Individualized Learning Paths

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In the United States, Carol Ann Tomlinson is the authority on methods of differentiation. She’s written more than 200 articles, books, and training materials on the subject. She defines differentiation as “…an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.” She breaks differentiation down into three buckets.

Bucket Description Examples
Content The material students are learning Books, articles, science experiment, maps, math problems  
Process The way students learn the material   Partner work, independent work, note-taking, math manipulatives, computer work   
Product The final product showing the material learned Exam or exit ticket, oral presentation, group project, essay, worksheet or graphic organizer  

These methods have served me well; but as a classroom teacher, differentiation was an in-the-moment decision or planned lesson-by-lesson. I never had a long-term plan.

In Finland, I observed classrooms where literally no two students or partnerships in a classroom were working on the same content in the same way. The teachers in these classrooms call this method Individualized Learning Paths.

In Minna’s English language classroom, middle schoolers choose whether they’d like to work towards Survival English, Standard English, or Expert English. Students read the descriptions below and make a choice:

Survival English Standard English Expert English
I doubt that I will ever need English in my future career. I don’t really use English for anything outside school. I want to learn what is needed to make myself understood and understand others in everyday situations in everyday language, even if the grammar isn’t always correct. I may or may not need English in the future. I use some English in my free time, but I’m not extremely interested in it. I want to understand and be able to use every day language correctly, but I might not be able to comprehend and use more difficult vocabulary and tenses. I think English is interesting, and I will most likely need it in my future. In my free time, I use English, and I enjoy it. I want to confidently speak in everyday situations, but also to be able to understand and use more complicated language.

For all groups, Minna starts with a 5-10 minute lesson. From there, students have a set number of exercises they must complete on their level. If students realize they can handle a more difficult level, they are allowed to switch. The majority of kids choose Standard or Expert, and when kids move, they typically go up rather than down.

In Jukka’s upper secondary math class, students also choose their levels: Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced. The different levels correlate with the number of exercises required. For example, Basic might have 50 exercises, Intermediate 75, and advanced 100.

Jukka starts by having the class vote to see if they’d like a quick explanation of the day’s lesson or if they’d rather go into their textbooks and learn it on their own. If they vote yes, he does a 5-10-minute lesson, and if they vote no, they all begin their work. Jukka spends the rest of the 75-minutes providing one-on-one and small group support to students.

Students are often working on a different lesson than Jukka presented. More advanced students may be 10-20 lessons ahead of the day’s lesson. They may even have finished the course and started on the next math course independently. Students who struggle with the content may be a few lessons behind the lesson Jukka presented.

Students can choose how many exercises (if any) they want to do on a particular lesson. For example, if Lesson 17 is quite easy for a student, he or she doesn’t have to do any exercises from that lesson. If Lesson 25 was difficult, the student can do 10 or 15 exercises from that level. The point is you shouldn’t have to spend time doing work that comes easy; the time should be spent on what is most challenging for you.

A younger teacher named Toni, who also taught upper secondary math, incorporated some of the techniques within the philosophy of Individualized Learning Paths, but his methods were more traditional; closer to the U.S. model and closer to the way the majority of Finnish teachers approach differentiation.

In his classroom, all students work on the same lesson. But at the beginning of the class, he asks students who would like to learn the information from him and who would like to learn it on their computers via online textbooks or videos. After the poll, some students put on their headphones on and begin learning the lesson virtually. The other students pay attention to Toni’s lesson. Like in Minna and Jukka’s classrooms, the lessons are short, maximum 10 minutes.

After the lesson, Toni has an assigned set of problems for everyone to complete. The set has a few Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced problems. Based on their performance on these 3-6 problems, students then choose which level to begin working on: Basic, Intermediate, or Advanced problems. There is always flexibility. If students begin to understand the basic level, they can move to intermediate problems and vice-versa if the problems get too challenging.

I think Toni’s method is one that would work in many American classrooms even from a young age. Below I’ve included examples of how to use Individualized Learning Paths in elementary math classes.  

Everyone in the class listens and participates in the same lesson.

  • In grades K-1, there are three problems labeled as circle, square, and triangle. Students complete the three problems, and put a thumb up when they are finished. The teacher comes to check the problem and tells the students whether to work on more circle, square, or triangle problems. When students finish 5-6 more problems, they put a thumb up again, and the teacher recalibrates their level based on their performance.
  • In grades 1-2, the process is the same as above, but when the teacher comes to the student, the teacher asks the student which problems were easy and which were hard. The teacher and student then decide together which problem set the student should work on first.
  • In grades 3-4, the process is the same, but students choose their own path and independently adjust along the way. The teacher checks in to help students recalibrate as needed.

The examples above allow for easy targeted intervention and extension. The teacher can ask all circles, squares, or triangles to come to the rug or back table, and then remediate or extend their understanding of the day’s concept.

Ultimately, the teachers I observed care deeply that students were neither bored nor frustrated. They believe that from a very young age, students must begin the journey of taking responsibility for their learning through reflections and choices. They also believe that knowing what comes easily to you and what is challenging for you is crucial in the lifelong journey of learning.

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