Personalized Learning, UDL, and Innovation with Kathleen McClaskey

Kathleen McClaskey, co-author of How to Personalize Learning and Make Learning Personal joins me for a personal interview about personalized learning, UDL, and innovation in the classroom.

If you’d prefer to read versus listen, the podcast transcript is below:

Christine: Thanks for joining me to today and talking to me about personalized learning and UDL, so

Kathleen, tell me a little bit about yourself, your journey in education and how you became an author specializing in personalized learning.

Kathleen: This is Kathleen McClaskey, I live in Southern New Hampshire and my journey in education is pretty long and let me just tell you how I began. So many years ago, I received a degree in elementary education and didn’t end up teaching at the beginning. I ended up going into industry and one of the things I’ve always done is train other people in all of the different jobs that I’ve had. Back in 1983, I found a program named Computers in Education in Southern New Hampshire at Rivier College. I was very intrigued because in 1983 computers really weren’t being used by too many people in the classroom. There were assortments of Apple IIe’s and some IBMs and things like that but I had a few courses. Let me just tell you, in 1983 was the introduction of the mouse. That was the first year. I remember a professor saying this is a new device that you can attach to your computer and that was 1983. I started out as a math tutor part time because I had children at home and I moved from Rivier College to Lesley College at that time and got my degree through an outreach program in 1988 in Computers in Education.


I always had this vision around technology, but it wasn’t called technology then. I saw it as the great equalizer. I saw this as an incredible tool for learning. I’ve always had that vision. I’ve stuck with that vision for all these years, almost 35 years now. It brings me to today. The types of jobs that I had along the way were a computer teacher in Junior high school where I actually created learner-centered environments. Seymour Papert was the one person that really spoke to me about teaching and learning, and whose constructivist theory I proved in the classroom. His theories really supported learner-centered environments. So the journey began there. Kids actually did take ownership in their learning and they were highly engaged in learning. I went from there and became a technology integration specialist both in MA and NH and then went into a Director of Technology position both in MA and in NH because I live on the border of the states. In 2001, I left K-12 and decided to go out on my own and ended up developing my first company around the philosophy that we can really use tools to level the playing field for all learners and it is really that same vision that it was the great equalizer. I set-up a whole professional development program.

I used Universal Design for Learning for the first time in 2001, developed graduate courses around Universal design for Learning and used it in my practice with school districts so that at all times we were always using that particular lens to understand who learners are in the classroom and then use it in instruction. So, how do you universally design the instruction? How do you provide the tools to support a variety of learners in the classroom? What type of strategies and messages should you use in your instruction to reach the maximum amount of learners and engage them? I used UDL from about 2001 until today but I was always focused on the fact that we needed to be able to teach all learners and provide them the tools so they can become independent and self-directed learners. So, that really folds nicely into what I do today. I co-authored two books, Make Learning Personal and How to Personalize Learning and all of this is really about the foundation of Universal Design for Learning and how we can understand who learners are and we actually developed the UDL Lens of access, engage, and express. I’ll talk a little bit more about that in another question but that UDL story, the story of using technology to be the great equalizer, we can use all of that today. We virtually have all of the tools to level the playing field for every learning to become independent and self-directed. So that really should be our goal and again.

Christine: I agree with you. In fact, whenever I think of personalized learning I immediately think of you and Barbara Bray. To me those two will be forever paired in my brain. So, when I started blogging and would see personalized learning, you were the first two people I thought of and for anyone listening, that’s how we connected, through Twitter. I wasn’t sure of your Twitter handle but Barbara’s was super easy to find I tweeted to Barbara and heard from you. You guys are really essential in this space and the books that you have authored simplify personalized learning into actionable steps and I think that’s the challenge when you think of personalized learning it seems overwhelming. It seems like “I can’t do this,” so you break it down and use best practices and UDL. It makes it easy to make it actionable and start small and get to know your learner better and follow a journey to personalizing learning in your classroom.

