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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Schools Accidentally Undermine Their Personalized Learning

By Guest Blogger — August 18, 2014 3 min read
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Note: Elliot Sanchez, the founder and CEO of mSchool, is guest posting this week.

For the last few years, I’ve spent much of my time exploring how to help teachers and school leaders bring effective personalization to their students. Today, discussions of personalization seem to be focused on the specific challenges (and the promise) of the enabling technology. Understandably so. But as we’re getting back into the familiar rhythm of buses and morning bells, I think it’s helpful to step back and consider just how different a “personalized” approach can be.

The original personalized learning was simply having one adult pay attention to the needs of one kid. Ever since Aristotle tutored Alexander, those with the means have recognized the value of educating their students in the most personal way. But it’s not just tutors. Parents have been helping their children navigate the world by providing individual guidance for millennia, and it has been unremarkable enough not to need a label (buzzwordy version: parents are “differentiating in real time” based on a “comprehensive student learning profile” established through “real world applications of knowledge”).

Fast forward to schools as we know them today. With 30 kids at a time, personal attention is hard to come by. Educators are overwhelmingly tasked with meeting standards first, and “differentiating” from that course as needed. And it’s needed a lot. Data driven instruction, RTI meetings, small group reteaching rotations--these exist because we’re implicitly starting from one plan for all students, knowing all the while that it isn’t enough.

Enter technology-enabled personalized learning. Tools are available that can begin to provide very rough substitutes for the same kind of attention that we would like to provide to students ourselves. Students can learn and practice at whatever level they’re prepared for and get support as needed. For many students, this is an incredible gift, and the benefits are quickly apparent.

But by providing the ability for students to work on a variety of paths that would otherwise be unmanageable for a teacher, personalized learning technology begins to create a gap between that portion of student time and the remaining teacher-led instruction. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad thing--diversifying the types of activities that students engage in provides more opportunities to explore successful approaches.

Ultimately, though, the gap is not just logistical. Allowing students to work in individualized pathways is an alternative pedagogical model as well. Prioritizing learner needs over a scope and sequence is a massive shift, and often not practical for a full classroom of students. So what do we do? We separate personalized learning from classroom instruction. We create alternative spaces and times for students to pursue individualized work.

By creating a separation between fully differentiated, personalized learning and other classroom time we are also creating a tension. A tension between approaches to instruction, but also occasionally a tension between outcomes. Even if there’s an agreed-upon set of standards for the end of the year, a personalized path to get there may be so different that the two models can’t agree on whether students are progressing.

By not recognizing this tension in advance and planning for ways to manage it, even personalized learning programs that are “successful” at first run the risk of being undermined over time. This is a solvable problem, and tomorrow I’ll discuss how to avoid the mistakes that new research says hurt schools even before the first students arrive.

--Elliot Sanchez

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.