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Personalized Learning 101

The term “personalized learning” became prominent in the mid-2010s, particularly in the world of educational technology. Personalized learning has been embraced by a number of big names in technology, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, education writer Anya Kamenetz says. Yet it has taken a while for its various meanings to settle into a useful collection of ideas that can be implemented in the classroom.

In practice, personalized learning can be as individual as each student. As a concept, however, it tends to focus on a set of core ideas, emphasizing how students learn and what data can reveal about students’ strengths, weaknesses, and learning processes.

What Do We Mean When We Say “Personalized Learning”?

The difference between traditional and personalized learning is akin to that of taking the train and driving a car, writes Devin Vodicka, Ed.D., chief impact officer at AltSchool. “In a train system, the path is pre-established by the tracks that guide and constrain the journey. Driving a car, on the other hand, is an active experience,” he explains. Personalized learning puts students in the driver’s seat.

Since its inception, however, personalized learning has not offered a clear set of tools or strategies for placing students in the driver’s seat or teaching them how to operate their own educational vehicle. In a 2014 article in Education Week, Sean Cavanagh noted that while “the term ‘personalized learning’ seems to be everywhere…there is not yet a shared understanding of what it means.” Generally speaking, it appeared to refer to any attempt to tailor lessons to individual students, and especially to the use of technology to achieve that goal.

Similarly, when Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, asked administrators to describe their personalized learning approach, he says “I heard that PL was an actual program, an instructional application, an academic strategy.”

The vast differences in interpretation of the term “personalized learning” have contributed to a lack of research on personalized learning and how it works. One empirical study by John F. Pane, Ph.D. and colleagues found that schools taking a personalized learning approach were more likely to prioritize the following practices and strategies including:

  • One-on-one instruction
  • Data analysis in order to tailor lessons
  • Student evaluation of their own progress
  • Competency-based practices such as advancing students only when they demonstrated mastery of a subject

Although schools throughout the country have embraced the idea of personalization in the classroom, no one concrete definition of personalized learning has been embraced by all educators. Instead, says Cuban, personalized learning appears to emphasize how lessons are learned over what content is absorbed.


Personalized Learning and Technology

There’s a strong correlation between the use of the term “personalized learning” and discussions of classroom technology. Many technological tools for learning are packaged as personalized because they adapt to students’ current abilities and move students along at a pace determined by the software.

Yet relying on technology alone concerns some educators, says education reporter Sharon Lurye. While the program or platform might be able to pinpoint student weaknesses and provide appropriate content with a laserlike focus, relying solely on the technology may undermine students’ abilities to direct their own learning or to develop essential soft skills like communication, teamwork, and time management.

Similarly, concerns about data mining have raised questions about the appropriate role of technology in personalized learning, writes retired high school teacher Peter Greene. Software that responds to students’ mistakes can clearly be helpful, but solutions that set out to track and analyze facial expressions veer into questionable ethical areas.

Early adoption of technology as the answer to personalized learning may have undermined teachers as well, who were enthusiastic about the concept but “were not given needed strategies and supports,” say researchers Betheny Gross, Ph.D., and Michael DeArmond, Ph.D., in their study, Personalized Learning at a Crossroads.

Personalizing lessons can become highly complex, placing additional burdens on teachers, teacher Paul France at Edutopia writes. “While the ultimate goal of technology-powered personalized learning is to minimize this complexity, the typical approach of pairing students with individualized content is reductive, at best,” France says. It also eliminates the potential of personalized learning to build stronger interpersonal relationships and foster autonomy, two areas teachers are well-equipped to promote.

Although technology does offer a partial solution to bringing personalized learning into the classroom, it appears to do its best work as a tool to reach defined goals, rather than as an end unto itself.

What Personalized Learning Looks Like in the Classroom

By its nature, personalized learning is as varied as the students pursuing it. Yet personalized learning lessons always share four common elements, says Janice Vargo at Education Elements, which are:

  • Targeted instruction
  • Data-driven decisions
  • Flexible content
  • Student reflection and ownership

To keep these four elements active and balanced, teachers and students alike play key roles in the learning process.

