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Personalizing Learning: The Goal is Student Ownership

By: Noah Dougherty on October 4th, 2021

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Personalizing Learning: The Goal is Student Ownership

Personalized Learning

Think back to when you had a deep sense of ownership in your learning; a time when you went above and beyond the expectations because of your own curiosity or passion. For me, this was in seventh grade during a career exploration project. I wanted to be an architect, and I not only wrote a report about the profession, but I created an entire imagined autobiography of myself as an accomplished architect, complete with sketches of a model home. The flexibility of the project made it meaningful in a way worksheets and textbooks never could. I was able to explore a passion and, in the process, better understand myself.


Building each student’s ownership of their learning is the goal of personalizing learning. That seventh grade project is a perfect example of personalization that builds student ownership. Even though I never became an architect, I continue to rely on key understandings about the intentionality of design and how that can inform human interaction.


Everything educators do, from the classroom models they use to the content they present to students, should be oriented towards building student ownership of learning. Student ownership of learning looks and sounds different for each student, but is always grounded in four key principles:

  • Builds self awareness of their unique strengths, interests, and learning modalities
  • Empowers them to advocate for themselves and their community
  • Develops self management skills that encourage personal and academic growth
  • Inspires them to become lifelong learners


Educators who are most successful at building ownership of learning recognize the varied ways this might occur. There is no single set of practices that build ownership of learning, because each student, teacher, and classroom community is unique. In my career exploration project, we had the flexibility to not just explore different professions, but to express that knowledge in a way that was personally meaningful. 


Building student ownership of learning requires positive relationships with students. Teachers who know and care about their students as individuals are best able to personalize learning that builds ownership of learning. My seventh grade teacher indulged my interest in architecture because he knew I was interested in art and design. The flexibility of the project allowed him to focus less on the content and more on cultivating the interests of every student.


When we personalize learning for students, it’s important to stay focused on the person; and develop their ownership of learning. Personalized learning isn’t about a classroom model or a program. Those are tools which are utilized in service of making learning truly meaningful for every student.

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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