By Joel Thomas, Assessment Data Specialist and Former Teacher and Assistant Principal

One time, a student asked me why he was treated differently than everybody else. At first I tried explaining that other students received similar work and treatment; I even provided examples! He still wasn’t convinced and offered counter-examples (can you tell this was a high schooler?).

I relented, and explained all the ways I treated him differently than other students. To help me articulate why it was necessary, I used the example of a shoemaker: “What if my job was to make you a shoe? You wouldn’t want the exact same shoe as everyone else, for starters it wouldn’t even fit! And forget about style. My job is to find the best way to help you learn. That’s what I’m going to do.”

While he still wasn’t convinced, I think this example is good to keep in mind when discussing personalized learning.

Personalized learning is challenging. Starting from scratch can be daunting: the first step may not be what we expect. It’s not having the right technology or putting in extra hours creating just the right worksheet for each kid (though these may be components).

The first step is building relationships with our students.

Framework for Teaching: Industrial v. Relational

One of the greatest shifts in mindset happening in education today is a shift from an Industrial framework to a Relational framework. In an Industrial framework, we apply the same strategy to all students, catch as many students as possible in the learning, and expect the rest of the students to go the extra mile in order to understand. This model is often described as teaching to the middle. Our highly advanced students will likely not reach their full potential, and our disengaged and low-performing students will continue to be disengaged and low-performing.

Industrial frameworks reinforce the classic bell curve of student understanding.

Relational learning provides opportunities for authentic connection between student and teacher, and uses the knowledge gained from those relationships to push individual understanding. Examples used in the classroom revolve around student interests or maybe funny stories that happened to the teacher. Classes provide opportunities for students to share about themselves and the teacher to share their experiences as well.

Without authentic connection, how can we know the personalized needs of the student? Data is obviously important, but it doesn’t provide context. We may have a page full of student work with several errors, but unless we’ve built a relationship with the student, how can we know if those errors stem from a lack of understanding, or a lack of sleep?

Relational Cornerstones of a Personalized Learning Pathway:


Though it’s ideal to talk content with every student every day, it’s not always possible (especially when class sizes are large and time is short). On days when content is particularly heavy, make sure to have a personal touch point with the students.


Most math teachers can read the room and reset the class if they see an error being repeated by multiple students, but even the same error could be made for different reasons. Ask probing questions when you encounter an error in understanding to learn what gaps in prior knowledge are contributing to the error. Procedural errors are often more about underlying misconceptions and often imply a lack of conceptual understanding.


The lack of celebration in the mathematics classroom is one of the reasons we hear so many students (and adults) say, “I’m not a math person.” When students identify an underlying misconception, celebrate! When they connect and apply their personal experience to a word problem, celebrate! When they use an unexpected approach to a problem, celebrate! It is with great enthusiasm that curriculum is dumping simple procedural recollection in favor of conceptual application; this change allows for students to use their own experiences far more often when approaching a problem.

There are several resources that give lists of characteristics of a personalized classroom, but building relationships is the true cornerstone of any personalized learning experience.

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