The Future of Personalized Learning: Individual Learning Plans and Competency Based Education

As more schools, districts, and states implement personalized learning strategies, the focus has shifted from plug and play technology solutions to rethinking the structure of the classroom as we know it. So how are states moving forward with personalized learning initiatives?

In this podcast series, Student-Centered Pathways to Student Success, we’ll explore the benefits and challenges that come with this movement towards personalized learning.

A big part of the personalized learning plan is just that: the personal part of the plan. As this strategy for engaging students becomes more popular across the U.S., teachers and principals must figure out how to create a plan that’s tailored to an individual student’s success — at scale.

It’s a delicate balancing act. As we’ve explored in this series so far, the benefits of personalized learning, when looking at an individual student, can seem like a silver bullet. After all, creating lesson plans around students’ interests, learning styles, and skill levels sounds like a surefire way to increase engagement and outcomes in the classroom.

But, how can you maintain the magic of this style of teaching and learning in a classroom of 25 students? What about a whole grade of four-hundred? A district of several thousand? And how do you make sure that students are actually learning and hitting age-appropriate competencies?

That’s what we’re exploring this episode with two advisors at a unique high school in Rhode Island. It’s called the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center — aka the Met School.

The Met first opened in 1995.

“So the Met’s mantra is, ‘One student at a time,’ and we essentially have individual learning plans for each student,” says Keith Nalbach, an advisor at the Met school for the last 12 years.

An advisor is kind of like a teacher and a guidance counselor all rolled up into one. They manage small groups of high schoolers for the entire duration of their high school career.

“The advisor essentially stays with the same students for four years throughout all of high school. There’s usually about 16 students per advisoree. The students initially in ninth grade are trained to go out in the workplace and understand how to do interviews, create resumes and cover letters,” he says.

“They go through exploring what interest they might like. And from there we have them out at internships twice a week. So three days are back at the school building their skills, building competencies, and then twice a week they were out at their internship working with a mentor basically in an apprenticeship style of learning.”

And all of that, the competencies and the internships, are fueled by a student’s individual interests.

“We tailor that, or fuel it, by their interests and their passion. So each student is potentially working on different goals and trying to master different skills depending on the pathway that they might want to take throughout high school and beyond,” Keith explains.

Each advisor, on average, is responsible for 16 students, which can sound like a dream classroom for many educators. But Keith says it’s necessary to keep the classroom sizes manageable, because of variation between each and every student.

“If there is too many students in advisory at this point with where we’re at it can be pretty difficult to manage all the floating curricula that may or may not change month in and month out,” he says.

“So they have individual learning plans that are pretty much a living document, and there is consistency within that. But the student does have choice to change that over time. And so to do that for too many students would start to become an issue.”

This is a bit different than the way many adults today went through their high school years. How are students supposed to learn the so-called basics like, how does a semi-colon work? And what were the factors that led to the French revolution? Or how do you find the volume of a cylinder?

Keith says that kind of direct instruction happens at the Met School — and instruction, whenever possible, relates back to real world applications and the interests of the individual student.

“So a lot of that the direct instruction happens over time within advisory. When there’s not independent work time happening. We also have what’s called a quantitative reasoning specialist where essentially the kids are going to learn a little bit more traditional math during the day a few times a week,” Keith describes.

“They’re put into another advisory at that time with a math specialist. But even within that class they’re not only learning those skills, they’re then learning to apply those skills and the why. Why am I learning this math? And how is this going to relate to my life and what I might want to do? So I think we really try to address the ‘why’ as much as possible so that kids can get a meaningful experience, they don’t get bored in school, their attendance is high and they see the purpose.”

If you’ve ever spoken to a teenager, you know that one of their favorite phrases is: “I’m bored.” So, how do you make sure that a student stays engaged, while actually learning something?

Brian Bordieri is another advisor at the Met — he’s been there for about seven years, and is currently working with his second group of sixteen students, who are now juniors.

Brian says he’s seen this program work with all kinds of students. He remembers one student in particular who had a very niche interest:

“He loves snakes, it’s all he wanted to do,” says Brian.

When Brian says this student loved snakes, he really meant it. But how could Brian, and this student, turn this passion into a learning opportunity? As the student got older and moved along in the program, Brian used their one-on-one meetings to try to help him find a senior thesis project.

“Snakes are great, but what are you going to do with that. In five years there aren’t just snake jobs around. So what can you do? And we identified the fact that one of the things he loved doing was explaining and answering all the questions of his younger nephews when they would come over to the house and ask the questions, ‘What does it eat? How do you feed it? How do you clean it?'” Brian says.

Brian realized this student would be able to apply his knowledge by working with kids and snakes.

