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Core Four of Personalizing Learning

By: Noah Dougherty on October 11th, 2021

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Core Four of Personalizing Learning

Personalized Learning  |  Teachers  |  School Leadership

In 2014 Education Elements first introduced the Core Four, later publishing the “Core Four of Personalized Learning: The Elements You Need to Succeed” in 2016. Since its publication, this white paper has been downloaded over 3,000 times by educators across the world. The Core Four is our team’s most widely-recognized collateral. It is often the first resource we share with educators, it has been cited in research and position papers, and it has been adopted and customized by school districts. 

PL Core 4 White Paper (No Kites)

In the last five years since the white paper’s publication, our team has learned from the educators, students, families, and experts we work with on a daily basis and our approach has continued to grow based on those learnings. In addition, we, like educators across the world, are also reflecting on the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic. We better understand what is most important for our students, what supports for educators have the greatest impact, and what mindsets and foundational knowledge are critical to this work. 

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These new learnings and understandings are the reasons we are publishing the most significant update to the Core Four since 2016. This update better reflects our team’s beliefs and mindsets about personalizing learning for students. It incorporates the Core Four continuum which turns principles into school and classroom practices, making this both a white paper and a guide. There are four key updates to highlight: 


  • Defining student ownership as the goal:  We name clearly that personalized learing is an instructional approach that empowers students to build ownership of their learning. This updated version of the Core Four is centered around student ownership. Everything that educator do to personalize learning should be in service of building every student’s ownership of learning.
  • From a noun to a verb: This update is called the “Core Four of Personalizing Learning.” We still use the standard term, personalized learning, but are shifting to a verb for the Core Four update to emphasize that this framework names the actions that are most commonly used to make sure students get what they need, when they need it. Our hope is that this emphasis on action will make PL more actionable in the classroom .
  • Focusing on format, not content: In 2014 we talked about “Integrated Digital Content” in the context of blended learning; our work focused on ensuring that technology was successfully integrated into the classroom environment. In 2017 we changed our language to “Flexible Content and Tools”, recognizing that “at its core, with or without technology, personalized learning involves building a learning environment that is responsive to students’ strengths, needs, and interests.” Today we take another step in our evolved thinking, naming that almost any content can be personalized for the needs of a student. What’s more important is that the learning experience allows students to have the flexibility to engage with the materials they need, when they need them. 
  • Combining instruction and data: In earlier versions of work, targeted instruction was primarily a teacher action and was separated from data driven decisions. This separation limited the potential impact that both components could have to personalize learning for students.. In this updated version, we name explicitly that, at its most actualized, targeted instruction means that students can articulate what instruction they are receiving and why, and students have some choice over the instruction they recieve based on their data, passions, and preferences. Data is not a separate practice, it is a key component of targeting instruction.

We are thrilled to share this update and hope the Core Four will continue to support educators who work every day to personalize learning experiences that empower our students to advocate for themselves and their communities.

About Noah Dougherty

Noah Dougherty is an Associate Partner at Education Elements who loves supporting schools to design student-centered learning experiences that are transformative and culturally responsive. He has partnered with districts across the country to work on strategic planning; personalized learning; curriculum adoption; return to school planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Before joining Education Elements he worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, instructional coach, and school leader. He began his teaching career in Prince George’s County, Maryland with Teach For America and continued with KIPP DC. He has taught middle school social studies, 8th grade ELA, English 12, AP Literature, high school journalism, and DC History. While at KIPP DC he wrote the middle school social studies curriculum and coached ELA and social studies teachers. Noah also worked for DC Public Schools and LearnZillion on curriculum development initiatives. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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