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Surveying the Field:
What Should (and Shouldn't) Personalized Learning Look Like?



To better understand how the K-12 sector views "personalized learning", we asked educators, experts, and critics two simple questions. One thing became clear: This movement still means many different things to many different people.

Select a name to see what people are saying:

Personalized Learning
Should:
Personalized Learning
Should Not:

Be approached cautiously until strong evidence is developed on the effectiveness of the various strategies being employed. Likely, some will work better than others. Meanwhile, it is wise to ensure that critical resources like teacher skills and student time are not squandered.

John Pane | Senior scientist | RAND Corporation

Be reason to abandon what we already know about the science of learning, including ideas that have already been scientifically refuted, like "learning styles". Learning is hard; improving the education system is hard. To make headway we must build on what we already know.

John Pane | Senior scientist | RAND Corporation

Serve as part of a larger whole, integrating a) 21st-century definitions of student success; b) school design/learning models tuned to those robust definitions; and c) a surrounding environment of supportive adult learning, reimagined roles for assessment, and enabling policy.

Andy Calkins | Director | Next Generation Learning Challenges

Reduce students' experience of school to tunnel-vision learning, focused on proceeding, inch by inch, along established pathways all day and diminishing the role of social and experiential learning. People don't always learn as algorithms expect.

Andy Calkins | Director | Next Generation Learning Challenges

Provide all students with learning opportunities aligned to their needs and interests. Personalized learning is not about software—it’s about changing culture. We have become far too complacent with a model that places schedule consistency over student learning.

Richard Culatta | CEO | International Society for Technology in Education

Be confused with using adaptive learning software. While some activities may be delivered online, a model where a student is simply clicking through digital content at their own pace does not meet the criteria for personalized learning.

Richard Culatta | CEO | International Society for Technology in Education

Be more than a buzzword, but sadly it's not. It's incredibly unclear what many people mean by the phrase. That allows it to fit all sorts of agendas. But for most powerful forces wielding the phrase, it means "algorithm-driven instruction." Should we really do that to students?

Audrey Watters | Writer | Hack Education

Put students at risk—put their data at risk, their choices at risk, their futures at risk. But that is absolutely what it's poised to do.

Audrey Watters | Writer | Hack Education

Tailor learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests—including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn—to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.

Susan Patrick | President and CEO | iNACOL

Focus only on flexible pacing, but instead emphasize approaches to respond to students’ needs by providing flexible pathways in instruction and supports to ensure mastery for each student to reach the same high standards and achieve learning goals.

Susan Patrick | President and CEO | iNACOL

Be used sparingly, as it is used for data mining.

Diane Ravitch | Historian | New York University

Take the place of teachers.

Diane Ravitch | Historian | New York University

Provide mechanisms for learners to set goals that are directly relevant to them; and allow learners to provide feedback on what works and what doesn't work for them within the system. Many systems come with the system goals pre-set, which only creates the illusion of choice.

Bill Fitzgerald | Director, Privacy Evaluation Initiative | Common Sense Media

Compromise student control over their learning data by using any third parties that claim any rights to student data for any non-educational purpose; or by exposing any piece of student information for any form of non-educational profile.

Bill Fitzgerald | Director, Privacy Evaluation Initiative | Common Sense Media

Be created by, not just for, students—and involve the construction of meaning.

Alfie Kohn | Author of Schooling Beyond Measure and other books

Require digital devices or software—or be used to raise test scores.

Alfie Kohn | Author of Schooling Beyond Measure and other books

Be child- and teacher-driven. Before the advent of online learning, personalized learning was about a teacher tailoring learning.

Marla Kilfoyle | Executive Director | The Badass Teachers Association

Be computer- or algorithm-driven.

Marla Kilfoyle | Executive Director | The Badass Teachers Association

Grow students' ownership of their own learning.

Valerie Truesdale | Associate Superintendent Personalization and School Partnerships | Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Be about the technology.

Valerie Truesdale | Associate Superintendent Personalization and School Partnerships | Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Be transparent and subject to public inspection. Products must be independently audited and assessed for alignment to standards and to guard against bias and discrimination. For greatest impact, all personalized learning solutions should also be openly licensed and open sourced.

Doug Levin | President | EdTech Strategies, LLC

Be granted a special status as a school reform strategy. It has pros and cons, costs and benefits, and tradeoffs and unintended consequences. There may be no silver bullet solution to improving education—personalized learning is not one—but there sure is plenty of snake oil.

Doug Levin | President | EdTech Strategies, LLC

Allow students to move at their own pace through the curriculum, and allow schools to target instruction to the exact needs of individual children.

Michael J. Petrilli | President | Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Become a euphemism for computer-based instruction, or an excuse for giving up on the notion that all students need to master a body of knowledge and skills, as reflected in academic standards.

Michael J. Petrilli | President | Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Be marked by efforts and models that tailor learning and development to the individual student, rather than age- and grade-based cohorts.