Targeted Instruction

Included in nearly every approach to personalized learning is instruction targeted to each student. Software tools typically target instruction by responding instantly to students’ correct or incorrect answers and providing a corresponding next step.

In other classrooms, targeted instruction means allowing students to participate in choosing their own topic of study. While some researchers, including Paul A. Kirscher and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer, have indicated that student-directed learning lacks necessary context, allowing some student input with guidance from teachers can lead to better targeting within the context of an overall pedagogical plan.

Data-Driven Decisions

Using student data to improve teaching is a common approach, and technological tools can make it easier whether or not students interact with those tools when learning lessons. By leveraging information and analytical tools, teachers gain insights more quickly, allowing them to implement those insights for each student.

Like the technology itself, data may work best when used as a tool rather than as an end. As math teacher Dean Deaver puts it: “Data drives the instruction for the child, but it does not define the child.”

Flexible Content

Flexible content goes hand-in-hand with targeted learning, allowing teachers and students to choose the content and method that best approaches a student’s learning needs in the moment. Here, embracing a wide range of tools can improve the ability to be flexible when needed.

Educator Amber Crawford Chandler says that one way to start thinking in terms of flexible content is to shift the focus from what is being taught to who is learning it. Phrasing conversations in terms of “this approach works well for Steve” or “let’s try a different option for Suzie” changes a teacher’s perspective, creating the opportunity for growth.

Student Reflection and Ownership

Student reflection, ownership, and self-assessment leads to greater engagement with their work and fosters accountability. It also helps students develop a sense of objectivity and separate their self-worth from their learning process. As a result, it’s a common practice in personalized learning classrooms.

Teaching students to assess their own work can take time, says education consultant Barbara R. Blackburn, Ph.D. Fortunately, scaffolding steps like reflecting on their work fit well into a personalized learning framework, while also building skills necessary to effective self-assessment.


Who Does Personalized Learning and How?

In a traditional classroom, teacher and students can often be identified by their physical locations. The teacher stands up front, and the students sit at rows of desks. In a personalized learning classroom, these lines may be blurred as teachers and students change their roles in the learning process.

The Teacher’s Role in Personalized Learning

Traditional classroom models clarify two distinct roles for the people in the classroom: The teacher teaches a lesson and the students learn it. When lessons are personalized, however, what does the teacher do?

One essential role teachers play in the personalized learning classroom is that of cultural facilitator, says Abbie Forbus, director of teaching and learning at Knowledge Works. Teachers in these classrooms build a culture that encourages self-directed learning, curiosity, and focus on the task at hand. With a strong culture in place, teachers can spend the time necessary to get to know their students in order to ensure that personalized lessons are appropriate for each learner’s needs and interests.

Teachers can also leverage “design thinking” to improve personalized learning in their classrooms, says Kelly Freiheit at Education Elements. She recommends that teachers begin by empathizing, putting themselves in their students’ shoes. The next steps in design thinking are defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing ideas.

What Students Are Doing When Lessons are Personalized

“Personalization is not a set of common tactics,” Orly Friedman at Education Week writes, so student activities in a personalized learning classroom can look dramatically different depending on the school and class approach to the process. For instance, personalization may look like rows of students bent over computers, as each works on an individualized lesson, Friedman explains. Or it can be students receiving one-on-one support, deciding when, where, and how to sit, and choosing the order in which they’ll work on their lessons.

Since personalized learning focuses on how students learn, it is intimately tied to questions of motivation. Tools like self-assessment and self-chosen topics are frequently used to keep students engaged and to allow their own curiosity to drive their absorption of the material, says Logan LaPlante in a TEDx Talk on personalized learning called “Hackschooling.” “When you are motivated to learn something, you can get a lot done in a short amount of time and on your own,” says LaPlante.

The manner in which students work depends on the school’s approach to personalized learning, since the method can be used to reach a number of different ends, Benjamin Herold at Education Week writes. For instance, a school that prioritizes learning efficiency may use adaptive software to guide lessons, while a school that prioritizes deep thinking on intrinsically engaging subjects may feature students in a variety of learning environments and seating positions. The question is less about what students are doing and more about how they’re doing it and how their work is being guided, analyzed, or understood by teachers and administrators.