How Personal are Your Learning Plans?

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her deep dive into personal learning plans and some best-practices suggested by Dr. Steven Rippe of EdVisions.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


How Personal are your PLPs?

By Nancy Allen Mastro

Students in any college of education are exposed to many theories, but two stand out as fundamental to understanding how students learn and what motivates them to do well in school.  Jean Piaget gave us his stage theory of cognitive development.  Children, he said, learn by exploring their world. They construct knowledge by linking new information to what they already know, enabling them to add skills to their repertoire.  In each successive stage of development, they process information in more abstract terms.  Abraham Maslow articulated a hierarchy that reveals the range of underlying needs that motivate behavior and thus influence cognitive development.  Needs such as food, safety, and love must be met before striving to reach levels of esteem and self-actualization.

Most remember Piaget and Maslow more than others because their theories make so much sense.  But knowing a theory only brings value to an educator if applied to practice.  It’s difficult to step back and take the time to let students construct knowledge; we have mountains of standards to cover.  It’s difficult to meet students’ emotional needs when a single teacher may see upwards of 150 students every day.

Yet we try.  We attempt to recognize each student for who they are and do whatever we can to help them grow as a person and master content so they can move on to the next grade.  For some students in today’s classrooms, this somewhat superficial experience is enough. For others, it is not. Inequities, underfunding, and mixed political agendas compromise and strain the system.  And somehow, childhood and young adulthood seem to have become more complex. As a result, so has teaching.

If students’ most basic needs are not being met, how can we expect them to acquire new knowledge and expand their skill set?  If new learning builds on what students know, how do we gauge when to introduce new content?  To optimize learning for all students, we need a reliable and sustainable way to meet each learner where they are at on their personal journey towards maturity.  This requires the use of an individualized plan.

Individual plans have been around at least since the 1970s if not before.  The most widely recognized efforts began in 1975 with PL 94-142, the first federal special education law which guaranteed a child with a disability a free appropriate public education.  Outcome-based education followed shortly thereafter with its emphasis on mastery learning.  Those who’ve been around a while know many more systems for instruction were posited and tried, but the goal of meeting individual needs remained largely elusive.  Fast-forward to today and conversation centers on personalized learning plans (PLPs).  Is it possible that after half a century of admiring the problem we are on the verge of a solution?  

It’s quite possible.  A few things have changed since then.  Despite the ills of the accountability movement, one positive effect is that it has made it impossible to ignore the number of students for whom the system is failing.  We are desperate for an answer on how to ensure the success of all students.

Second, we have better tools to help us assess student learning and measure growth.  We have endless ways to capture learning in real time, and technology has multiplied how we can communicate about student progress with all stakeholders.  We’ve also made great strides in articulating what it is we want students to know and be able to do.

And third, we’ve had time to iterate.  As pointed out, we’ve tried a few things since the early days of individualized learning plans.  We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t to the degree we can position students and teachers for real success.  The question is, are we willing to acknowledge those lessons and transform our practice?

While many people have been writing and wondering about PLPs, EdVisions has been creating them.  They’ve been on the ground with educators, digging deeply into what it takes to develop PLPs that are as meaningful to students as they are to the adults in their world.  Dr. Steven Rippe, EdVisions’ Director of the Hope Survey and Organization Development has spent the last two decades working with over a hundred schools on personalizing learning.  He started shortly after the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) published Breaking Ranks.  “This is when it got in everybody’s mind we should do them,” he recalls.  But the accountability movement, with its focus on high-stakes tests, sidelined the growing emphasis on developing PLPs.  

However, the draw of personalized learning managed to persist in the wake of the accountability movement, even among policymakers.  Mandates to develop them for all students emerged. But impact fell short of good intentions. Plans complied with the mandates but were short on substance.  They were largely principal or teacher-created, and most were teacher-driven.  Typically, students completed them using a standard template.  Students did not find meaning in what looked to them like another fill-in-the-blank assignment.  

Rippe recalls the time well.  “I realized the whole spirit was gone, and that we needed to restore the idea of helping the individual student understand who they are, what they need, and how to advocate for themselves.”  

In response, he and EdVisions convened groups of people to work on PLPs in different places around the country.  For those new to the work, EdVisions shared their current best practice. Those who’d been developing PLPs were asked to share their best work.  What emerged was an ongoing dialogue now over a decade-long and still flourishing.  

