for Personalizing Instruction: A Typology for Improving Teaching and Learning|
John M. Jenkins and James W. Keefe
is often difficult to classify instructional approaches. To best serve
the diverse needs of today's students, a personalized instruction approach
is suggested. Nine representative strategies for personalizing instruction
are discussed in relation to their interaction level and thoughtfulness
Some educators believe that there is only one way to personalize
instruction. For many, it means getting to know students personally, being
friends with them, and knowing their names. For others, it means establishing
an instructional procedure in which a student progresses at his or her
own rate through a predetermined curriculum. In actuality, personalized
instruction embraces all of those elements and a good deal more. Interestingly,
when one searches the Internet for references to personalized instruction,
most sites describe programs for at-risk students. For personalized instruction,
the student-teacher ratio is usually maintained at a figure well below
what is found in regular classes. The assumption is that small classes
enable teachers to offer more personalized instruction to students who
have not been successful with traditional schooling. Smaller classes do
not necessarily ensure that personalized instruction will follow. Personalized
instruction seems more a matter of the quality of interaction and thoughtfulness
among the student and the teacher and other instructional resources. It
is also contingent on the teacher's understanding of the principles of
contemporary cognitive science.
Instruction is personalized when it focuses specifically on the needs,
talents, learning style, interests, and academic background of each learner,
and when it challenges each learner to grow and advance. In our view,
personalized instruction encompasses six basic elements:
• A dual teacher role of coach and adviser
• The diagnosis of relevant student learning characteristics
• A school culture of collegiality
• An interactive learning environment
• Flexible scheduling and pacing
• Authentic assessment.
Types of Learning
The types of personalized instruction included in this article
are by no means exhaustive. They represent a sampling of what seem to
be the best current attempts at making instruction more interactive and
more thoughtful. They also reflect optimism that strategies can be devised
to enable more students to succeed with challenging schoolwork. The ideal
of personalized instruction suggests that, to the degree that schools
can accommodate individual differences effectively, students can be successful
in school. The more intense the interaction between the sources of instruction
and the student, the more likely the student will learn. Students engage
thoughtful material at their level of development and can then advance
to more challenging levels. Eventually the students come to a point where
they can solve problems previously not encountered and generate new knowledge
in a particular domain or discipline.
We rate personalized instruction approaches on two continua: (a) the responsiveness
of the instruction (teacher, mentor, materials, and other aspects of the
learning environment) to differential learner characteristics, and (b)
how effectively learners thoughtfully apply knowledge and skills in a
variety of circumstances. We selected four levels for each broad characteristic
ranging from 1 (lowest) to 4 (highest). Figure 1 illustrates the levels
for interaction and figure 2 illustrates the levels for thoughtfulness.
Figure 3 combines these continua into a two-dimensional matrix and locates
each of 20 selected strategies in a cell showing our best estimate of
where it falls along the combined continuum.
The 20 strategies displayed in figure 3 were selected because they contain
one or more of the elements of personalized instruction. Care was also
taken to select only those strategies that could be supported by a reasonable
body of research. Nine representative strategies are included in this
article along with their interaction level (I) and their thoughtfulness
level (T). A complete description of all 20 strategies can be found in
Personalizing Instruction: Changing Classroom Practice (Keefe and
Individualized Instruction (I-1, T-1)
This strategy was initially associated with Skinnerian
programmed instruction. Students worked through programmed materials at
their own rate of speed. Skinnerian forms of programming always follow
the same format:
Figure 1. Levels of Interaction
|Adjustments to differences
in learner characteristics are limited.
differences in learner characteristics are frequent and comprehensive.
• A question or problem of some sort is displayed
• The student is required to respond actively by constructing
• Feedback, either reinforcement or correction of
an error, is immediate
• Errors are minimized through the following procedures:
(a) material is presented in small steps that capitalizes on what the
student already knows; and (b) techniques of prompting, fading, shaping,
and chaining are used
• Students work at their own pace.