For schools beginning their journey in personalization, what advice would you give them?


Wow, well I’ve recently received a question from a high school that wants to move to personalized learning. So, here’s some of the advice I give to people about how to begin.


  • First of all, find people that are interested in your school because you need to have a core group of people and you need to begin the conversation. The essential element in creating a foundation in a school is to start building the conversation around it. When Barbara and I wrote the first book, Make Learning Personal, it was around our 5 Ws of Personalized Learning. It helps you see all aspects of personalized learning. We offer a stand alone course but we do not offer it like a full-blown course where we do webinars. I’ve basically opened it up for people to do a virtual book study with me. I want them to read it, I want them to have questions and I want to have the opportunity to ask questions to think deeper about this. The essential element is to build the conversation and a common language that everyone agrees to around personalized learning because you have to have daily conversations, you have to be able to talk to your peers. That’s the very beginning.
  • The next step is bringing in stakeholders around this so you can start developing a vision and actually that’s in chapter 1 of our book, How to Personalize Learning and saying that vision around personalized learning and saying that vision around personalized learning or learner-centered environments. That vision is something everyone agrees to, parents, teachers, admins, students. Certainly kids should be involved in this and community members. Take the time to do this. It isn’t a fast process and by the time you’ve developed some really good language around it, you can start building the vision around it.
  • The other thing is, a set of beliefs around teaching, learning, and community. What do you want for your learners? What do you want your learners to be able to do, in the end, in your school district? That’s what is so important because things are often proposed in schools, new ideas and stuff like that but you want everyone on board around those beliefs. The teacher is not going to take the time and the effort to create a learner-centered environment if in fact they don’t have a set of beliefs which we say we all agree to this and we are going forward. Those are those foundational steps to help a school or school district move forward. A lot of times what happens is that one school is moving toward personalized learning and another one thinks about too and wants to move in that direction. In some cases, an entire district really wants to move. We’ve actually done that work where it is a K-12 movement. Everyone needs to have the common language down. We had one school district where we did our 10 week course. The superintendent was there, the principals were there, teachers were there all talking to each other, all conversing. We have a set of great activities around the 5 Ws. The 5 Ws is the Who, What, When, Where, and Why in personalized learning. In the end, you need to be able to say why you are doing this and that’s everyone. Everyone needs to understand why and the vision and beliefs help in the end really drive it forward. On a daily basis you are changing the culture of the school. One of my famous quotes is you can’t change the culture until you change the language. No one should have a different understanding than the other.

You can’t change the culture until you change the language. – McClaskey

First Steps for schools that want to personalize learning.

  1. Common Language
  2. Vision
  3. Set of Beliefs

Christine: In our district, we are a fairly large district, we have 7,300 students. We don’t generally do things en masse, we use a cohort model. The cohorts acts as a research and development team and then builds out from there. We have some great, strong organic teams. One is called the Meraki’s and they study personalized learning. I blog about them frequently but they get together and study in Cary Harrod’s house. You know her, she’s a thought leader in this space. They get together at her home and talk about strategies: what’s working, what isn’t working and it fuels their fire. It is their own initiative and they have established their own common language. It has organically grown and started very small but she has 3-4x the number of members she once did. She said her house is almost too small to accommodate them and she has a large house. <laugh>

Kathleen: I’m glad that you reflected on what you are doing in your school district because it really is different everywhere and sometimes we have very small districts and sometimes we have very small ones that want to do this. Sometimes it is a group of teachers and this is what they want to do. It is great that you have that camaraderie and commitment to do this because believe it or not, parents are going to notice and the community is going to notice and they are going to be asking, why isn’t it everywhere else? It takes major leadership for this to happen. I was just talking with the Lindsey school district a few days ago and they basically have a very diverse population with high poverty level and they’ve been highly successful in creating learner-centered environments.The level of commitment from everyone in that school district is evident. It can really happen with any population. That’s the point I want to make that this is something that if you have that level of commitment from a core group of leaders you can really change the world and school.

