Personalized Learning

Personalized Learning Debates Put Too Much Emphasis on Technology, School Leaders Say

By Alyson Klein — December 15, 2021 4 min read
A student writing in a notebook and working on a laptop
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The COVID-19 pandemic—which had the effect of rapidly expanding the number of digital devices used by schools and forced teachers to learn online instruction on the fly—has been a big boost for personalized learning, most educators say. But that approach to customize instruction to individual students’ academic strengths and weaknesses and personal interests—is still likely to be more teacher-directed than student driven, and parents and students still aren’t sold on it.

That’s according to a report released this month and commissioned by the Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on education, research, and community development.

Here are some of the report’s top takeaways:

Personalized learning must be about way more than technology

The current discussion around personalized learning is too focused on technology, according to a whopping 98 percent of the 300 principals and vice-principals surveyed for the report.

People outside of K-12 education sometimes see technology as “the panacea to all of society’s ills, particularly around issues related to education,” said Antonia Kerle, the policy & insights research manager for technology, media & education at Economist Impact, which published the report. “And I think one of the key takeaways is that technology can help in some way, but really the culture, the school that they’re operating in, the buy-in from all the various stakeholders, just even the quality of a teacher, all of that is going to have a way bigger impact.”

(That’s also been a consistent theme in Education Week’s reporting on the approach.)

The pandemic has provided a big boost for personalized learning

Nearly all of the educators surveyed—99 percent—said that COVID-19 accelerated their schools’ adoption of personalized learning, with 51 percent strongly agreeing with that statement. (The other 48 percent “somewhat” agreed.) Nearly a third—30 percent—strongly agreed with the statement that the pandemic “made personalized learning more relevant than ever.”

But an Education Week Research Center survey, taken in the fall of 2020, showed something different: Educators teaching during the pandemic felt they and their colleagues weren’t as able to assess students’ academic strengths, weaknesses, and interests as well as before, weakening a key tenant of personalized learning. In fact, more than half of educators said this ability was diminished, with 11 percent saying they were “much less” able to personalize learning.

Parents and students aren’t as enthused about personalized learning as teachers, principals say

The vast majority of school leaders surveyed—87 percent—described teachers as “very supportive” of personalized learning. But only about a quarter of school leaders would say the same of parents, and only 8 percent would say the same of students. The best way to get parents and kids on board with the strategy, according to the experts the researchers talked to? Put personalized programs in place and let them experience it for themselves.

Why the big difference in opinion between parents and teachers? Parents may be more reluctant to try something that’s so different from their own K-12 experience, Kerle said. “My guess is that there may be some concern that there’s a risk around experimenting with your child’s education,” she said. “Teachers have a better understanding of the overall landscape.”

The results of the Qatar Foundation’s survey conveys a lot more teacher support for personalized learning than an Education Week Research Center survey conducted in in 2019. In that survey, about half of educators said they viewed personalized learning as one tool available to them or as a “promising idea.” Only about a fifth of educators saw it as potentially transformational.

Personalized learning can be “teacher-led” or employ a “more radical student-led” strategy. Most of the technology in K-12—and the teachers themselves— support the teacher-led approach.

There’s a real range of possibilities with personalized learning, the report says. On one end of the spectrum is a “teacher-led” approach, in which teachers are most likely to craft the lesson and drive the pace of instruction. On the other end, some schools have gone to a much more “learner-led” approach, where teachers serve more as mentors, helping students explore their interests.

Most of the educators who participated in the Qatar Foundation’s survey seem to lean toward the teacher-directed approach. Only 14 percent of the school leaders surveyed said their teachers give students a say in what they learn. And just over a quarter said that learning is paced according to students’ individual needs.

The survey included 300 “educators”— principals and vice-principals—at primary and secondary schools in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The authors also conducted extensive interviews with a dozen experts.

Related Tags:


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Personalized Learning Opinion To Combat Learning Loss, Schools Need to Overhaul the Industrial-Age Paradigm
One educator-turned-entrepreneur argues that innovative content providers can—and should—do more to sustain learning for students and teachers.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Personalized Learning Spotlight Spotlight on Personalized Learning in 2022
This Spotlight will help you evaluate the debate between mastery and seat-time, tailored instruction for individual students, and more.
Personalized Learning Why Personalized Learning Works in Some Schools, But Not in Others. What Test Scores Say
Educators worry that changing up instruction to better fit students' interests could jeopardize their school's progress on state tests.
6 min read
Image shows two children ages 5 to 7 years old and a teacher, an African-American woman, holding a digital tablet up, showing it to the girl sitting next to her. They are all wearing masks, back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Personalized Learning From Our Research Center Personalized Learning’s Big Test Is Coming This School Year
As schools try to repair the damage of COVID-19 and racial injustice, it's now or never for the much-hyped personalized learning movement.
16 min read
Gia Leon, a student at Odyssey STEM Academy, poses for a portrait at Hollydale Park on July 15, 2021, in South Gate, California.
Gia Leon, 17, credits the personalized learning program at Odyssey STEM Academy in Lakewood, Calif., for helping build her academic and personal confidence and giving her an opportunity to experience the real world of work.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week