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 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 and provide opportunities for students to learn at their own pace and have personal pathways in 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 over structured lessons for every students to meet the same objective at the same time in the year regardless of the individual’s unique strengths, interests, or questions to be answered. 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.  

Today, we have an abundance of resources and access to experts to learn in ways that extend beyond the individual teacher and their expertise but I believe that our traditional expectations around lesson planning holds us back from creating more personal learning experiences.  To design more personal learning experiences, here are some questions I am starting to think about to guide planning.



  • Who are the learners? Too often we start with the learning goals rather than the learner, but to truly learn anything the individual has to be involved and we have to honor who they are and build on the what the learners bring to the table.  Or 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 in empower learners understand and act upon their unique strengths and talents?
  • How does our community foster risk taking and innovation? The community and the norms of how people interact make 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 based paradigm our learning goals are primarily the standards or subsets of standards.  This is a good start but as many employers, vision statements, and good common sense allude to, 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 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 spur 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 and 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 the basics and static textbooks or worksheets and provide opportunities for students to access resources 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 and in so many ways they serves as the “feedback” to learners about their performance, which is too often the end instead of 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 will you include for students to get feedback on their work, in order to revise their ideas and products or conduct 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 audience? 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 you add or revise?




6 Replies to “8 Essential Questions for Planning Personal Learning Experiences”

  1. Katie, thank you for sharing this. I have always been a detailed planner, and after reading IM, I am rethinking that a little bit because it does inhibit students’ natural inclination to be curious. We almost (okay, we kind of do) teach them not to make the first move because someone else should be directing them. I’m learning and seeing through changing my practice, that if we allow them to rise to the occasion and trust that they can, they will feel our trust in them and in turn, start to trust themselves. I think tradition teaching has some long lasting negative effects that we may not even realize. In our actions (everyone together, do it this way, follow these specific steps), we accidentally teach kids that they can’t take charge of their learning, and then when they get into college and/or careers, they haven’t learned how and don’t necessarily even realize that they should be taking charge. We talk a lot about leadership, but sometimes lesson plans don’t allow for students to be leaders of their own learning, and as we know, it’s not talk but action that is the true teacher of any skill.

    I am thinking (and writing) this week about transparency in learning, and I think that’s important in terms of planning. Sharing an objective when a student isn’t ready for it probably won’t help that student, even if every other student in the class is ready. So I think we need to be transparent about the learning that needs to take place up front, share standards with kids, and let them help interpret and decide how they can build those skills. Learning would be a constant conversation, but the kids would be the moderators, and in turn, the leaders of their own learning.

  2. I really appreciate your reflection about the impact of the over structured lesson plans. I can’t wait to read your thoughts on how to be more transparent about learning and the process with students. Imagine the possibilities is we allow students to be leaders in their own learning!

  3. Jeff Harvey @thinkharvey says: Reply

    I believe the fear teachers have with removing scaffolded traditional lessons and creating more open learning where students take control of the first steps is that they believe students won’t get there on their own. It’s much easier to say, alright team, here’s my plan, follow me through the swamp and do everything I say exactly how I say it. Then I guarentee they’ll make the “safe” learning journey.

    You’ve gotta have skill, a deep understanding how students learn and the courage to try something more nebulous. And alot of times, the open ended learning goes no where, because if the teacher doesn’t know how to design the appropriate task, know the pitfalls students will fall into and know how to run the discussion with the whole group or use (in)formative assessment to really make the learning visible afterwards, it can just get lost. Essentially what I’m saying here is that, in teaching, the traditional method is the sure fire approach, the safe approach. It’s not necessarily what’s going to make our students the best they can be or prepare them as well as possible for the future. The alternative is having the courage and trust that teachers do have the capacity and skills required to offer more personal learning experiences, which is riskier but potentially more powerful.

    Using a baseball analogy here, it’s like throwing a knuckle ball. It you can do it consistenty it’s amazing and your opponents have no chance, but if you’re off your game or not skilled enough, throwing a knuckle ball can be disasterous.

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