Teaching Opinion

Content-Centered to Student-Centered: A Taxonomy of Personalized Learning

By Tom Vander Ark — August 02, 2017 3 min read
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I’m glad that my friend Checker Finn supports personalized learning, but it’s worth putting his point of view into a broader context. Checker is in favor of personalized learning “defined as enabling every child to move through the prescribed curriculum at his or her own speed, progressing on the basis of individual mastery of important skills and knowledge rather than in lockstep according to age, grade level and end-of-year assessments.”

Checker, like his colleagues at Fordham and The Core Knowledge Foundation, is a “true believer in the centrality of a first-rate, content-rich curriculum.” They’d argue that to do stuff you need to know stuff--that knowledge is a scaffold, a vocabulary and the basis of social capital.

This view, however, limits one’s options regarding personalized learning. And, from a learner experience standpoint, it implies a prescribed path through a body of content. Supports and pacing may vary, but the journey and outcomes are well defined.

In contrast, “student-centered learning,” advanced by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, “engages students in their own success—and incorporates their interests and skills into the learning process.”

The chart below contrasts Checker’s point of view on content rich learning with student-centered learning (P21 and deeper learning are plotted between the two given their stronger nod to core standards than more progressive frameworks).

Discovery-Based LearningStudent-Centered LearningDeeper LearingContent Rich LearningLockstep Learning
PremiseLearners should follow their interestsFocus on agency, competency, anywhere learningFocus on 4Cs & mindset, core standardsComprehensive knowledge and skill standardsComprehensive curriculum, age cohorts
Personalized LearningStudent-driven learningStudents have voice and choice in experiences and demonstrationsBalance of student choice and content standardsModified pacing and supportsLimited accommodations
Supporters, Advocates MontessoriNellie Mae Ed Fdn, Education ReimaginedP21, Hewlett Foundation,Fordham Institute, Core KnowledgeTraditional schools

More progressive educational approaches (going back to Dewey), including student-centered learning (#SCL) and project-based learning (#PBL) value student agency and collaboration as learning outcomes. They usually come with a choice of depth over breadth. The outcome framework for Education Reimagined, a collaborative of leading advocates and foundations, illustrates the focus on skills and dispositions over content knowledge.

A project-based advocate said, “It’s ironic is that a content rich curriculum often implies a didactic approach which probably won’t lead to to sustainable content knowledge.”

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation framework (below, and central to our Smart Parents campaign) not only puts the student in the driver’s seat, it assumes that students learn anywhere anytime and mark their competency-based progression with demonstrations of learning.

Most computer games are interest-based but not standards-based. Most schools are the opposite.

Combining the benefits of anywhere, anytime interest-driven learning with standards-based learning is the learning design opportunity of our time. With well-designed projects and playlists, we should be able to design pathways that are more engaging, more efficient, and far more flexible than traditional K-12 education.

As more people use the term personalized learning, it’s important to be clear about what we mean. Some like Checker value differential pacing and supports while others make room lots of student-directed path variations--it comes down to what you value.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation 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.