According to Rippe, a fundamental priority from the start was to avoid adding things to teachers’ and students’ plates, which are already overflowing.  Instead, the focus was on changing the work.  EdVisions coached teachers in how to transition to a new theory of knowledge.  The goal was to make PLPs the center of their work and to make PLPs effective and efficient.  

Over time, students were engaged in the development process.  Rippe reports about a third of the students they interviewed liked PLPs.  Another half were open to them, but adults had to sell them on the idea. Not surprisingly, approximately 20 percent had no interest at all and were openly critical.  EdVisions probed further to find out why.  

“There is a significant amount of pressure on students to perform,” Rippe says. “They don’t feel they have time with all the pressure to participate in cocurriculars.  They are wary of PLPs and told us they feel they are too scripted.  We ended up realizing that for a PLP to be authentic, each individual needs to create it in a way that genuinely reflects who they are and what their values are.  You can’t have a standardized approach for this kind of thing.”  

What was missing, they realized, was the personal in personalized learning plans.  

The feedback from students was invaluable and sparked the newest generation of EdVisions’ work with students and teachers that makes the personal element the primary focal point.  By deconstructing, then reconstructing the PLP they have been able to give students the autonomy to drive their PLPs. This has transformed understanding of the role and purpose of the PLP.  More importantly, it has led to developing plans that are more meaningful and useful.  

Even though each plan may look different per the individual, there are several essential elements.  The PLP must include self-exploration. Students need to know who they are as an individual, as a learner, and as a member of a community.  Second, a student-led conference is held three times a year where they present who they are, what they’ve achieved, and what they are challenged with.  Rippe is quick to note, “It is not a student-parent-teacher conference.  Kids need the freedom and flexibility to do it their way.” Student reflection is a third critical element.

One challenge is coming up with a way for the PLP to begin at ground zero and evolve in a manner that represents a truly constructivist approach.  “We don’t begin with an end in mind,” Rippe insists, such as a portfolio or other common format.  “There are some guidelines, but it is left to the student to determine how to organize their PLP.”  

The adults’ role, Rippe says, is to provide students with a vehicle to explore, a time to present, a time to reflect (document), and a time to grow and regenerate the PLP.  It is a recurring cycle that ensures the PLP is a dynamic, living plan that serves as the focus for a student’s learning. “It (the plan) can take a lot of different directions, almost like a menu,” he points out.  Their newest work is about collecting activities to generate such a menu.

Barriers to creating a PLP do exist.  “The biggest challenge,” says Rippe, “is the mindset of teachers and students.  What we find most often is that teachers are trying to personalize learning plans for students but not doing it themselves.  Teachers also need to create their own PLP so they understand what the student experiences.”

And why not?  Teachers have long wanted to have more control over their own professional development.  When working with a school, EdVisions encourages teachers to create their own PLP to serve as the focus of their individual learning needs and interests.  

They even encourage the entire school to create a schoolwide PLP.  Student and teacher PLPs living inside a school PLP help to simplify what might otherwise feel like a daunting undertaking.  This nested approach (Figure 1) builds a common framework that includes the following elements:

  • A shared, consistent mental model
  • A clear set of practices that are easily understood and replicated, and
  • Momentum around personalization as a central programming feature

 Figure 1.

When working with a school, EdVisions turns to the students and staff to help them make PLPs simple and sustainable.  Years of work on perfecting PLPs has been captured in a new book by Rippe and Nicole Luedtke, along with a group of students from Valley New School in Appleton, Wisconsin.  Luedtke is an advisor and EdVisions coach at Valley New School. Coming out this spring, Transformational Personal Learning Plans, A Universal Approach for Everyone summarizes 12 years of EdVisons’ work with over 100 schools throughout their network to design and develop PLPs, including Valley New School.  Their ongoing collaboration with students and staff is featured in the book and will be a useful resource for practitioners who want to take their PLPs to the next level.  


Faced with today’s challenges, we need to remember that teaching is about developing people.  While providing good content and helping them acquire skills are cornerstones of their formal education, they are not enough to inspire students towards greatness.  Through personalized learning plans, we can engage students’ heads and their hearts in all aspects of schooling, but only if each plan is authentic and genuinely personal.


Consider how PLPs fit into the culture at your school. Are they personal?  What do students say about them? Are they grounded in using sound theories of cognitive development?  Do they take into consideration students’ social and emotional needs? Depending on what you find, it may be time to deconstruct your PLP and allow a new iteration to emerge.  When you do, don’t forget to let the masters like Piaget, Maslow, and others influence your effort.


If you’d like more information on PLPs from Dr. Steven Rippe, you can contact him at or call him at 612-601-1083.