Kathleen, can you explain how learners use the lens of Access, Engage, and Express to develop agency?

That’s a really great question. I actually, in our current book, How to Personalize Learning I will refer to some chapters in there. First of all, we actually have a chapter, by the way, around agency and the 7 elements of agency. People may not realize there are 7 specific characteristics of agency (Voice, Choice, Engagement, Motivation, Ownership, Purpose, Self-Efficacy). We have really incredible graphics developed by from Sylvia Duckworth that show the elements of agency across the stages of a personalized learning environment.


Sylvia Duckworth - Continuum of Voice
Sylvia Duckworth


And those people that are familiar with that we created the stages of personalized learning environments but we’ve updated it in his particular book. Let me talk about the UDL lens and how it is used by both teachers and learners and how it supports the learner in developing agency. Let me just say that, UDL is a scientifically based approach to personalized learning that is now defined in ESSA and this is great news. How we use UDL is that we took the three principals of the Universal Design for Learning and we basically turned it into three words:

  • Access
  • Engage
  • Express

so they could easily be used by both teacher and learner in conversation about their learning. That’s really learning about anything in particular. I’ll explain a little more about what the terms mean. Access is the way that we access and process information into usable knowledge. It is important and we all have strengths and challenges in these areas. The next one is Engage. How do we engage with content? Again, the strengths and challenges we understand about ourselves. Express is how we express what we know and understand and we have to do that on a daily basis. These are all important elements for the teacher to know about their learners but for the learners to know about themselves.

One of the first steps a teacher can take is developing a learner profile and I’ll explain a three step process for creating agency:

The first step is creating the learner profile. I do want to point out that we created a three-part blog series at that explains this 3-step process. In the learner profile, we are going to ask the learner what their strengths and challenges are and how they access and process information and how they engage with content and how they express what they know and understand. We also want to know what a learner’s passions are, what their interests are. We need to always understand the affective side of learning and know this about our learners, so we can make those connections. When a learner does this profile, the teacher is learning about this child as well but he/she is going to find out most of the information about using the learner profile that the the learner completes. What do we do with all of that?

The next step in the three step process. Let me step back one minute. Once we teach the learner and they can talk about the learning then this relationship is actually started. Now the learner can develop some really good skills to become more self-directed but they are also at the same time, once they know who they are as learners, they can self-advocate for their learning. Nothing is better than when the child develops a self-confidence about who they are as learners. What will that learner profile do for that learner? It helps validate who they are; who they are on this planet. How they learn is certainly ok because we all have strengths and challenges in how we learn. We should never ever use learning styles. Learning styles have virtually no evidence that it has ever been effective in the last 40 years. This is using the neuroscience. UDL is based on the neuroscience of how we learn. When the teacher and learner actually talk about who they are as learners they can actually take a strength or a challenge and develop a goal so the learner becomes more self-directed. Because we want learners to become experts on their own learning. They need to be able to know who they are as learners, a set of skills to be self-directed so they have those choices. When we don’t provide the choices and it is really for every learner to develop agency. Agency means that a child is independent, can monitor their own progress, can talk about their learning. For the audience, it actually starts very early on, at the kindergarten level, first grade level. Agency isn’t something that’s developed overnight. It can be developed as kids get older but if you can image a child that is confident in their learning, is developing skills to support their learning and that child is entering your classroom, how wonderful that would be. Right now we don’t have a focus around agency. If someone wants to read an article, recently I wrote an article for Educational Leadership. The title of that article is Personalization and UDL; The Perfect Match, you will actually get a good sense around what happens when you use this particular lens to help every learner develop agency.

