Speaking of understanding our educational jargon (as in an earlier post), an edition of Education Week’s Tech Leader newsletter from the end of the last decade included an article titled “What is Personalized Learning?”.

It sat in my Instapaper feed for a while because I really wasn’t expecting to learn much from the piece. But the writer turned out to be surprisingly honest about the topic. Starting with the answer to that basic question.

What exactly is personalized learning?

Inside K-12 schools, the term is used to mean just about anything.

Which is the primary problem behind any discussion of this topic in the first place. Everyone is thinking of something different.

So is this a new idea or not?

Not really.

The personalized learning movement has two primary wings, each of which is grounded in decades-old (and often warring) philosophies about how children learn. The so-called “engineering model” of personalized learning emphasizes efficient mastery of academic content. The idea is that experts can map out what each child needs to learn, measure what of that each already knows, and then create the optimal path for him or her to learn the rest.

Other approaches to personalized learning are rooted in progressive education traditions. This wing of the movement generally holds that learning happens when schools tap into students’ interests and passions, giving them individualized opportunities to ask questions and explore and take risks.

I would guess most educators, when they hear the term “personalized learning”, think of that “engineering model”.

Because the concept most often manifests itself in schools as software, usually selected by someone other than the teachers who will use it, based on near-magic promises from the vendor for the impact it will have on student learning. And those systems have no concerns with the “interests and passions” of the students.

But the concept is certainly not new. In the previous century (around 1996), I helped a school set up a CD-based system called SuccessMaker that kept track of how students interacted with the software and adjusted the activities accordingly. After the initial novelty wore off, most of the kids hated their time on the computer.

Does personalized learning work?

That’s precisely the wrong question to ask.

John Pane, a senior scientist at the RAND Corporation and a leading researcher of the personalized learning movement says the reason why goes back to the incredible variation in how personalized learning actually happens inside real classrooms.

“At this stage, we really need to be looking at the actual components of what people are trying to do and assess them each on their own,” Pane said.

That question of “what people are trying to do” is the key here. If they were being honest, the people who build the “personalized learning” systems and the school officials who buy them would answer “raise student scores on standardized tests”.

Few, if any, of the “personalized learning” products I’ve seen involve helping students learn independently. For that you don’t need special tech products. Students learn new skills and ideas very well on their own every day, using whatever tech they have available. That’s called “personal learning”.

At the risk of repeating my self, personalized learning is something done TO students. Personal learning is something students do for themselves.

It’s a small semantic difference but one that should be at the core of this discussion.


The picture is from the Library of Congress, taken between 1965 and 1979, with no known restrictions on publication. The page includes this descriptor: “Teaching machines used by children in Sikkim. Machines are just being introduced into this country now by Grollier [Grolier] & Co. The Queen brought them to Sikkim this Fall.”. Everything old is new again.