10 Key Components of Customized Learning

The talk in Maine schools right now, perhaps even more than Common Core, is Customized Learning. The recently established Maine Cohort for Customized Learning is made up of 27 full and associate member districts collaborating on implementing Customized Learning. And Maine’s Education Commissioner’s strategic plan, Education Evolving, is looking to clear a path through state law and policy to help any districts implement Customized Learning.

Students working on a project

But what is Customized Learning?

It really just boils down to two principles: everyone learns in different timeframes and in different ways. Customized Learning is educators being deliberate about how they organize instruction and school structures to support (and take advantage of) these two principles.

Deep down, parents and teachers know these principles well. We recognized them in our own children and in our students. And yet most schools are still organized in such a way as to try to have students learn in the same way at the same time (the power of the familiar!). You can’t help but wonder how much of our challenges with student achievement, special education and support services, student behavior, and student motivation aren’t directly linked to the number of students who have been forced to attempt to learn using someone else’s pace and style!

Customized Learning goes by a lot of different names around the country: standards-based instruction; performance-based instruction; individualized instruction. And there are good models of Customized Learning, for example: RISC (Reinventing Schools Coalition), student designed projects (such as the Minnesota New Country School and Projects4ME), the Foxfire Approach, and Integrative Curriculum.

In fact, Maine’s schools have decided to use the more generic term “Customized Learning” to indicate that we are not aligning ourselves with any one model or approach, but rather are working to identify the components of Customized Learning and explore which models and approaches have strong programs and techniques for each particular component. No one model does all the components well, and Maine can learn from all the good models.

I have grown to think that there are 10 key components to Customized Learning:

1) Shared Vision
It has been said that you can have the best sailboat, the best crew, the best navigational equipment, and the best weather, but if you aren’t in agreement about where you’re sailing, you’re going to have a horrible trip (and probably not arrive anywhere you wanted to be!). Schools that work collaboratively with their staff, students, parents, and community members to come to agreement on their vision for the school/district, are able to more productively make the changes and implement the initiatives they think will improve their schools.

2) Burning Platform
Why should the school and community change? What’s your most compelling reason? Is it some local community need? Is it that, looking at test scores, your schools are working for too few students? Is it the changing economy? This is your burning platform; that driving reason for change that educators and community can rally around.

3) Climate of Student Voice and Choice
Having students learn at their own pace, and in their preferred way has never been about simply letting students do what ever they want. Good Customized Learning takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers. But that coaching and guidance does require a climate where students are used to sharing their ideas, thoughts, and questions, and where they are getting better at making some of their own decisions. Customized learning doesn’t work well with passive students who just wait to be told what to do next. In fact, moving a school toward customized learning also requires that the staff start to feel that they, too, work and live in a climate where they have voice and choice.

4) Instruction for Low Order Thinking
Regardless of which taxonomy you use (Bloom’s, New Bloom’s, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Marzano’s New Taxonomy), low order thinking center’s on a student’s ability to recall or remember. This is the kind of teaching most of our teachers are pretty proficient at. What are the best techniques to not just help students acquire new knowledge but also to insure that it can be remembered/recalled later?

5) Instruction for Higher Order Thinking
Higher Order Thinking focuses on a student’s ability to use knowledge and think critically. Historically, we haven’t seen much of this in our classrooms. And when we have, often we have asked students to apply these skills without doing much teaching or scaffolding on how to do these skills well. What are the best techniques both for helping students develop these higher order thinking skills and learning to apply them to content knowledge?

6) Curriculum Content and Organization
If students are to learn more closely to their own pace, and have choices about how they learn material, there needs to be great clarity about what the curriculum is. Within each discipline, standards and measurement topics must be identified. These standards need to be the concepts and skills that we will guarantee that every student learns (Our lists of curriculum will become shorter. We will give up some favorite units and lessons, but we are simply identifying that which everyone will learn. Many will learn much more.) Measurement topics need to be scaffolded and a progression identified. And all this must be organized, documented, and published in a practical way so that both educators and students can access, understand, and make use of the curriculum.

7) Formative Feedback
One of the most powerful forms of instruction a teacher can leverage is providing students feedback on their work as they are working. This formative feedback is critical to Customized Learning. What are effective strategies for providing formative feedback?

8) Learning Progress Management
With students working at different paces and awarding students “credit” based on what they can demonstrate they know and can do (rather than by seat time or courses they have completed), educators need a good way to monitor and record student progress. Further, there is a coaching element to Learning Progress Management. What is the role of individualized learning plans? How do you help use progress data to keep students moving through the measurement topics? How do you encourage and support (as well as cajole and lovingly nag) students to keep workng? Technology has made this aspect of Customized Learning much more practical and doable.

9) Multiple Pathways
Do students have access to different ways to learn material? Can some take traditional classes, while others do online courses, or design a project, or do an internship? This is multiple pathways. Many schools have a few pathways already in place, but they tend to be “all or nothing” pathways, defining the entire program for a student (the regular high school, the vocational technical center programs, an alternative school). In the context of Customized Learning, students have access to multiple pathways for each course/topic/subject area.

10) School Structures
Once a school starts implementing Customized Learning, they realize that they need to think about updating some of their long-standing structures and infrastructure. How will you group (and re-group) students? What about schedules and assigning students to class? How long will courses (or maybe seminars) last and how will they be organized? What about grades and reporting to parents? Customized learning will (eventually) drive you to change your structures.


Of course, Customized Learning probably can’t be achieved in a school or district without also exploring leadership for school change, the role technology might play, or how to create the conditions that students find motivating

Learn more about Customized Learning at the McMEL Customized Learning Page.


2 thoughts on “10 Key Components of Customized Learning

  1. kimballwebsites

    We do need to customize learning which in turn will increase student engagement and begin the process of making students responsible for their own learning. The implementation of these components requires changing school structures, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. We will have to adjust the school day and take advantage of anytime, anywhere, on-time learning using teachers in new ways and developing quality blended/hybrid (courses that are part online and part face-to-face) learning opportunities.

    How can we effectively make these changes in a timely manner before our high schools and colleges become obsolete? Might colleges have to change as quickly as high schools? Are future teachers being taught the necessary skills to move in this direction? So many questions, so much work to do, BUT we can do it. We must take on these challenges now. Teachers must be involved in the process. It cannot be a political agenda coming out of Augusta. After all, teachers are the experts. With sufficient professional development and teacher empowerment to try new things and take risks, we will make real, productive changes.

    Thanks Mike for clearing the muddy waters so we can better understand our challenge.

  2. Pingback: Not All At Once: The Phases of Implementing Customized Learning | Multiple Pathways

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