I do want to point out that once a teacher takes the time to do this, building that relationship and get to know every learner, it is going to impact your instructional practice. In our book, we apply a UDL lens in instructional design and lesson design. It is a very easy process to use and can be used in part of your daily practice. You have to be thinking about (access, engage, express) who your learners are so you can create more effective instructional strategies in the classroom. This proves true across the levels from the learner developing agency to the teacher developing really good instruction for all of the learners in the classroom. One of the things I always recommend is that teachers do their own profile because we are all learners. I want to point out that we never really use the word students ever in our book because we are very intentional about using the word learner. Students have totally different implications than the learner has. We want every teacher to enter the classroom and see a group of learners and we want every child to see the learner in themselves because often children stop seeing themselves as a learner and unbeknownst to teachers. We need to get the terminology “learner” back into the classroom and it is so empowering for the learner to talk about who they are and how they learn and we need to take the time to do that. We cannot promote agency in learners until they understand who they are as learners and we need to work at promising agency to everyone.

My challenge to anyone out there it so consider promising agency to every learner in your classroom.

That is an incredible goal and can be the driver in what you do on a daily basis and if you can imagine kids are self-advocating and really helping develop a set of skills to be self-directed. I want to talk about the other two elements. The first is the learning profile.

The second is the personal learning backpack and I’ve eluded to some of that. It is a set of tools, apps, learning skills, and strategies that you are articulating to support who you are as a learner after the specific areas of access, engage, and express. You may want to take a challenge and say what is it that I can do or what type of tools are available that could actually support this challenge and what type of skills do I need to develop with that tool to support my learning. Those are the things that you want in that backpack.

Now, in the end, you are going to develop a personal learning plan. You are going to set a goal around learning how to use the tools and you are going to build a set of action steps for how you are going to achieve that goal and how you are going to measure how you are progressing and achieving that goal. It is really a conversation between the teacher and the learner. That’s something you want to check on at least once a week depending on what type of goal it is. It could be a longer term goal and this would short term goals. In a personal learning plan you can have access goals, engage goals, and express goals and the other types of goals in the PLP are college and career goals, and a personal goal. Nothing is more motivating that setting a personal goal and achieving a personal goal. And finally, a citizenship goal because we want children early on to set goals around how they are going to contribute to our democracy and how they become good citizens. This is something near and dear to my heart because I do a lot of advocacy work around educational legislation. I don’t know how I became that way but I do know the importance of children becoming active citizens in our country that give back because that’s what makes our democracy so great is that you give back and maintain the democracy.

The Three Step Process for Creating Learner Agency

  1. Learners build a personal learning profile
  2. Learners create a personal learning backpack
  3. Learners build a personal learning plan


Christine: I agree with you and service learning is becoming much more popular. I see a resurgence. When I look at many schools, their websites, service learning is becoming much more prevalent as part of their core set of values and that citizenship goal.

You also mentioned many resources, so I’m going to post them on my blog and if you post this, you will reference them as well. Anyone listening does not have to write anything down, we will make reference to those.

When you talk about learner agency. I recently interviewed Cary Harrod. I’ve mentioned her several times in my blog. Her students were able to talk about their learning. I interviewed several of her students that had a new confidence they didn’t have before and they were able to articulate that. Before they felt very rushed and everyone was on a specific timeline. They didn’t feel they could get through the work and it was very stressful for them. Those learners not only complete the work now, they enjoy the work. They were writing and their literacy was improving and they smiled when talking about their learning. To me, if we can create a love of learning using these strategies, there’s nothing better. It will help them from now until the end of time and the promise of agency is great whether you are a classroom teacher or a district. If you want to go down this road, which I’m a firm believer in, make the promise. Hold yourself accountable. Make this promise to your learners and to yourself. I loved listening to you answer that particular question. It is a loaded question and there’s so much to it. In a few minutes, you can’t encapsulate all of it. Your course is another way people can navigate this and have the support as they go through it. Particularly if the entire district isn’t doing it, so a group to talk about this with becomes important. As you talked about having a small cohort within your school helps. It helps to have people to talk to so being able to work through it in your course is a great strategy.

