Empowering Learners with Non-linear Learning Progressions

Most curriculum theory models use linear learning progressions that create continuous linear pathways of knowledge and skills for students to achieve within a fixed period of time. Students must know and be able to do several predetermined behaviors that are a direct result of a meaningful learning experience in order to achieve mastery. But are linear continuous learning progressions conducive to personalized learning?


Curriculum Theory Models use prearranged learning criteria that fails to include the students’ voice or offer the students choice in what, how, when, and where they learn. Whereas design-oriented models, use a prescribed set of learning criteria that begins with the students’ voice while offering the students choice in what, how, when, and where they will learn.

Thanks to technology and adaptive learning platforms, the linear path of learning progressions that currently exist for many students can now be rearranged into a constellation map of knowledge and skills. This constellation map of knowledge and skills is also known as a learning skills map. With the learning skills map, students are no longer limited to a linear scope and sequence of knowledge and skills of content acquisition, and they can progress through their learning with more flexibility and enrichment.  The learning skills map links many interconnected concepts that students opt to pass through on their learning journey, in any order they wish. The learning skills map also allows students to craft their own learning playlist. Thus, students choose which concepts and skills they would like to study and the sequence they would like to study in.

In sum, personalized learning is far from being a continuous and neat linear learning progression. It’s a messy discontinuous non-linear learning progression that is different for every student.  Much like gaming, personalized learning allows students to be immersed in a rich learning experience that yields multiple outcomes of learning, thus generating a constellation of knowledge and skills.


Achieve, (2015). Retrieved from https://www.achieve.org/files/Achieve-LearningProgressionsinCBP.pdf

Teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy

“Literacy is about learning, and learning is about unlearning and relearning” (Spencer & Juliani, 2017, p. 19). Spencer and Juliani, authors of Empower: What happens when students own their learning, devised six truths that support a principle for empowering our learners. Truth numbers one and five from their book, focus on learning. Learning is how we perceive experiences that we are in, and how we process those experiences (McCarthy, 2000). Hence, “Truth #1: Every child deserves to own their learning. Teachers can empower student ownership of lifelong learning.”


Students are born natural learners. Their sense of perception (how they take in the things they learn) and their processing ability (what they do with what they take in) enable students to naturally be self-directed learners (McCarthy, 2000).  Hence, from birth, students once owned their learning; but something happened along the way that caused many students to lose ownership of their learning.  Providing students with choices is the first step teachers can take to support students with reclaiming their learning territory.

Spencer and Juliani’s fifth truth about learning calls into question, our current definition of literacy. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearned, and relearn” (p. 19). Thus, teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy.

In the US, there are currently four ideologies that define literacy instruction in significantly contrasting ways. They are: Functional Literacy, Cultural Literacy, Progressive Literacy, and Critical Literacy. Functional Literacy defines literacy as a tool needed to function in school and in the workforce. Cultural Literacy defines literacy as a mechanism for instilling morals, values, and a common background of knowledge. Progressive Literacy defines literacy as “personal discovery”(Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p.376). Finally, Critical Literacy defines literacy as an approach to “social transformation” (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p. 377). Of the four, functional literacy is the most stagnant and limiting. Perhaps because it is linked with the social mores of the industrial age. However, progressive literacy is the most active and free flowing of all the literacy ideologies, which meshes well with the principles of personalized learning and learning itself, because it is linked to progressive education, a byproduct of industrialization.

Children’s interests, needs, and inclinations are natural sources of self-directed learning and self-regulated learning. They are also natural sources for empowering learning. As students are taught concepts, facts, procedures, processes, and principles, they should not only be learning, but unlearning and relearning from the experience. Moreover, true learning includes failure. Failure is necessary for learning, unlearning, and relearning. Hence, if failure is not an option, then neither is literacy.


Cadiero-Kaplan, Karen (2002). Literacy Ideologies: Critically Engaging the Language Arts Curriculum. Language Arts, v79 n5 p372-81

McCarthy, B. (2000). About learning. Wauconda, Ill: About Learning.

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning.

