Personalized Learning in Social Studies—Moving Away From Ferris Bueller Teaching




Social studies instruction has dramatically shifted in recent years. Most of us are familiar of the famous “anyone, anyone” model of social studies instruction from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which Ben Stein portrays a teacher lecturing about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff in a dreadfully boring, old-school fashion. The lesson was clearly not student-centered, not skill-based, not using source material to have students analyze and connect to big picture ideas. (He did, however, check for understanding!)

The availability of primary and secondary source material in digital form has revolutionized social studies instruction. Teachers can facilitate student learning of both content and skills—through rich primary and secondary texts, through multimedia clips, and through interactive tasks.

We know that one mode of teaching is not effective for all students. Teachers need to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all their students. This is often a daunting task, and differentiation is often discussed, but realistic strategies are easier said than done—and near impossible in a traditional lecture-based, teacher-centered classroom.

Personalized learning strategies help transform the social studies classroom. The U.S. Department of Education defines personalized learning as “instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners.”

This can be accomplished in many ways. Here’s just a few samples:

Lesson planning for personalized learning can be very time-consuming. Social studies teachers must rely on resources, and each other, to efficiently plan and share student-centered, source-driven, skills-based, personalized learning.

Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook is a valuable launching pad for personalized learning. It incorporates content, skills, source material, multimedia, accommodations for struggling readers, and a variety of assessments in one place, which makes lesson planning for personalized learning much more manageable.

For example, let’s say you’re teaching a unit on imperialism of the United States at the time of the Spanish-American War. Planning with the big picture in mind, Techbook provides guiding objectives:

  • Describe and explain factors that contributed to imperialism during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
  • Assess the impact of the Spanish-American War on the United States and on U.S. foreign policy.
  • Analyze the arguments of a variety of Americans who opposed imperialism.
  • Evaluate U.S. policies in a variety of world regions during the era of imperialism.

In addition to content objectives, Techbook links to the Common Core connections to the unit:

This is not a checklist of content students must know, they are big picture objectives and skills that can be achieved through a variety of content presented and synthesized in multiple ways to meet the needs and the preferences of individual students.

Students can choose from a menu that includes various content and sources in multiple formats. One option could be an in-depth analysis of the debate to acquire the Philippines as a result of the Spanish-American War. To build background knowledge and content, students can choose:

This is only a small sample of sources in the unit. The menu could have a “must have” and “can have” section to ensure students have choice, but also are hitting the required elements. Perhaps a primary source is on the must-have list, but students have more choice with secondary sources, or vice-versa.

Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook incorporates reading supports to help differentiate for specific accommodations, like speak text, highlight, take notes, and definition of terms.

Reading Support sample










Students can then choose how to demonstrate their understanding for your formative assessment:

For summative assessments, students can access review flashcards on Techbook, then formally be assessed in multiple ways:

This is not a complete list of the resources and tasks in the Imperialism and the Spanish-American War unit, but you can see how Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook helps achieve the goals of personalized learning. Students have anytime, anywhere digital access that includes choice of source material, supports and accommodations for struggling readers, multiple formative and summative assessments in a variety of formats. This interactive and personalized learning approach will lead to increased student engagement, increased content retention, and increased skill development.





  1. J.T. said:

    This is a nice overview of a best teaching practice. It could apply to any situation, not just SS. All students could benefit from personalized learning. I think it is an important point that if teachers work together, they can help decrease the time needed.

  2. Scott Petri said:

    Great post, Joe, Last year, I thought I was great at personalizing because I was in a 1:1 classroom. Assessments, interventions, and blended assignments were simple. This year, no such luck. I have been able to use short, daily quizzes to measure student learning from close reading and note taking drills. Students who fail to hit 70% on the quizzes get extra reading and DBQ assessments before moving to the next unit. I have found you can personalize without tech, it is just a little cumbersome. I hope to be back in a 1:1 classroom and using Discovery Ed’s SS Techbook next year.