Individualized instruction has been modernized using various
self- instructional materials and techniques, including computer-assisted
software programs, especially for students with weak basic skills.
Adaptive instruction and individually guided instruction (IGE) are two
contemporary applications of individualized instruction. The former was
created for students with special needs and resulted in the development
of the individualized education program (IEP). IGE was developed by the
Institute for Development of Educational Activities, a division of the
Kettering Foundation. Student assessments are conducted in the subject
areas to determine achievement levels. The students are then assigned
to instructional groupings or offered individual work based on the results
of the assessment. Adaptive instruction and IGE emphasize success for
students by adjusting instruction to their academic level of functioning.
Both approaches allow for individual progress through predetermined content
and permit students to progress at their own rate.
Accelerated Learning (I-1, T-2)
Henry Levin of Stanford University formulated a plan for
improving the learning of at-risk and low-achieving elementary school
students. The plan operates on the principle that those students should
have enriched and accelerated instruction rather than the traditional
remediation. Accelerated learning schools are designed to bring all students
into the educational mainstream by building on their natural strengths,
acknowledging the different experiences that they bring to the school
setting and by consistently stressing higher expectations. One of the
project's main features is the use of learning strategies and tactics
usually found in programs for gifted and talented students. The goal is
to speed up the learning of at-risk students so that they will be able
to perform at grade level by the end of elementary or middle level school.
Figure 2. Levels of Thoughtfulness
|Learners acquire basic knowledge
and skills to enhance their ability to learn on their own.
||Learners apply knowledge and
skills to solve real problems and create new knowledge.
The approach is labeled "powerful learning" and includes active
learning experiences through independent projects, problem solving, and
work with manipulatives (Levin and Hopfenberg, 1991). Members of the school
community work together to transform classrooms into powerful learning
environments where students are encouraged to think creatively, explore
their interests, and achieve at high levels. Because the instructional
program is not prescribed, schools determine their own levels of interaction
among students and teachers. The instructional approach operates on the
assumption that at-risk students share strengths that schools often overlook.
According to Levin and Hopfenberg (1991), at-risk students typically bring
curiosity in oral and artistic expression, the ability to learn through
manipulation of appropriate learning materials, and the capacity to delve
eagerly into intellectually interesting tasks.
Style-Based Instruction (I-2, T-2)
Style-based instruction adjusts the learning environment
to differences within and among students. Usually a formal assessment
is conducted with a generic learning style instrument. Depending on the
nature of the instrument, profiles are derived that give information about
perceptual modalities, cognitive skills, and instructional and study preferences.
Teachers confirm results by observing students at work, conducting personal
interviews, or administering more intensive diagnostic instruments. The
results are used to plan and implement alternative teaching activities.
Differences in perceptual strengths and preferences are usually accommodated
by introducing new or difficult information with the individual student's
strongest perceptual mode and reinforcing it with secondary and tertiary
Style-based approaches use contract activity packages (CAPs) and other
types of individualized learning packets to offer students choices in
how they meet common objectives. Those materials replace whole-class instruction.
CAPs, for example, are subject-matter outlines for students who respond
favorably to a structured learning environment or thrive with choices.
CAPs contain a variety of resources: auditory (audiotapes), visual (books,
transparencies, and videotapes), and kinesthetic (simulations, interactive
CD-ROMs, and games). Those resources provide the information that students
need to meet the (Cap objectives, Dunn and Dunn 1992).
Comprehensive style-based instructional models also
attempt to accommodate cognitive style differences by offering students
skill augmentation or enhancement and by providing supportive learning
environments while students work to improve their cognitive skills. Usually,
style-conscious teachers work with class groups, varying instruction within
the total group to accommodate individual differences. What makes a style-based
program personalized is the instructor's attempt to diagnose and accommodate
differences and use them to enhance varying skills among students.
Figure 3. Personalized Instruction
Technology-Assisted Learning (I-2, T-3)
The skillful use of technology expands learning opportunities
for more students. Learners can work individually at computer stations
and proceed through a curriculum at their own rate. For example, business
education programs at many high schools simulate an actual office facility.