“So we designed an experience for his senior thesis project where he would go into a kindergarten classroom. And he designed a whole experiment where you had two different kindergarten classrooms, one classroom would actually house the snake for a month. It would live there. And he would come in one or two days a week and just kind of provide care for the snake, and the students would watch him and ask questions. And he would do like live feedings right there in the classroom. And they got to name the snake. They all got to interact with it,” says Brian.

But the kids in Classroom B? They’d only get a presentation about the snake once a week. This student wanted to measure how comfortable the kindergarteners in the two classrooms would be handling the snake over time.

“Of course we saw that every kid in Classroom A was comfortable and wanted to handle the snake and was no longer afraid. And in the other classroom there was a much more mixed situation. So what this kid learned was that even though he loves snakes, he also learned that he’s excellent around elementary students,” Brian explains.

“He is clearly an expert in all these different snake behaviors, now it opens up another door for him to say, ‘OK, like I’m good at working with kids, is that something that I can do? And if I can teach them about snakes, can I teach them about other things?'”

Brian says this project was crucial for the student’s confidence in his own abilities.

“I think about the the fact that when that student came to me he had very little success in high school. He transferred in because things were not working out for him. And what would that have been like if that student didn’t get to come here and say, ‘I like snakes what can we do with that?’ and design his own project work. And by his own admission that student says there is very little chance that they would have completed high school successfully if they weren’t able to ask their own questions, and find material that engaged them because they were passionate about it,” Brian shares.

Unlike a traditional learning plan, where once a semester, or once a year, a teacher says, “You can do a report on any historical figure now.” Or, “You can pick a book to read for this project.” At the Met, the student identifies an interest first, and then the projects and learning objectives are designed around that student’s interest.

Brian says that when he first starts working with his freshmen, it takes a while to teach them how to be curious again.

“When the ninth graders come in, we have to spend so much time reeducating them about like what their experience has been. I have to spend so much time doing one of my favorite activities, which is just teaching them how to ask questions,” Brian explains.

Brian blames the traditional school environment for training kids to listen to instructions, instead of asking questions.

“In elementary schools they’re taught they’ve got to sit in rows, they need to follow the instruction of the teacher that has a prescribed curriculum that’s going to connect to next year’s curriculum, which is going to help them pass the test. And they’re just not asking questions,” says Brian.

“So when they get to me in ninth grade they’ve been doing this now for years, and they’re not used to having any empowerment in what they’re learning. How to ask a question about it is a skill that they have lost because they’re not practicing it.”

Brian says one of the first projects he does with his students is deceptively simple: Tell us who you are.

“We start off with some really basic team building and relationship building in ninth grade where one of the first projects we do is a ‘Who Am I’ project. A lot of the kids don’t know yet, like they don’t know how they fit into society, how they can use their skills to make a difference. And asking them that, often the kids are getting that for the first time, is a great process, so we go through that together. We spend a lot of time getting to know each other because we’re gonna be together for four years. I want to know where this kid is coming from,” says Brian

While you might have students come in who have a clear passion and drive already, that’s not always the case.

Brian says one student came in as a freshman and thought she knew exactly what she wanted.

“She came in day one, ‘I want to be a nurse in the NICU and I just want to like hold babies when they’re the most fragile, like really help them and that’s what I want to do. Babies, babies, babies, I want to play with babies and do this,'” he says.

Brian says the student’s internships started with a daycare, where she was working directly with infants. Then she tried her hand at a rehabilitation unit for elderly patients. She even worked in a pathology lab at Brown University one summer.

“She got to like grow malaria and then develop antibiotics and kill the malaria with the antibiotics — it was this really cool thing,” says Brian.

But Brian says a turning point came when she conducted an interview with a school teacher nurse.

“The student walked away from that interview saying, ‘I don’t want to work in hospital anymore. I don’t like the clinical environment as much, but I loved being with the kids in an elementary school as a school nurse. So now I want to be a school nurse teacher,'” Brian shares.

“So now, here we are in 11th grade. The pathway isn’t really that different but we’ve identified that for her postsecondary pathway, she needs to still go and get her bachelor’s in nursing, but now she should be minoring in education because she wants to be able to graduate and be a school nurse teacher. If the student didn’t have those opportunities to try working in a hospital setting, to try working in an elementary setting and meet these different people who are doing jobs that she was more or less unaware of what they were really like, the kid wouldn’t be able to do that.”

These internships are key opportunities for students. They not only give the students an opportunity to try their hand at a given job or in a field of their choice, but it also connects them to mentors who can help them prepare for that job.

