Guest author Paul Emerich France is a National Board Certified Educator and third grade teacher in Chicago. His writing has been featured in a number of prominent education publications, such as EdSurge, ASCD’s “Educational Leadership”, and the International Literacy Association’s “Literacy Today.” He is the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning and has also been featured in the New Yorker. He is a crucially important voice in education, and we are thrilled to share his post!

Personalized learning remains a hot topic in conversations all over the country, and it comes as no surprise that the term has made its way into conversations about professional learning. Surely, if personalized learning is good enough for our students, it should be good enough for adult learners, too.

But this idea of personalizing professional learning poses many challenges, similar to the challenges that personalizing learning for students poses in our classrooms. Personalization is complex and difficult to manage at scale. It requires administrators to invest a great deal of trust in their teachers, allowing each of them to chart their own learning paths and autonomously decide their own goals.

It is all of these things only if we operate off of a flawed definition of personalization. Many believe that personalizing any type of learning – professional learning included – necessitates a high-degree of individualization; too many subscribe to the theory that the more individualized goals and professional curricula are, the more personalized a teacher’s professional learning journey will be.

But this simply isn’t true.

In Reclaiming Personalized Learning, I share a three-dimensional framework for personalizing learning in our classrooms with our students, and I see no reason why this three-dimensional framework cannot apply to professional learning, as well. Subscribing to a multi-dimensional philosophy for personalization frees us of the myth that in order to personalize, we must individualize curriculum, and instead subscribes to the notion that in order for learning to be personal and personalized, learning must be meaningful and relevant to the individual. While this may entail goals that are catered to the individual, it doesn’t mean that school leaders and instructional coaches need to come up with an individualized learning plan for each educator.

The term autonomy need not be conflated with boundless independence. Autonomy allows individuals to exercise decision-making within well-designed constraints. It’s the school’s job to design these constraints when building a system for personalized professional learning, and these constraints must be productive in nature, allowing educators to flourish through autonomous decision making and structured reflection. The following three-dimensional framework can help build these productive constraints and get your school on its path to personalized professional learning.


The First Dimension: The Collective Conscious

Personalized professional learning necessitates a collective school culture around professional learning. This collective school culture supports collective school goals around curriculum and pedagogy, ultimately creating points of convergence between educators for professional learning. These points of convergence are critical in promoting personalization through autonomous decision-making, as they provide a sense of purpose for educators. Educators aren’t isolated through hyper-individualized goals that disconnect them from their peers; they are connected to one another through goals that work towards a common purpose.

In any given school, building a healthy collective conscious might entail:

  • a clear school vision
  • agreed upon professional standards
  • school-wide initiatives that allow for varied entry points into professional learning, much like a multi-ability curriculum in our classrooms might

Building this first dimension with the collective conscious in mind lays the foundation for the other two dimensions.


The Second Dimension: Small-Group Learning

The second dimension comes alive through collaborative professional learning communities (PLCs) in and across grade-level teams. In an effective PLC, educators are constantly asking themselves four questions (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many, 2010):

  1. What do we want students to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know when they know?
  3. What will we do if they don’t know?
  4. What will we do when they do know?

Professional learning communities not only provide a framework through which to support the analysis of student work and ultimately impact pedagogy on both a team- and individual-level; PLCs also allow for teams to build a collective conscious on a smaller and more intimate scale. By continuously venturing through cycles of inquiry like the one above, educators can build their team’s knowledge and understanding of pedagogy, meanwhile adding to their individual toolboxes in their individual classrooms.

By securing these first two dimensions of personalized professional learning, we make way for the third dimension of personalized learning, where effective schools can nurture teachers’ inner dialogues towards more inclusive and increasingly differentiated pedagogy so they can reach more learners.


The Third Dimension: The Inner Dialogue

Opportunities for professional learning are abundant; they are ubiquitous in our everyday lives as pedagogues. We would be remiss in letting these slip away. While personalized professional goals related to the collective conscious of both the school and our teams can be helpful, the most meaningful, relevant, and ultimately personal learning comes through both the products of experiences and the reflective cycle that occurs afterwards. It is for this reason that the third dimension of personalized professional learning is not necessarily the individualization of professional curriculum. It is, instead, the nurturing of a teacher’s inner dialogue as they continue on their journey as an ever-evolving pedagogue.

This inner dialogue only changes through experience, reflection, and the building of fruitful professional relationships. The good news is this is already supported by the collective conscious of the school, as well as grade-level teams that support small-group learning. Without a doubt, this is further supported and secured by instructional coaches and mentor programs that help teachers gain an understanding of the current realities of their classrooms and set reasonably rigorous goals for their practice.

With time, support, and scaffolding, teachers need not rely entirely on an instructional coach or mentor to set reasonably rigorous goals. Through these productive relationships and processes for goal-setting, contextualized by the collective conscious of the school, they become internalized by educators, allowing them to personalize their own professional learning simply by responding to the needs of their ever-evolving classes.


Forging a Sustainable Path

The fact of the matter is that our students, our classrooms, and our schools will continue to change. As a result, it’s critical that we are building frameworks that support teachers in becoming mindful pedagogues who are able to personalize their own professional learning. While productive relationships with teammates, instructional coaches, and administrators are essential to professional growth at any level of experience, the most valuable asset to a teacher’s own professional growth is their own motivation to identify strengths, obstacles, and action steps for change.

In essence, by cultivating autonomy in our teachers and embracing the nuances of a three-dimensional framework for personalized professional learning, we can achieve this quite readily. By investing in our teachers and the relationships within our schools, we end up building a system that runs itself, allowing professional learning to not only be personalized, relevant, and meaningful – but also allowing it to be sustainable, ready to withstand anything that comes its way in the future.