A careful selection of courseware enables business teachers to expand
offerings while providing a flexible schedule to meet students' needs.
On arrival, students check in with a receptionist and proceed to workstations
where they log on to one of many different programs. Students can start
and stop a course at any time without disrupting teachers or other students.
Teachers monitor student progress, observe students, and work and intervene
Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) use computers for instruction and as
a management information system. ILS courseware provides a sequence of
lessons that generally span several traditional grade levels in mathematics,
reading, and language skills. The courseware can be networked on multiple
computers and includes a management information system that monitors student
performance and provides diagnostic and prescriptive information based
on student progress (Newmann, 1992).
Strategic use of CD-ROMs and the Internet enables students to research
topics of special interest or specific content in the curriculum. Working
alone, in pairs, or in learning teams, students can more readily engage
each step of the research process: questioning, planning, gathering information,
sorting and sifting, synthesizing, evaluating, and reporting results to
real or simulated decisionmakers. E-mail allows student researchers to
interact with experts in a field, other researchers, or university professors.
Students can also collaborate with other students or mentors in different
parts of the country or the world.
At Virtual High School, a private school in Vancouver, British Columbia,
Canada, students use computers and online communication to establish their
own learning agendas. All students have a laptop computer and do much
of their work at home, plugging into the school's computer network. Students
create their own curriculum, working with mentors (a title that has replaced
that of "teacher" at the school). A few students work with commercial
customers designing customized software (O'Neill, 1996).
Contract Learning (I-3, T-3)
Contract learning is an approach to instruction in which
a teacher and a student design a learning activity with its own objectives,
activities, timeframe, and assessment. Then, with teacher supervision,
the student implements the contract on his or her own. The contract does
not replace other methods of instruction, but it offers an alternative
for students who wish to accelerate, study a subject more in depth, or
pursue a special interest.
Teachers monitor students' progress on contracts, but students exercise
a good deal of responsibility for their own learning. The relative degree
of responsibility or structure depends on the individual student and is
usually determined by the teacher. Contracts typically include statements
about the content to be included, a statement of learning objectives,
a list of agreed-upon activities, resources to be consulted, a timeline
with due dates, and a description of how the work will be evaluated. In
general, the student, teacher -- and frequently a parent -- sign the contract.
The student's signature adds a dimension of commitment to the project.
Contracts enable the teacher to give attention to individual
student needs and interests. The teacher can also subtly address pacing,
a problem in the typical classroom where individual students exhibit different
levels of readiness for mastering material. Contracts encourage students
to assume responsibility for their own learning, cooperating with the
teacher to assess strengths and weaknesses, and to establish learning
objectives. Students can develop critical thinking and capitalize on individual
learning style as they select activities (Daniel, 1991).
Authentic Pedagogy (I-3, T-4)
Authentic pedagogy, developed at the University of Wisconsin,
establishes a set of standards by which classroom practices can be evaluated
to determine their "authenticity." An examination of the type
of mastery demonstrated by successful adults such as scientists, musicians,
business entrepreneurs, politicians, craftspeople, attorneys, novelists,
nurses, and designers provided the base for the standards (Newmann,,Marks,
and Gamoran, 1995). What people do in the real world as they solve problems,
create new knowledge, and resolve controversies serves as the basis for
determining the criteria of authentic academic achievement.
The following three principles can be used as a template for determining
the degree to which teaching and assessment are worthy of the label "authentic."
First, achievement is authentic if it represents or simulates what people
in the real world do--construct or produce real knowledge. Second, authentic
achievement is grounded in a field of knowledge or in several fields of
knowledge; that is, it is rooted in high standards of intellectual quality.
Third, it has personal or utilitarian value beyond documenting that a
student has simply done something. The achievement must influence an audience,
result in a product, or communicate ideas in a way that demonstrates deep
understanding of a field. Authentic achievement is similar to what teachers
themselves experience when they attempt to teach something to someone
else (Newmann, Marks, and Gamoran, 1995).