Personalized Learning is a necessary commodity for a V.U.C.A. world

How should learning look in a V.U.C.A. world? V.U.C.A. is an acronym that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The age-old dependable formula of traditional school being used today is not enough to prepare students for a VUCA world.


Spencer and Juliani (2017) in their book, Empower: What happens when students own their learning, stated that many students in traditional schools were and still are actively compliant, “trying to navigate a system that was designed to produce people who follow the rules and waited to be told what to do.” After graduation, many students, including some of us, waited for someone to tell us what to do.

Opposite of traditional schooling is personalized learning. Personalized learning is the best approach to mass education within a VUCA world because a VUCA world needs students who are go-getters, decision makers, designers, creators, and dreamers. According to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) personalized learning tailors instruction, expression of learning, and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences. Additionally, personalized learning foster’s self-regulated learning and self-directed learning skills needed for a VUCA world.

In sum, Spencer and Juliani (2017) submitted, “our job is not to prepare students for something; our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.” By employing the principles of personalized learning, we can effectively prepare students for a VUCA world.


Turn your classroom into a personalized learning environment. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=416&category=Personalized-learning&article=Turn%2Byour%2Bclassroom%2Binto%2Ba%2Bpersonalized%2Blearning%2Benvironment 

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning.

Finding the Sweet Spot in Personalized Learning

The optimum point at which the most effective contact occurs, is known as the Sweet Spot. Hence, what is the optimum point of personalized learning?


According to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Personalized learning tailors instruction, expression of learning, and assessment to each student’s unique needs and preferences. Hence, learners are the heart of personalized learning because they have to make the choice to interact with the content and they have to decide how much attention and effort they will devote towards the learning task. In other words, the optimum point or the sweet spot of personalized learning is the learner’s ability to self-regulate and to be self-directed during the learning task.

So what is the difference between self-regulated learning (SRL) and self-directed learning (SDL)? According to Pamela Bracey’s Literature Review, self-regulated learners decide what, when, where, and how to learn. They also choose how much effort they will employ on the metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral aspects of learning. On the other hand, self-directed learners diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources necessary for learning, choose appropriate learning strategies, and evaluate their learning outcomes. With self-directed learners, the learning is self-paced and usually initiated with an incentive and/or an interest.


SRL and SDL are both necessary in a web-enhanced classroom in order to support the learner’s acquisition of knowledge and skills. Furthermore, the more sophisticated the learning needs of the learner, the more self-directed and self-regulated the learner will become. Adler (2011) in his Paideia Proposal, submitted that learners need to know the what of learning but not at the expense of the how for learning. Hence, by allowing learners to choose what, when, where, and how to learn, teachers are supporting SRL. When learners take the initiative to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources necessary for learning, choose appropriate learning strategies, and evaluate their learning outcomes, then they are at the why for learning. In other words, they are becoming self-directed learners. Teachers can support SDL by teaching students to use feedback, to self-assess, and to set learning goals.

Paideia Curriculum Framework

What makes SDL and SRL the sweet spot of personalized learning? First, students need to have an ample amount of self-directed and self-regulated learner characteristics since these learning dispositions help students reach the optimum point of personalized learning.

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Second, SDL and SRL support student agency, student identity, and student power. In an earlier post, student agency was defined as the making and remaking of the students’ self, the students’ identity, and the students’ relationships. Student identity was defined as the ability to be able to identify with a particular discourse community or identifying with the language of various learning communities. Finally, student power was defined as productive power built on rich relationships and high quality interactions. SDL and SRL provides students with space to develop their intellectual skills and to enlarge their understanding of ideas and values related to the learning outcomes.

In sum, possessing SDL and SRL skills are necessary for 21st century learning. The instructional design process for web-enhanced classrooms can not meet the unique learning needs or preferences of students without consideration of SDL and SRL, the sweet spot of personalized learning.


Adler, Mortimer J. (2011). The Paideia program: An educational syllabus. New York: Macmillan.

