Personalized Learning Opinion

People vs. ‘Personalization’

By Susan Sandler — February 24, 2012 6 min read
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It’s an odd thing: For all the talk about “personalizing learning” these days, we don’t often hear much about actual persons in the process. The prevailing definition of “personalization,” ironically, seems to have more to do with what technology can offer than anything else. This approach, which I call Personalization 2.0, seems to emphasize data and customization, which is a good thing, but there is more to high-quality learning than creating the equivalent of a perfect iPod playlist.

It’s a big change from the kind of personalization that Theodore R. Sizer, the late founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, used to talk about—the kind I think of as Personalization 1.0. In his writings, Sizer emphasized that, for students to succeed, they must be personally known at school and have strong relationships with the people there.

While there are clear tensions between these two definitions, they are not diametrically opposed. Both versions seek to respond to the uniqueness of each student and to challenge the standardization of education.

And both of these approaches have strengths, though neither is as strong as the two would be together—a hybrid approach of humanity and technology, what I’m calling Personalization 3.0, that uses technology to enhance teacher-student relationships, not replace them.

In this hybrid conception of personalization, educators can carry out a series of practices to make sure that technology and data enhance relationships, but do not pretend to substitute for them."

For those of you who know personalization only as something involving microprocessors, let me bring you up to speed on the other half of the equation.

The essence of the original version of personalization is human connection. Teachers and other key school staff members get to know each student well so they can tailor their instruction. Building these relationships involves lowering the number of students each teacher works with, assigning teachers to students as advisers who make sure they don’t fall through the cracks, and making numerous other changes to the traditional structure of classes, scheduling, curriculum, and more.

These approaches end up paying big dividends, as became apparent to me many years ago, when I was a counselor in a San Francisco middle school. I was interviewing students who had been on downward academic and behavioral trajectories, but who had since made dramatic improvements. My goal was to identify what it was that had turned each student around.

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As I listened to these students of color, many of whom lived in poverty, a clear pattern emerged: Each had previously experienced school as an impersonal place where adults did not have enough time for them and did not have much understanding of or respect for their backgrounds and communities. In each case, without exception, the significant upward turn in the students’ school performance could be traced to an adult in the school who had gone out of his or her way to interact with students in a sustained, authentic, and personal way.

This human-to-human interaction—being pulled aside for private conversations or student-specific encouragement—steadily convinced each student that school wasn’t a faceless bureaucracy, but a place where at least one person cared about them and was working to help them. Each student responded by making dramatic positive changes—results that were consistent with a large body of research correlating caring relationships in school with student academic effort and persistence in education. The research also shows that peer-student relationships are equally vital if a child is to succeed in school; students need to feel a sense of belonging and connection to one another.

But those of you who have witnessed just such student turnarounds—the very outcomes for which many of us became educators in the first place—may be surprised at the definitional drift that “personalization” has experienced over time. Read through any recent news story or organizational literature on the topic, and the discussion is about such topics as online learning or credit recovery. The U.S. Department of Education’s Web page on the topic talks of “competency-based strategies” and “differentiation,” but is basically silent about the human relationships that are the core of Personalization 1.0.


These 2.0 interpretations of the word take their cue from the ways that technology has enabled dramatic customization for consumers. The idea is that students should have this same level of individualized options, and 2.0 personalization gives educators new ways of collecting detailed data about students, including their skills, interests, and learning styles, plus sophisticated software that matches the data with tailored instructional programs. These tools offer the possibility of exponentially expanding our ability to understand each student’s specific needs and craft the best learning experiences for him or her.

A promising exemplar of this approach is the School of One project in the New York City school system. Operating now in several public schools across the city, the School of One personalizes education through independent learning and tutoring, including computer-based “virtual tutors.” A study released last year by the city department of education’s research and policy study group found significantly higher performance among School of One students than among their peers in the same schools’ traditional classes.

Such projects remind us how important it is to try new ways of imagining education. But even if a 2.0 approach could be used to create the absolute ideal learning program for a given student, it could not make that student feel well-known and cared about—only educators and a strong peer learning community can do that.

Now think how powerful an educator could be who used the best of both methods. That’s Personalization 3.0: an approach that responds to the relational dimensions of learning while embracing sophisticated uses of data that may help inform us about students in ways never imagined.

In this hybrid conception of personalization, educators can carry out a series of practices to make sure that technology and data enhance relationships but do not pretend to substitute for them.

First, they would make sure to use data about students to deepen their in-person relationships, meaning teachers could start conversations with students several steps ahead, having already gathered basic information about them.

Second, learning would be structured in a way that would enable students to both pursue their individual learning journeys and have a “home base” community of peers and at least one caring adult who knows them well. Structures inside and outside of school would attend to the relational flow of each student’s day and week.

Third, students would have more opportunities for belonging to communities through thoughtful combinations of in-person connections and social-networking tools.

It turns out that integrating 2.0 approaches can keep this hybrid personalization affordable. Educators are our most valuable and expensive resource; when they offload tasks that technology can handle, they can focus on the high-touch work where they make the greatest impact. These kinds of practices will require significant changes, however, in policy and in the personalization-product industry.

Software will need to capture the rich information that comes out of strong relationships between educators and students. Educational programming platforms will need to provide tools to help educators optimize both student time on individual pathways and connections to adults and peers. Schools need to be organized in ways that maximize quality relationships. Standards and curricula will need to be focused so that teachers don’t rush across a wide expanse of shallow content to the exclusion of deeper learning and authentic connection with students. And school staff members will need to be trained in how to learn about and build relationships with students so they can adapt their practices accordingly.

We can have the best of both worlds; we just need to choose to do so.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as People vs. ‘Personalization’


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