Teachers who practice authentic pedagogy have respect for students' prior
knowledge and establish a means to assess it. They emphasize opportunities
for higher-order thinking and in-depth understanding. They offer multiple
opportunities for students to express what they know in various forms--writing,
speaking, building things, painting, and so forth. They serve as coaches,
mentors, facilitators, and guides in a relationship similar to that of
a cognitive apprenticeship. Teachers stress collaboration among students
and high expectations for intellectual accomplishments. They create learning
opportunities to help students develop proficiency in constructing knowledge,
disciplined inquiry, and addressing problems that have meaning beyond
mere success in school (Newmann, Marks, and Gamoran, 1995).
Guided Practice (I-4, T-4)
Guided student learning is widely used in the arts and in
teachers and athletic coaches readily spring to mind in this form of pedagogy.
Many successful coaches are excellent teachers. Coaching involves a low
ratio of coaches to players to provide more personal attention. Coaches
work with small groups or one-to-one. They demonstrate what they want
players to do, and then watch them carefully as they attempt to do it.
The player's performance becomes the assessment, which is rated in terms
of an optimal performance. Corrections are made, the assessment repeated,
and the performance evaluated again. This process is repeated until the
player's skill approaches a predetermined standard.
Joyce and Showers (1982) identify five major functions of coaching. Coaching
makes provision for:
1. Companionship -- interchange with another human being over a difficult
2. Technical feedback -- perfecting skills, polishing them, and working
through problem areas.
3. Analysis of application -- deciding when to use a particular strategy
4. Adaptation to players (students) -- adjusting the approach to fit the
needs, skill level, and background of particular players (students).
5. Personal facilitation -- helping players (students) feel good about
their efforts as they practice new skills (4).
The translation from the coaching strategy to teaching as coaching involves
the students practicing the target behavior under the supervision of the
teacher-coach. By asking appropriate questions during the process, teachers
gain insight to help optimize the behavior. They might ask students to
verbalize the steps they are using. This feedback provides a formative
assessment that the teacher-coach may use to suggest subsequent steps.
In some cases, students are encouraged to perform a skill or solve a problem
as completely as they can on their own so that the teacher-coach can determine
the point at which intervention is appropriate. The coaching model is
highly personal and, whenever possible, involves teachers working with
individuals or a small number of students.
Teacher-coaches provide various kinds of support to students
by instructing, modeling, or asking pertinent questions. The supports
that coaches provide are adjusted in accordance with student learning
characteristics, the nature of the task, and the nature of the material.
Scaffolding, a commonly used support, has been described as a "process
that enables a child or a novice to solve a problem, carry out a task
or achieve a goal which would be beyond their unassisted efforts"
(Wood, Bruner, and Ross 1976, 1991). A scaffold may be any temporary aid,
such as a checklist, outline, or training film. As students move toward
the goal and become more self sufficient, scaffolds are gradually removed
Cooperative Learning (I-4, T-4)
Cooperative learning groups are small groups in which students
work together to accomplish an academic task. Each student is accountable
for both the academic task and the working relationships and procedures
of the group. The teacher's role is to set the task, establish the procedure,
encourage a clear interdependency among group members, provide resources
and content as needed and monitor social skills.
Four elements are essential for a small group to be cooperative: positive
interdependence among learners, face-to-face interaction, individual accountability,
and interpersonal/small-group skills. David Johnson and Roger Johnson
at the University of Minnesota, and Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins University
have developed the most frequently used cooperative learning strategies.
The strategies include:
• Student Teams--Achievement Division (STAD) in which students are
heterogeneously grouped in four- or five-member teams. The teacher introduces
new material by lecture or discussion. Students use work-sheets and help
one another in pairs. Individual tests contribute to team scores.