Julia Freeland Fisher | Director of Education Research | Clayton Christensen Institute

Be seen as something you can take off the shelf. Personalizing is not a thing. Rather, it's a verb—a process of teaching and learning that evolves over time to meet the needs and strengths of students.

Julia Freeland Fisher | Director of Education Research | Clayton Christensen Institute

Create an environment supportive of students’ learning needs; identify areas where a student struggles; reduce frustration; encourage meaningful engagement; enrich and augment teachers’ knowledge of their students.

Monica Bulger | Researcher | Data & Society Research Institute

Send students into infinite remediation loops; generate data that is unusable for teachers and administrators; reinforce biases; confuse proxies for learning, such as time spent on a task, with actual learning.

Monica Bulger | Researcher | Data & Society Research Institute

Mean every student has an individualized pathway connected to their long-term goals and aspirations. Our approach to personalized learning is the product of 15 years of research into how students learn best and is designed to equip them to live fulfilled lives.

Diane Tavenner | Founder and CEO | Summit Public Schools

Be about more technology in the classroom. Education is complex. Teachers must guide and coach students to live up to their potential. Unless technology empowers teachers and is backed by an education model aligned to a clear purpose and grounded in evidence, it won't solve anything.

Diane Tavenner | Founder and CEO | Summit Public Schools

Be used as a tool to increase equity in educational outcomes. It has the potential to engage students who have not been engaged by traditional instruction.

Christopher Maher | Superintendent | Providence Public Schools

Be defined as technology. Technology is a tool to support personalized learning. It does not replace instruction.

Christopher Maher | Superintendent | Providence Public Schools

Be about more than instruction. It’s an entire approach to school culture and community that understands the different needs, social determinants, learning styles, and relationships that enable students to take ownership of their learning and unleash their amazing potential.

Preston Smith | Co-founder and CEO | Rocketship Public Schools

Compartmentalize educational technology and classroom instruction. Effective personalized learning is about the purposeful integration of technology and data that enables teachers to elevate their practice and optimize their instructional time with students.

Preston Smith | Co-founder and CEO | Rocketship Public Schools

Be adopted by schools only after independent third-party expert assessments have established that products perform as advertised, support curriculum and goals established by teachers, and do not threaten students' well-being or privacy.

Faith Boninger | Research associate | National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado Boulder

Be assumed to derive from software platforms, but rather from providing teachers the time, freedom, and resources to ​tailor their curriculum and teach in ways appropriate to their students with skill, compassion, and commitment.

Faith Boninger | Research associate | National Education Policy Center, University of Colorado Boulder

Tap in to learners' natural curiosities and help them construct pathways to connecting new learning to existing understanding. Content comes through learner necessity.

Zac Chase | District ELA Curriculum Coordinator | St. Vrain Valley School District

Prescribe, limit, or presume to know or understand the pathway or content an individual might need or follow to deepen understanding and create knowing.

Zac Chase | District ELA Curriculum Coordinator | St. Vrain Valley School District

Lead learners to know who they are. It is an active process of relevant learning based on the needs of each learner that transcends the classroom. Students drive their learning and thereby develop a strong sense of self.

Max Ventilla | Founder and CEO | AltSchool

Personalized learning should not be confused with computer-based, self-paced learning.

Max Ventilla | Founder and CEO | AltSchool

Address long-standing inequities in educational opportunities. It should create new avenues for student agency, value anywhere/anytime learning and invite the meaningful examination of social and cultural issues of relevance to the learner.

Penny Bishop | Professor of Education | University of Vermont

Be merely about the leveraging of adaptive technologies to customize curriculum and instruction to allow individual students to work at their own pace.

Penny Bishop | Professor of Education | University of Vermont

Empower students and invite them to think for themselves. Motivate curiosity and productive struggle. Provide learning guardians with actionable insights to shape classroom struggle. Be proven effective by independent researchers.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson | President and CEO | DreamBox Learning

Widen achievement gaps or ignore systemic inequity. Use birthdates to decide what students learn on any given day. Lock students into the same linear path of lessons. Fail to give teachers the right tools to drive student learning.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson | President and CEO | DreamBox Learning

Be stopped. It is invasive, harming data and psychological privacy and freedom of conscience; destructive of the student-teacher relationship; ineffective, even as admitted by Bill Gates; harmful to a broad-based education and physiologically, especially for young kids; and expensive.

Dr. Karen Effrem | President | Education Liberty Watch

Be allowed to engage in the collection of "5-10 million actionable data points per user per day," including affective profiling. Personalized learning shouldn't be turning children into "products" or destroying academics in favor of workforce skills to subsidize corporate training.

Dr. Karen Effrem | President | Education Liberty Watch

Be focused on empowering student agency in learning. Personalized learning goes hand in hand with competency based learning models where students demonstrate mastery of their learning.

Aaryn Schmuhl | Assistant Superintendent for Leadership Services | Henry County Schools

Be driven by technology first. Technology can and should help teachers and students to collaborate, create, and produce.