How does personalized learning increase innovation?


Kathleen: When you have a learner-centered environment where students are co-designing projects with you, writing the rubrics, acquiring the resources, and becoming the questions and not the teacher. In a project-based, play-based learning, problem-based, learning can be initiated by kids. If in fact, we want kids to contribute to the learning environment and it can be highly innovative. I think that we need to focus on kids being the questioner instead of the teacher. We have a great chapter called Delve into Deeper Learning. They are the ones that help in creating the solutions or strategies to get there. When you have children at the center of the learning in the classroom it creates a highly innovative environment. I think innovation is when kids take complete ownership of their learning and become the drivers of their learning. That’s highly innovative. They can contribute to their community, contribute to state government, or a project and collaborate with kids anywhere in the world. Our problems are not unique to us. Kids have the level of self-confidence and agency creates a highly innovative environment and one that you will love to work in. Most people will tell you when you move to a learner-centered environment you will never go back to traditional teaching ever again. Kids become drivers around learning and they are contributing to the greater good, the greater world. We need to help them contribute and change the world. When they leave, they are going to be part of the global community. Also, have them, by the way, follow their passions and have their experiences. We have something called Extended Learning Opportunities in New Hampshire where we have students going out into the world finding things in which they are interested. I think that’s vital in education. I think it is the way to get kids connected, inspired, and motivated doing things they love to do because once you follow what you love to do, you have your purpose. I know that doesn’t sound like innovation, it is. If you can image following your passion to find your purpose. How great for children to achieve that? I’m not sure if you interview many adults, but ask if they have a life of purpose. It would be great for children to be able to do that and to support them in their passions.

Christine: I think your answer was great because I have spoken with some educators and they’ve said, “personalization isn’t innovative.” My response is, oh yes, it creates the culture of innovation. It is understanding your strengths; that’s where innovation is going to emerge using your ability to form teams based on your strengths formed by the learner. When you start receiving a paycheck, there are teams you are formed for you and you tend to gravitate to certain people and form another type of team (passion based teams). For students to have the confidence, understand their strengths, and understand how they like to learn, they can be more valuable to their organization much more quickly. They can wade through the learning they need to do in a way that works for them. I see personalization and innovation tied tightly together so thank you for bringing that connection home.

I appreciate your time today. I will link to your materials and other people can benefit from your course, get it into the classrooms, help students achieve learning agency. That’s something very special.

Kathleen: I appreciate that you asked me to do this today. We need to have more conversations about agency and UDL lens to drive agency with learners. UDL lens can be the driver. The whole idea of creating a promise.Why are kids coming to school?

Do kids need to be coming to school each day?

Christine: That’s a big question.

Kathleen: Yes, that’s a very big question. Going forward, if you help learners develop agency, kids are learning many things on their own and that’s great. Kids are very resourceful. What’s really important is that teachers work with students to develop agency in the classroom.

I want to leave you with a really good resource around personalized learning. We actually followed the work of Chris Watkins at and he is a 25-year researcher on learning. One of the things we learned in his research,

If you focus on learning you actually increase performance but if you focus on performance, you decrease performance.

Further reasons to develop learner agency for every child. It is about the learning and to have the skills to support their own learning and you are going to have incredible results if you do that in the end.

Christine: I love it. That’s a brilliant quote on which to end. I’ve interviewed teachers here in the Meraki group that are personalizing learning and they say they say will never go back. They will never go back to traditional teaching. One teacher locked eyes with me and said, “I will quit if I was told I had to go back to the traditional method of teaching.” She didn’t want to do it. It has transformed the experience for her students as well as for her. I have multiple examples of that and it is largely inspired by your work. I can’t thank you enough for doing your service project by getting this information out in such a way that we can consume it and it makes it easy to take action. Thank you very much.

Kathleen: If you go out to our website, there is a discount code for our book. Go to and receive a discount purchasing the book from Corwin press, or the book can be purchased from Amazon