the barriers that keep learners from learning.

  • Traditional: Teacher-Centered with Direct Instruction. This is where teachers review existing lessons that are teacher-centered in a traditional environment to determine where there is need for learners to have a voice and choice in their learning.
  • Stage One: Teacher-Centered with Learner Voice and Choice. This is where teachers design activities that engage the learners and redesign the curriculum and the environment so they are more flexible to address the variability of the learners in their classroom.
  • Stage Two: Learner-Centered with Teacher and Learner as Co-Designers. This is where learners have the skills and knowledge to choose and use the most appropriate tools and strategies to co-design the curriculum and environment with the teacher.
  • Stage Three: Learner-Driven with Teacher and Learner as Partners in Learning. This is where learners have the skills and knowledge to choose and use the most appropriate tools and strategies to drive their learning based on their learning teacher, peers and community.

After we shared this process with some of the teachers we worked with, we heard a big sigh of relief. Most of the comments were that they didn’t have to do everything all at once and if some lessons are Stage One then others might be Stage Three. The conversations were exciting for us because their concerns were valid. Teachers only know what they were taught as students or as teachers. This is all new for them and for most learners. When this same process was shared with learners, they had concerns about their grades and how they would know what to do if the teachers expected them to design their goals.

Flexible Learning Environment Starts in Stage One

Instead of designing for the average learner in a “one size fits all” environment, we ask teachers to look at four diverse learners and design for the extremes in their classroom. From what we learned from UDL and brain research, teachers need to know who their learners are first. This is what we call a “Class Learning SnapshotTM.” This snapshot is about diverse learners’ strengths, challenges and interests. We use the UDL principles to guide how learners prefer and need to learn and then develop instructional and learning strategies that reduce barriers and optimize challenges for the learners. When you design for four diverse learners who are at the extremes in your classroom, you meet the needs of most of your learners instead of designing for what you believe is the “average” learner.

There is no Average Learner.

How Roles Change for both Teacher and Learner in a Stage One Personal Learning Environment

The Teacher…

  • makes instructional decisions based on four diverse learners.
  • redesigns the learning environment for individual and group projects based on how learners learn best.
  • revises existing lessons or projects to include voice and choice to engage learners so they are motivated to learn.
  • universally-designs instruction so materials are more accessible for all learners.

The Learner…

  • works with teacher to establish learning goals and personal learning plans.
  • chooses the best learning environment for individual or group work for given activity.
  • has more opportunities to have a voice and choice in how and what they learn.
  • has more options to choose tools and strategies that are more appropriate to support their learning and express what they know.

The process works if teachers have the time and a flexible schedule to revise lessons. Teachers need a supportive environment where taking risks and failing is okay. This article only touches on a few of the ideas that will be coming out in our soon-to-be published book on personalized learning by Corwin Press in Fall 2014.

To download the chart and stages go to: For more information about Personalize Learning, go to or contact us at


Barbara Bray is Creative Learning Officer/Co-Founder of Personalize Learning, LLC; Founder/Owner of My eCoach; writes a column on professional development for OnCUE (Computer Using Educators); and is an expert on coaching, communities of practice, and designing projects and learner-centered environments.
Kathleen McClaskey is CEO/Co-Founder of Personalize Learning, LLC, Owner of EdTech Associates, and is an expert on UDL lesson and project design and in creating learner-centered environments. She is passionate about transforming education where every learner can own their learning. You can contact Kathleen below or on where she curates on Personalize Learning and UDL.