Aaryn Schmuhl | Assistant Superintendent for Leadership Services | Henry County Schools

Combine the strengths of teachers, students, and technology to tailor learning for individual students.

Kristen DiCerbo | Vice President, Education Research | Pearson

Be synonymous with computer-based instruction.

Kristen DiCerbo | Vice President, Education Research | Pearson

Start with student curiosity, then should be facilitated by a teacher and/or mentor who can guide a student towards meaningful inquiry and the chance for self-designed projects, authentic communication, and real-world connections, etc.

Paul Barnwell | Freelance educator and writer | Self-Employed

Be all about self-pacing with students' academic standards "acquisition" being the main goal. This is often fostered through.

Paul Barnwell | Freelance educator and writer | Self-Employed

Connect the work going on with the personal interest and trajectory of all those doing the work.

Mark Edwards | CEO | ChallengeU USA

Be about only personal interest but rather a combination of gaining knowledge that has personal relevance.

Mark Edwards | CEO | ChallengeU USA

Be considered an instructional approach to differentiate, deeply engage, and meet the needs of individual students. Educators can use different strategies to personalize—dynamic groupings, offering more choices, tailoring supports, etc. The "how" depends on context and goals.

Beth Rabbitt | Chief Executive Officer | The Learning Accelerator

Be considered synonymous with a technology or even a set school "model." Personalized learning must be treated as one part of the bigger.

Beth Rabbitt | Chief Executive Officer | The Learning Accelerator

Meet the needs of each student by considering strengths, learning differences, and interests. Personalized learning should be standards-based, but also be student-centered to facilitate learner agency by encouraging students to understand and drive their learning.

Mary Ann Wolf, PhD | Director of Digital Learning Programs | The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, NC State's College of Education

Only be viewed as every student on a computer learning independently. It should not be limited to one type of instruction at a child's own pace or to multiple choice assessments. It should not be seen as learning without a teacher, but rather emphasizes the importance of a teacher.

Mary Ann Wolf, PhD | Director of Digital Learning Programs | The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, NC State's College of Education

Lead to the democratization of education. It’s learning experiences for each student tailored to their unique needs and strengths, and access to meaningful and accredited learning beyond the classroom. It is the path we need to take to help each child reach their full potential.

Phyllis Lockett | Founder and CEO | LEAP Innovations

Just be about technology or putting kids on laptops. It is not just the latest reform, or a silver bullet solution. It’s fundamentally changing the way we think about teaching and learning, and creating a new learning ecosystem that is centered on each individual student’s needs.

Phyllis Lockett | Founder and CEO | LEAP Innovations

Personalized learning is a theory of pedagogy. Proponents of this theory should bear the burden of demonstrating that its main tenets lead to better student learning or other outcomes. Thus far, that burden has not been met.

Benjamin Riley | Executive Director | Deans for Impact

Proponents of personalized learning should not ignore the evidence from cognitive science that suggests the foundations of personalized learning are on a shaky foundation. And, the same proponents should not ignore the danger to our democracy of focusing on individual choice, rather than social good.

Benjamin Riley | Executive Director | Deans for Impact

Personalized Learning should help reach the diverse range of learners in educators classrooms today. Personalized Learning is a philosophy with the foundation of empowering students to have more ownership based on their needs.

Jill Thompson | Director of Personalized Learning | Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Personalized learning should not be only based on technology programs. Technology is a tool that can help us transform the classroom but is not personalized learning.

Jill Thompson | Director of Personalized Learning | Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Tap deeper student motivation and be focused on a learner’s zone of proximal development.

Eileen Rudden | Co-founder and Board Chair | LearnLaunch Institute

Lower rigor or lower social interaction and team learning.

Eileen Rudden | Co-founder and Board Chair | LearnLaunch Institute

Be done through whole class or small group instruction where a certified teacher plans instruction based on the academic AND social needs of the students.

Tiffany Dunn | ESL Teacher | Save Our Schools KY/Badass Teachers Association

Be computer-based instruction where a certified OR non-certified instructor is merely a facilitator.

Tiffany Dunn | ESL Teacher | Save Our Schools KY/Badass Teachers Association

Take students down the rabbit hole of their choice. Students learn best when they pursue their interests and abilities in ways that recognize and affirm what makes them unique.

Matthew Gross | Founder and CEO | Newsela

Turn students into islands. Social learning is the most powerful way we learn, especially as students become adults in an increasingly connected world. Technology should strengthen the bond between teacher and student, and between students.

Matthew Gross | Founder and CEO | Newsela

Personalized learning practices should engage student's own subjective voices in their education, though the dominant approach is to let objective student data speak on their behalf.

Ben Williamson | Lecturer in Education | University of Stirling

Personalized learning should not just be a progressive slogan used to gloss over the fact that seriously powerful technology.

Ben Williamson | Lecturer in Education | University of Stirling

Source: Education Week | Design & Visualization: Sumi Bannerjee

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Vol. 37, Issue 12

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