Students and advisors both know that advisors can’t be the experts in everything, so these mentors also help students identify certification or community college classes that students can take. A great example might be student who’s looking to work in a kitchen one day, that kid might want to knock out their ServSafe certification. These certifications also act as a way to measure competencies for students.

Keith Nalbach says students also demonstrate their competencies through exhibitions.

“Students have to exhibit their work at least three times a year. They are usually a panel of like 15 or so of their peers, parents or guardians are expected to show up during that time. Sometimes a mentor is able to show up depending on the flexibility of their work schedule. So they present for about anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour on everything they’ve learned, or everything they’ve valued that they learned during that semester, and they are then given feedback and asked questions by the panel,” explains Keith.

“The pro is you can’t cheat. Like if you don’t know the answer because you didn’t do the work or you didn’t learn that competency or you can’t answer that question, then you go back and you figure out that answer, or you go back and you do more work.”

Plus, the students get feedback from their peers, mentor, and advisor on their exhibitions.

“Initially, there is some growing pains, especially in ninth grade, because it’s a new system for them. But eventually they’re all well-versed in how to give effective feedback and they’re also skilled in like receiving the feedback and not getting defensive but seeing it as an opportunity for growth,” says Keith.

From real world internships and mentorship opportunities, to using their interests to fuel discovery and learning, Brian says for him, the benefits of personalized learning are simple:

“Personalized learning is simply putting the student in the driver’s seat and trusting them to choose a destination, or at least a starting point, and then saying yes. And I think it can be daunting to a lot of teachers to let a student to do that and say, ‘Well, you know, students, they don’t want to work that hard.’ And I find that’s not true. Students want to work hard at things that are important to them. So having the trust that students do want to learn is a fundamental part of doing this,” he says.

But the adults in the room, the teachers and advisors, have to be willing to admit they don’t know everything. Brian says that as personalized learning becomes more of a buzzword, and more teachers try to implement these strategies, teachers have to be willing to learn alongside their students.

“If I’m a social studies teacher and my student wants to learn a lot about math and I say, ‘Well I’ll help you with anything but math.’ I think that’s such a disservice because there’s tons of math that you can learn through social studies. It’s just a matter of being willing to say that the kid might know more than you about a certain topic. But it’s not that I need to be the expert I need to role model how to learn. I think that any good teacher should be able to to perform that duty. So this personalized learning piece requires us to be willing to play catch up with the student,” he says.

Brian says he bristles at critics who think that his students would just be staring at a screen all day long.

“For anyone who wants to see the power of that, come and meet my students. They’re all the evidence that you’re going to need to change your mind. I think about some of the amazing projects I’ve seen students in my advisory and another advisories complete,” he says.

When he gets that question about, “What evidence is there that personalized learning works?” Brian says he turns that question around.

“What I’d love to say is, I would actually love to see the benefits of traditional learning. I don’t think anybody asked that question. Like I have yet to see, except for students who are clearly college bound, where the benefit of that style of education comes in,” Brian explains.

“Because certainly of course, I had a great benefit from going to a traditional school. But I also had a great detriment. Like I wasted a lot of my time. So I think that’s a really fundamental question to ask is, when we’re comparing one against the other, like where are those benefits? But I haven’t had anybody come to me and yet offer me a good argument as to how personalized learning hurts my students.”

From snakes, to nursing, to traditional vocations like plumbing and electricity work — the Met School has helped students follow their interests, and carve their own paths in the world for over twenty years. And it seems to be working — with the Hechinger Report finding that the Met School beats the state’s average graduation rate — 90 percent compared to 84 percent.

And as students’ interests shift and change, and the outlets for educational opportunities expand, more districts are looking for ways to engage those students. Currently, Providence Public Schools is using the Met School as a model as it begins to embrace personalized learning. And starting in 2016, Rhode Island launched a personalized learning initiative.

As districts across the nation begin to decide whether and how to embrace personalized learning, they will have at least one model.


This podcast episode is brought to you by Teach Plus. Teach Plus is a nonprofit organization designed to empower excellent, experienced teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that affect their students’ success. To learn more about Teach Plus, visit

You are invited to join Teach Plus and Teach Plus Rhode Island Fellows at the MET School in Providence, RI on Saturday, June 8th for a day of learning and conversation around promising practices in personalized and student-centered learning. Come as a participant or apply to present! The agenda will include guest speakers, teacher led workshops and self-guided break out sessions, as well as breakfast and lunch provided. Learn more and register for this free conference.

Mariel Cariker

Mariel Cariker

Mariel is a Boston-based freelance writer and audio producer who has covered news, technology and innovation for public media groups including WBUR and WGBH. Outside of work, she performs and writes spoken word poetry and voraciously reads true crime novels.