Turn your classroom into a personalized learning environment. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=416&category=Personalized-learning&article=Turn%2Byour%2Bclassroom%2Binto%2Ba%2Bpersonalized%2Blearning%2Benvironment 

Learning Objects promote personalized learning

As I do more and more research on personalized learning, I realize that student voice can easily be incorporated into lesson designs. One way that students can contribute to their own learning is by creating learning objects. Learning objects are modular instructional tools related to content, practice, or assessment. Depending upon the topic at hand, students can be encouraged to create learning objects for themselves and/or their peers.


Learning Objects in a web-enhanced classroom can increase learning engagement and student understanding. Learning objects can take the form of a video, an interactive learning module, or a photo. The main purpose of learning objects is to take a “meaty” learning standard and boil it down to specific knowledge and skills that can be taught in smaller units.

For example, according to the Common Core State Standards, in Grade 8, students should: Understand and apply the Pythagorean Theorem.

Explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse.
Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to determine unknown side lengths in right triangles in real-world and mathematical problems in two and three dimensions.
Apply the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance between two points in a coordinate system.

This is a “meaty” standard that requires unpacking. Once unpacked, one can see that students need to know and understand how to first explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. A learning object can help with that. Students can learn Pythagoras’ theorem using a professionally created learning object or a student created learning object. Once they understand the concepts behind the theorem, then they can be encouraged to apply the theorem to a relevant situation within their lives.

anigif_enhanced-5542-1442311388-2In a web-enhanced classroom, teachers would encourage their students to create learning objects using such tools as Explain Everything, Screencast-o-matic, or Doceri. With student created learning objects, students can now clarify their understanding at their learning pace and share their learning with others.  Thus, having students create learning objects authentically promotes personalized learning because the student’s voices are now added to the mix.


Goal Setting F.A.S.T.

One technique Instructional Designers use to focus on the goals of instruction is the functional analysis system technique, or F.A.S.T. technique. FAST is a simple chart that the Instructional Designer fills in, that starts with the action and ends with arriving at a goal for fulfilling that action. In other words, the FAST technique works backwards in order to help put a focus on the larger goal or goals at hand.

To implement this technique into lesson designs for web-enhanced classrooms, first start with the desired action and then work backwards by doing a functional analysis of that particular action. Asking how and why questions will help with the functional analysis. For instance, How does it function? Why does it function? The answers to those questions will help students derive at a goal for learning that particular course learning outcome.


Starting with the action will help students arrive at a final goal for learning.  For instance, when students are enrolled in a Mathematics course, first assist them in becoming familiar with the course learning outcomes for that particular mathematics course. Then, show the students how to convert those course learning outcomes into actionable goals.

Here is an example from Grade 6 mathematics CCSS Standards: Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems.

Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities. For example, “The ratio of wings to beaks in the bird house at the zoo was 2:1, because for every 2 wings there was 1 beak.” “For every vote candidate A received, candidate C received nearly three votes.”
Converting this standard into an actionable goal using the FAST technique would look like this:

The FAST technique is a foolproof way to incorporate student voice and choice in lesson design for web-enhanced classrooms because it allows the students to set goals from themselves within a framework of standards for learning. By teaching students to convert course learning outcomes into actionable goals, students automatically add their voice and choice to their learning and their goals for learning.

Where should teachers begin?

Over the last two months, I’ve been examining the difference between instructional-design theories and curriculum design theories. I learned that instructional-design theories are design-oriented in nature because they focus on the means to attain the given learning goals. They are probabilistic, which means that the prescribed method of instruction will increase the chances of attaining the learning goals byway of instructional conditions, desired outcomes, and the instructional components.  Instructional-design theories are founded on customization and diversity from the key markers of the Information Age.

In contrast, Curriculum-theory designs are description oriented in nature, which means that they focus on the results of any given learning event. They are also deterministic, which means that the attainment of the learning goals are assured with operant conditioning. Curriculum designs are founded on standardization and conformity from the key markers of the Industrial Age.

This inquiry has helped me to understand why I am mixing ideologies from both educational theories. Since curriculum-design theories limit a teachers ability to personalize learning for students, it is obvious that teachers have to make the shift. Hence, how do we shift from a curriculum-design theory mindset to an instructional-design theory mindset?


