Personalized Learning: The Way Forward, or a Red Herring?

Personalized Learning has been a hot topic on the tongues of Fairbanks teachers and administrators since the North Star Borough School District decided to implement it in its schools. Common complaints were that the goals were ambiguous, the implementation ill-defined, and its effectiveness completely unknown.


When I set out to research personalized learning for this blog post, my searches turned up one of two results: either an explanatory post from a curriculum company or a resource site providing a brief overview of the personalized learning approach, or a news article documenting teacher frustration and confusion with personalized learning. The question “what is personalized learning?” appeared in nearly every resource.


Without even scrolling past the title and opening sentences of the articles, I could tell that personalized learning is a mystery to many and that its implementation in schools around the country is controversial among teachers.


So what is personalized learning? And, perhaps more importantly, where did personalized learning come from? An article from identifies the start of personalized learning as being in the late 19th century in Pueblo, Colorado. Preston Search, the superintendent of schools in Pueblo, created an education plan that allowed students to “learn at their own pace.” This idea developed throughout the years, eventually becoming the “School of One” project in New York City, an AI informed education plan that identified student needs through a complex series of computer programs. This School of One eventually transformed into the “personalized learning” that we know today.


The first working definition of personalized learning was developed by a group of education interests, philanthropies, and technology advocacy groups, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This working definition used four broad categories with critical questions in each category that administrators and teachers should ask to effectively implement personalized learning in their schools. The four categories in the working definition were 1. Competency-Based Progression 2. Flexible Learning Environments 3. Personal learning Paths and 4. Learner Profiles. The general ideas are that all students are continually assessed on their progress towards personalized goals, student needs drive curriculum, each student is assessed against personalized expectations, data on student strengths and needs are continually collected on an individual basis. The goal? Every student has a learning experience that is catered to their needs and challenges them to an appropriate amount.


As mentioned earlier, this working definition includes critical questions that schools should ask themselves to identify areas of improvement. For example, within Competency-Based Progression, teachers and administrators are instructed to ask themselves “In what ways and how frequently should we assess each student’s level of mastery within the dimensions that we believe are essential for his/her success?,” the intent being that teachers and administrators develop appropriate assessments for the students based on their individual strengths and needs.


This definition is useful in some ways, but even after reading through the definitions and critical questions, I was still asking myself “what does it look like in the classroom?” A second article from Education Elements I found provided some examples of what personalized learning looks like in the classroom, though they proved to be even more puzzling.


The first example of personalized learning in the classroom is using self-reflection and goal-setting in the classroom. According to the article, all students in all age groups should reflect on their own work, and set goals for learning.


The second example was flexible and intentional master schedules. This included having small group meetings, student choice in classes, and blocks for individual student instruction.


As I read through these, I realized that these examples of personalized learning were not, at least in my experience, new or revolutionary at all. They were simply rebrandings of practices that I experienced all throughout my educational career. Throughout my years in public school I was constantly asked to self-reflect on my own work, grade my own assignments, and identify areas that I could improve. In elementary, middle, and high school there was time set aside for “packs,” or small groups of students where we discussed any struggles we were having, any issues with the school, and developed activities for extended learning. Other items on the list, including personalized seating, intentional use of technology, student involvement in grading – all of these were hallmarks of my own education.


Now, it is entirely possible that my educational experience was unique among students in the United States. Sitka is known for pushing the pen on social and educational issues in Alaska, and it’s possible that the School District was simply way ahead of the curve on personalized learning.


However, what I believe is more likely is that personalized learning is not anything new, unique, or special in the education world. Rather, it is an attempt by policymakers, special interests, and administrators to codify what is already accepted teaching practices.


If personalized learning is just simplified teaching practice designed for policymakers and administrators, why the fuss? Why is it so controversial? The answer lies in its intent and its implementation.


Personalized Learning is designed to be individually based – this is evident in its name. However, this also means that the extent to which learning is “personalized” will differ from class to class. Prior to the popularization of district-wide personalized learning, teachers would identify the needs of students in their class, discuss their needs with other teachers and paraprofessionals, and informally accommodate student needs in their classroom. With a district-wide mandate for personalized learning, how do administrators formally track this mandate? How do they ensure that every student has their individual needs met? The FNSBSD website states that personalized learning will be achieved through a combination of teacher effort and technology. Again, is this not what teachers have already been doing?


The technology component is also troubling. FNSBSD claims that integrated technology in the classroom will be used to further the personalized learning implementation. The “technology” linked on the FNSBSD website is the product of Ted Dintersmith, a wealthy venture capitalist who has traveled the country in an effort to change public education to reflect the goals of personalized learning. His products include books, films, and an innovation playlist meant for schools to develop for their students (i.e. a learning toolkit for students). Other resources include the Dreambox, which is an educational product that promises to, through technology, provide individualized instruction to students.


At the end of it all, I’m left with only two possible explanations for what personalized learning is: At best, personalized learning is simply a rebranding of current teaching practice. It is misguided but ultimately harmless to students. At worst, personalized learning is a sham being sold to school districts by wealthy business interests and entrepreneurs with very little educational value, and a program that may end up hurting students.


It seems to be another case of administrators trying to reinvent the wheel, rather than allowing teachers to do what they do best: teach.


Here are my sources:

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