When personalized learning came on the scene, some found it challenging to get a grip on what it meant for instruction. A beloved retired master teacher colleague mused, “Personalized learning – isn’t that a little redundant? Isn’t all learning personal?”

Shouldn’t personalization be the first thing we think about when designing instruction? C.S. Lewis advises, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things.”

I’ve struggled with personalization in other contexts as well, having been repeatedly admonished by, well, almost everyone: “Don’t take things so personally!” It seems like an impossible charge.

Related content: 3 ways to find time for personalized learning

In the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” protagonist Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) articulates this paradox after Tom Hanks’ Joe Fox informs her that putting her independent bookstore out of business wasn’t personal: “All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. And what’s so wrong with being personal anyway? Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

Yes, exactly. Everything ought to begin by being personal, especially teaching and learning. Learning is personal. Our students bring vastly different experiences to the table. Research by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that from 2000 to 2015, our nation’s population became increasingly diverse, with the share of Caucasian students decreasing from 61 to 49 percent.

If you’ve ever read the same book at different stages in your life, you know how drastically different the takeaways can be. This gives a miniscule glimpse into how varied the takeaways from the same lesson are for each learner.

As Sean Snyder illustrates in his research, formulae for academic success have limited application. Teaching isn’t rocket science, but more complex than rocket science.


(Table: Snyder, 2013, p.7)

How do we meet a challenge so complex? We cater the recipe to each learner. The school library has the tools to do just that and up our personalized learning game; the mission being to serve all learners bridging the gap between information poor and information rich (Kagan, 2000). For strong and stable learning support, libraries adopt a tripod approach to resources: 1.) print, 2.) e-books, and 3.) audiobooks. For stability, clarity and consistency, access to all three legs is required. So too it is with personalizing and individualizing instruction.

All learning is personalized learning

To provide consistent support and differentiated instruction for the wide range of ways our learners wish to engage with resources, digital materials are required. For example, e-book and audiobook access through OverDrive’s Sora K-12 student reading app makes the following possible:
• Learners have access to books the day they are released
• Text can be rendered into many sizes and fonts, including Open Dyslexic
• Audiobooks provide accessibility (since listening comprehension capabilities are generally higher than reading comprehension, this is a game changer for a reader struggling to read the same book as peers)
• Reading needs are met in a timely manner, within two hours of placing an order

Adding digital book content has netted a 20 percent increase in reading in our district, indicating that we are better meeting personalized learning needs through a thriving reading culture – the single strongest indicator of academic achievement.

To borrow phraseology that Green Bay Packer country helped make famous – reading isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. We mustn’t leave learners without stable support. They need strong print and digital reading resources. Let’s resolve to remove obstacles between learners and materials they need in all forms – print, e-book, and audio. We will exceed expectations on all fronts, our personalized learning game thriving for everyone’s benefit.

Kagan, A. (2000). The Growing Gap between the Information Rich and the Information Poor Both within Countries and between Countries: A Composite Policy Paper. IFLA Journal, 26(1), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/034003520002600105

Snyder, S. (2013). The Simple, the Complicated, and the Complex: Educational Reform Through the Lens of Complexity Theory. OECD Education Working Papers, (96), 2-35.

About the Author:

Kay Koepsel-Benning is Director of Library Services at Elmbrook Schools in Brookfield, WI.


Add your opinion to the discussion.