I started exploring an answer to that question using a Goal Analysis. Goal Analysis is one of the steps that instructional designers take when determining instructional needs. Typically, the goal analysis occurs during the analysis phase of A.D.D.I.E. Instead of using standards to commence instruction, teachers in web-enhanced classrooms would use the learners’ goals as the starting point for planning instruction. Robert Mager (1997) devised a process for analyzing goals:

  1. Write the goal.
  2. Identify the necessary behaviors learners would need in order to demonstrate achievement of this goal.
  3. Using the list of these behaviors, write a goal statement that describes what exactly the learner will be able to do.
  4. To ensure you have clarified the goal, look at the goal statement and ask: if the learner was able to achieve each performance behavior, would he or she have achieved the goal? If yes, then you have properly clarified the goal.

Therefore, by starting with the learner, instead of the standard, we can shift to an instructional-design theory mindset. So how would that look in a typical classroom? It would be unfair to apply the instructional-design theory mindset to an elementary web-enhanced classroom because it is not developmentally appropriate for that age group. As Mortimer Adler described in the Paideia Program, elementary age students require didactic instruction. However, a secondary web-enhanced classroom, is suitable for applying the instructional-design theory mindset because secondary students  are in the need of developing their intellectual skills.

Hence, to answer the question: Where should teachers begin, I say, begin with the learner.

  • What are the learners goals based on their current needs and interests?
  • What is the student’s ability in terms of achieving his or her goals?
  • What is the probability of the student achieving their goals based on their current level of performance?
  • What instructional design models should be employed that will increase the students probability of achieving his or her goals?
  • What are the constraints?
  • Is the goal aligned with the real-life goals that the students have?

Finally, we can contextualize the student’s learning goals with their grade-level standards within the design phase of A.D.D.I.E.


Adler, Mortimer J. (2011). The Paideia program: An educational syllabus. New York: Macmillan.

Mager, R. F. (2012). Goal analysis: How to clarify your goals so you can actually achieve them.

Lifetime Learning is not about Knowledge Acquisition

We are moving deeper into the age of conception. Daniel Pink described this age as “an era in which mastery of abilities that we’ve often overlooked and undervalued marks the fault line between who gets ahead and who falls behind” (p. 6). From Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind, one can surmise that students in the conceptual age must be able to:

  • create artistic and emotional beauty
  • detect patterns and opportunities
  • craft a satisfying narrative
  • combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention
  • empathize
  • understand the subtleties of human interaction
  • find joy in one’s self and elicit it in others” (p. 51).


Many of the traditional practices being used to teach our students in the conceptual age are not engaging learners in authentic ways, thus confining student identity, student agency, and student power. These traditional practices focus solely on the acquisition of topical knowledge and facts.

Schank reminds us that “we need a different approach to knowledge than we currently have” (p. 22). In other words, “we need to teach students to attack the facts and not to replace them with other facts” (Schank, p.22). Moreover, Schank submits that, “students are not taught to use the information they have, to question other information” (p. 23). Continuing down this traditional path will not prompt personalized learning for our students. Therefore, being predisposed to Schank’s advice, I believe that it would behoove educators to move from a knowledge-based education model (which is curriculum design) to a process-based education model (which is instructional design). Schank calls this process-based education model, story-centered curricula.  I’d like to tweak what he calls it, to story-centered design.

“Real knowledge is acquired as a natural part of an employed cognitive process in service of a goal” (Schank, p. 79). Below is a list of Schank’s twelve cognitive processes that underlie learning:

  • Conceptual
    • Prediction
    • Modeling
    • Experimentation
    • Evaluation
  • Analytic
    • Diagnosis
    • Planning
    • Causation
    • Judgement
  • Social
    • Influence
    • Teamwork
    • Negotiation
    • Describing

As students engage in authentic learning experiences, “knowledge acquisition is a natural result of engaging in cognitive processes that are being employed to satisfy a truly held goal” (Schank, p.79). Hence, it is the design of the learning experience that should be the focus. “A good [learning experience] relies on the creation of stories that a student can participate in and feel deeply about” (Schank, p. 90). Perhaps, using stories which are goal-based and involve role play, can be an approach used by teachers as an instructional design model in a web-enhanced classroom.

