8 Essential Questions for Planning Personal Learning Experiences



How many times have you heard “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail”? Most teachers are taught this mantra in their preparation programs and are held to it over the course of their careers. It is expected (and in some districts mandated) that teachers write detailed lesson plans, gather resources, effectively sequence the learning, differentiate for all learners, build in scaffolds, engagement strategies and opportunities to check for understanding, aligned to specific standards or curriculum. If we want all kids to know and do the same things, this model makes sense. More and more, however, we are beginning to realize the value in providing opportunities for students to learn at their own pace and have personal pathways on their learning journey.

In an NPR interview Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, describes the emphasis on standardization and the impact on schools and how students learn:

You think of things like the lockstep, grade-based organization of kids, and you end up sitting in a class for a fixed amount of time and get a one-dimensional rating in the form of a grade, and a one-dimensional standardized assessment….It feels comforting. But if you take the basic idea of jaggedness, if all kids are multidimensional in their talent, their aptitude, you can’t reduce them to a single score. It gives us a false sense of precision and gives up on pretending to know anything about these kids.

In spite of our understanding that no two people are the same, we have set up a system that prioritizes and demands overstructured lessons for every student to meet the same objective at the same time within the year, regardless of the individual’s unique strengths, interests. Teachers who say they can’t plan for lessons at each of their student’s individual levels are right, they can’t and shouldn’t have to. In this model, if the bulk of the work falls on the teachers and learners are coaxed along in the process to move down a prescribed path.

I believe that our traditional expectations around lesson planning holds us back from shutterstock_387645814creating more personal learning experiences. Today, we have an abundance of resources and access to experts to learn from in ways that extend beyond the individual teacher and their expertise. That enables us to design more personal learning experiences. Here are some questions to guide planning.


  • Who are the learners? Too often we start with the learning goals rather than the learners. To truly learn anything, we have to honor the individuals and build on the what the learners bring to the table. As my colleague and dear friend, Ed Hidalgo frames it, “Honor the individual’s strengths, interests, and values.”.  How can we move from not only recognizing students as individuals but empowering learners to understand and act upon their unique strengths and talents?
  • How does our community foster risk taking and innovation? The community and the norms a huge impact on learners.  How are relationships developed and sustained to ensure meaningful connections?  How do they support one another? How do you model and encourage risk-taking? How do you share the learning process to foster a culture of learning and innovation?


  • What are the learning goals? In the standards-shutterstock_205438615based paradigm, our learning goals are primarily the standards or subsets of standards. This is a good start but there is more to developing productive and empowered citizens than just mastering isolated standards. How might we design learning goals that not only develop knowledge but attend to the skills, interactions, and mindsets that we know are critical for students to develop to be successful as employees and citizens in our evolving world?
  • What might be the value or impact of what we are learning? Connecting the learning to a greater purpose helps learners connect and take ownership of their learning.  Whether it is to build skills and improve or to make an impact and solve a challenge that exists, ensuring the learners have purpose in their learning is critical.
  • What does success look like? Models are instrumental in helping learners visualize what success looks like and move towards the desired learning goals.  How might we use models to ignite new ideas and help learners understand the desired criteria but not limit them by what currently exists? How might success also be defined by the individuals rather than only external evaluators (i.e the teacher)? How might success be different based on the learners?


  • What resources exist to support learners? We all have a finite amount of resources and are accountable to meeting specific objectives within a given period of time. Knowledge and skills are foundational to authentic application shutterstock_337667870and we need to make sure learners have the support to achieve specific learning goals. Yet, there is a need to  balance the basics that we want all students to attain while allowing for personal voice and choice. How can we move beyond static textbooks or worksheets and provide opportunities for students and create new knowledge and ideas at their own pace, place, and path?
  • How will students understand where they are in relationship to the learning goals? We have become obsessed with grades. They serve as “feedback” to learners about their performance, which is too often the end rather than the beginning of learning.  Instead of the teachers bearing the sole burden of assessing and grading, how might we empower the learners to understand their progress in relationship to the learning goals? What processes can we include for students to get feedback on their work, to promote revision of ideas and inspire further inquiry?


  • How will learners reflect and share the learning process with an authentic audience? Learning is often accelerated when there is an audience beyond a grade book or the classroom. How can thinking be visible? How can learners share their process and get feedback from peers and experts in and out of the classroom? What are the major products of the project (or unit or lesson), and how will they be made public or shared with an authentic shutterstock_176702915audience? How will this be connected to the learning goals and learner’s strengths and interests?

Rethinking the Lesson Plan

I wonder, as we guide the learners each step of the way, how often do the structures and scaffolds that are put in place actually inhibit the learning process? To fundamentally rethink how students learn in school, and allow for more personal learning, the notion of the traditional lesson plan must be revisited. How might we allow for enough structure to meet desired learning goals, while also ensuring they are open enough to allow for learners to make personal connections and engage in authentic learning experiences? How might these questions help guide the development of powerful learning experiences? What else might we add or revise?


Katie Martin, PhD
Director of Professional Learning, MTLC
Follow me on Twitter: @katiemtlc



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