Personalized Learning in Middle Grades

reviewed by Nancy Ruppert - August 14, 2019

coverTitle: Personalized Learning in Middle Grades
Author(s): Penny A. Bishop, John M. Downes, & Katy Farber
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682533174, Pages: 312, Year: 2019
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Personalized Learning Plans (PLPs) give promise and hope to all students. This book will inspire educators to think more deeply about curriculum and instruction. PLPs address learning through a social, collaborative lens for students and teachers, highlighting exemplary practices. In the United States, 31 states have adopted some form of personalized learning. The authors of this text have worked in over 50 schools over the past decade to develop strong personalized learning partnerships. Examples from junior highs, intermediate schools, and middle schools are shared to illustrate what PLPs can look like in multiple settings. In addition, every chapter highlights tools for teachers, technology, and specific details for student learning.

While the book specifically addresses middle level schools, the theories, strategies, and developmental activities cross over easily to intermediate, multi-age grouping, and ninth grade academies. Moreover, the text appropriate for leaders of any grade level configuration interested in examining the PLP model.

The introduction provides an overview of this learning system: “PLPs have been most successful when teachers first encourage students to dive into meaningful work, such as exploring their identities… engaging in project learning work that has personal relevance and meaning” (p. 121). The chapters provide insights and examples that serve as a training manual for those who believe young adolescents deserve more than a traditional one-size-fits-all classroom experience.

Chapter One provides an overview of personalized learning plans (PLPs) and how they differ from traditional classroom independent learning. Personalized learning has three pillars: planning, flexibility, and proficiency-based assessments. These pillars encourage independence, responsibility, and competence among young adolescents. Each of the pillars is described in detail related to how personalized learning provides authentic, collaborative experiences. The authors provide an overview of strong and weak PLPs, theories associated with learning, and how this process impacts young adolescents and those who work with them. In addition, they examine the five roles played by teachers in personalized learning: “empowerer, scout, scaffolder, assessor, and community builder” (p. 37).

Chapter Two describes the purpose of PLPs, why they matter, and what to look for and consider if PLPs are new to the reader or are already being used in schools. PLPs start with the idea of “making a difference in the world” (p. 47). The chapter reveals the power of PLPs, obstacles and challenges teachers face in implementing them, how students, teachers, and families benefit from PLPs, and specific examples and advice. Charts and tables throughout each chapter illustrate critical elements associated with PLPs.

Chapter Three lays the groundwork for teams and teachers using tools and research related to engaging learners, including an overview of skills and strategies for developing self-directed learners. Authors describe goal-setting for students, share specific strategies for engaging students in their role as co-creators of knowledge, and describe detailed structures that allow PLPs to function as a community experience. The authors describe ways to build community, give specific details regarding students’ roles in groups, and provide tools for assessing collaboration.


In Chapter Four, the authors describe learner profiles and how to implement them. Those who work with young adolescents often use a form of learning profiles as a tool for getting to know their students. Learner profiles allow students to explore where they are, who they are, and what they will work towards academically and socially. The examples in this chapter give a rationale for the value of student voice in the learner profile and provide strategies for learner engagement.

Chapter Five provides an overview and tools for designing, implementing, and assessing flexible learning. Flexible learning focuses on what engaged learning looks like and how it empowers students. Authors present tools for flexible learning, including project-based learning and service learning. Teachers who use these methods will see how personalized learning integrates well with these practices. “Students design challenging learning experiences… work teams engage in common readings… generate action plans, and craft… proposals based on their interests” (p. 171).

Chapter Six examines how personalized learning connects to deeper thinking and provides scaffolding for students to make goals, make mistakes, and collaborate. In addition, the authors take a deep dive into how technology is used as a production tool. Illustrations are provided that share how individual exploration, small group processes, and direct instruction are woven into the personalized learning classroom.

Assessment is the third pillar of PLPs. Chapter Seven provides an overview of what proficiency-based assessment is, what it looks like, and how to implement it. The authors also describe specific examples of formative and summative assessments. Practice, regular and specific feedback, and mentoring not only support learners but also provide structures so that all stakeholders can be involved in a student’s growth. The authors explain criteria and proficiency scales related to advanced learning and work habits. In addition, learning management systems (LMS) are also suggested to provide assistance and communication among teachers, students, small groups, and families.

Chapter Eight provides teams of teachers with a rationale, tools, and examples for designing and implementing student-led conferences. Practical tips and explicit agendas give teachers and teams examples of timelines used by middle level schools to implement the sharing of student work. The chapter offers the how and the why, describing student-led conferences as a powerful learning experience for all stakeholders. In this setting, students share their work and identify “who they are, how they learn, and why it matters” (p. 243).

Chapter Nine begins with a discussion of “the pursuit of educational change” (p. 261). Personalized learning is not an add-on or a piece of traditional instruction. It is a transformative, equitable, powerful redesign of how schools can meet the needs of all learners. In the closing chapter, the authors provide examples for growing communication and collaboration networks. They discuss the power and promise of peer coaching, collective efficacy, and the need to celebrate what is meant by student success. They challenge teachers and teams to embrace students through this approach.

For teachers who have worked on teams to create interdisciplinary units or who are already embracing experiences that meet the intellectual, social, and emotional needs of students, this book will serve as a resource to engage students in deeper, richer learning. States that are using personalized learning to address the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) will find in this book a guide to enhance what has already been established. Preservice teachers who must create portfolios of their teaching experiences will now have a resource that describes engaged learning, deeper thinking, instructional practice that meets the needs of all students, and authentic assessment practices.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 14, 2019 ID Number: 23048, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 4:07:54 AM

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