In sum, lifetime learning is not about knowledge acquisition. It’s about continuous development of the twelve cognitive processes, student identity, student agency, and productive student power.


Pink, D. H. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York: Riverhead Books.

Schank, R. C. (2011). Teaching minds: How cognitive science can save our schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lesson Enrichment and Lesson Extensions Open the door to Student Voice and Choice for Personalized Learning

Why is it that Lesson Enrichments and Lesson Extensions are typically reserved for the Gifted and Talented student? Perhaps I am wrong, but based on my own experience as a Classroom Teacher and as a Reading Specialist, I haven’t seen many school-aged children offered an opportunity to pick an extension or enrichment activity of their choice to work on. Doesn’t lesson enrichment and lesson extensions increase student voice and choice within their own learning? Below is the Carolyn Coil Model. This model illustrates horizontal and vertical differentiation for students. It also illustrates how lesson extensions and enrichments can enhance personalized learning for students.

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Lesson extension exercises allow students to explore topics that are in the curriculum. This is one method of providing students with a voice and a choice  in their learning. Lesson enrichment exercises, on the other hand, allow students to explore topics that are not in the curriculum. This is another method for giving students choice and voice in what they learn. Lesson enrichments tend to happen during genius hour. While lesson extensions occur within the unit of instruction.

As teachers design instruction that is personalized, they should consider including either an enrichment exercise or an extension exercise within the unit. Both are initiating methods for personalizing learning for students.

Using Computer Science Principles for Decision Making with Design-Oriented Theory

I came across Brian Christian’s and Tom Griffiths’ book entitled, Algorithms to Live By this past summer. I typically don’t read books about math and computer science, but I decided to stretch myself and read books that are outside of my comfort zone while relaxing by the pool.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths submit that “algorithms are a finite sequence of steps used to solve a problem” (p. 7). Christian and Griffiths definition got me to thinking, what algorithm can teachers use to solve the problem of personalizing learning for each student within a web-enhanced classroom?


I’m not a mathematician, nor statistician, nonetheless, after reading Algorithms to live by, I started to understand why mathematicians say that math is all around us. Essentially, algorithms help us to solve problems. Hence, how can we use algorithms to help us solve the problem of personalizing learning for all students within a web-enhanced classroom? What would that algorithm even look like? See my shameless attempt below.Slide1

I’m sure that my attempt at writing an algorithm that represents my problem is not the correct way, nonetheless, I still believe that I am on the right track regarding the usage of algorithms in instructional-design theory.  In any case, as I got deeper into Christian’s and Griffiths’ book, I realized that connections could be made between computer science principles and instructional-design theories for web-enhanced classrooms.

Teachers in a web-enhanced classroom using principles of instructional-design theory should consider employing the following principles from computer science for instructional decision making:

  • The optimal stopping problem – knowing when to stop analysis of information.
  • Explore/Exploit Tradeoff – Start with a period of exploration, then exploit the best options for your purpose.
  • Sorting – organization of information; making order.
  • Caching – storage of information; maintaining direct access to the most needed information.
  • Scheduling – knowing how much time should be allocated to a given task, first things first.
  • Bayes’s Rule – updating a belief about a hypothesis in light of new evidence, forecasting.
  • Overfitting – a statistical model that describes random error or noise within the data instead of an underlying relationship.
  • Relaxation – A relaxation is an approximation of a difficult problem by a nearby problem that is easier to solve. A solution of the relaxed problem provides information about the original problem.
  • Randomness – The lack of pattern or predictability in events. A random sequence of events, symbols or steps has no order and does not follow an intelligible pattern or combination.
  • Networking – making connections between sources of information.
  • Game Theory – a branch of mathematics concerned with the analysis of strategies for dealing with competitive situations where the outcome of a user’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other users.

There is much to ponder here, and I will continue to grapple with this issue as I document this journey of helping teachers personalize learning for students within their web-enhanced classroom.