• Teams, games, and tournaments, which uses the same teams, instructional
format, and worksheets as STAD. Students participate in weekly academic
tournaments to show their mastery of subject rnatter. Competition is organized
among equally achieving individuals from different teams with scores contributing
to team totals.
• Jigsaw strategy assigns students to six-member teams to work on
subject matter divided into five sections (two students share one section).
Each student studies his or her section, meets with members of other teams
in "expert groups" focused on the section, and teaches the team
about the section. Individual tests are administered covering the material.
• Group investigation involves two- to six-member groups who use
inquiry methods and group discussion to develop cooperative projects.
Teams choose subtopics from a unit being studied by the entire class,
break their subtopics into individual tasks, and prepare a group report
for presentation to the class.
Topic Study (I-4, T-4)
Topic study was developed in Scotland by scriptwriter Fred
Rendell. Topic study is grounded in the idea that the world is compex
and that students have their own ideas about how the world works. The
studies begin with a story line, establish a place and time, introduce
people or animals, and set up problems to solve. It uses the general strategy
of inquiry and discovery. Students learn that ideas are negotiable if
they supply evidence to support them. Students who use topic study are
participating agents in their own learning (Farnham-Diggory, 1992).
Topic study focuses on a theme and usually requires a full semester or
two to complete. The thematic approach integrates reading, writing, spelling,
mathematics, social studies, literature, science, and the expressive arts.
Whale, for example, is a topic study created for use with upper elementary
and middle level students in Scotland. It contains 10 units. Each unit
expands the complexity of the inquiry. Students work directly with primary
source material, and teachers help them generate questions that lead to
hypotheses, which in turn lead to tentative answers and more questions.
Classrooms are transformed into learning laboratories where students immerse
themselves in the content and the process of the topic. Whale also uses
computer technology to broaden the database (Farnham-Diggory, 1992).
The process begins with the teacher reading a narrative and leading the
class in an in-depth analysis of content. The analysis generates questions
that lead to more penetrating questions as students plumb the depths of
a topic. Students frequently work in collaborative groups where opportunities
to learn from each other abound. Teachers use various tactics such as
modeling, coaching, and scaffolding to help students understand complex
concepts and posit their own theories.
Perspective from the Present
Any attempt to classify instructional approaches into one
category or another must be tenuous. Placement clearly involves subjective
judgment. Some approaches probably touch several levels of our typology
and depend on the quality of implementation. We postulated four levels
primarily to help practitioners gain a sense of the status quo and the
scope of developing strategies. Personalized instruction is a direction
that schools should take in the new century if the diverse needs of students
are to be served. Level one strategies are the first step; level four
strategies, the current state of the art. The ideal is surely to develop
instructional approaches that acknowledge diversity among learners so
that each learner can find an appropriate pathway to master challenging
subject matter and needed skills.
The key to solving most social and motivational problems
in today's schools is to alter the learning environments that cause or
occasion them. As W. Edward Deming observed, "Either everyone wins,
or everyone loses."
There is no happy mean here. Personalizing the learning experience brings
us closer to this ideal. In The Right to Learn, Darling-Hammond (1997)
writes, "Building a system of schools that can educate people for
contemporary society requires two things U.S. school [s] have never been
called upon to do: To teach for understanding and to teach for diversity"
(5). The strategies presented here offer schools a practical way to achieve
John M. Jenkins served as the director of the P K.
Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida where
he now teaches graduate education courses in educational leadership. He
is also a member of the Learning Environments Consortium International.
James W. Keefe is the retired director of research for the NASSP and president
of the Learning Environments Consortium International. This article is
adapted from Personalized Instruction: Changing Classroom Practice, and
is reprinted with permission from Eye on Education Publishers, 6 Depot
Way West, Suite 106, Larchmont, N.Y. 10538. Correspondence concerning
this article may be sent to email@example.com.
Text from the NASSP Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 629, December,
2001, used with the permission of the National Association of Secondary
School Principals. For more information about NASSP services, call 703-860-0200,
or visit www.principals.org
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