Personalization Be the Future of Learning

Personalized learning theory is built on the twin pillars of 1) differentiated learning pathways for students and 2) feedback that enables students to make informed judgments about what they’ve learned, how well they’ve learned it, and what to learn next. The importance of these two pillars for effective education is well established, yet traditional schools struggle mightily with both, mostly because there are only 24 hours in a day and educators are human.

Built on these two pillars, personalized learning has the potential to fulfill some of the most basic hopes families have for their children: “I just want my child to get what they need, when they need it.” “I want my child to grow and develop from where she is today.” “I want my child to experience success and grow in confidence as a learner.”

Differentiated learning paths honor student variation in both background knowledge and ability. Effective teachers assign work to students that is “appropriate to their current levels of competence.” But most teachers’ ability to manage multiple learning paths in multiple subjects is limited, at best. Arbitrary, age-based academic standards and fixed pacing guides only exacerbate the problem.

Substantially reorganizing school to honor the variation in student readiness is an option that educators only infrequently employ. At my children’s elementary school, the entire student body learns math at the same time, and students across the school are regrouped based on their needs, not their grade or age. I’m not arguing that this practice is the only answer to our problems, but it is clearly much easier to say “we differentiate for every child” than to actually put differentiation into practice.

Feedback has a powerful impact on student achievement, and providing it is entirely within the school’s control. In traditional classrooms, teachers are the bottleneck in giving student feedback unless there are other feedback loops students can access directly. In personalized learning environments, students theoretically have access to ample, frequent, and actionable feedback from multiple sources, including content, peers, and teachers. Teachers can focus their energies on 1) providing the feedback that only they can provide and 2) making sense of the feedback generated by other sources.

Together, differentiated learning paths and feedback create the basic conditions for personalized learning to occur. In addition, students need to own their learning. Every student should have the opportunity to go to college, where students are primarily responsible for their learning. This lies in stark contrast to K–12, where teachers are primarily responsible for student learning. Ensuring college readiness requires improving executive function and ramping up background knowledge, neither of which are core competencies in today’s schools. It is unrealistic to assume that in a traditional school, students will receive a seven-step lesson for every chunk of background knowledge they’ll need to succeed beyond the 4th grade. We need to organize our schools in such a way that students acquire background knowledge, accrue expertise, and develop independent learning skills.

Among the issues frequently raised by skeptics are that the research base for student-driven learning is abysmal. Individualized instruction has shown particularly weak effects on student achievement as have other methods that put the teacher in the role of facilitator. I suspect insufficient attention to background knowledge is the Achilles heel of those who believe teachers should be the “guide on the side.” I remain optimistic nonetheless, for two reasons. First, now that I have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to develop stable personalized-learning environments, I’m skeptical that prior efforts had the resources, capacity, or technology necessary for those initiatives to succeed. Second, the new wave of personalized learning draws on a set of instructional strategies that have shown particularly large effects on student achievement: feedback, peer tutoring, mastery learning, goal setting, and even direct instruction.

A second contention is that students are incapable of making good decisions about their learning. I agree that many students, without any structures, supports, or feedback, will make poor decisions about their education. But schools that move to student-driven environments create supports so students can function well. These include increased coaching, goal setting, feedback on progress, tiered supports, peer tutoring, small-group instruction, and other resources that together enable a greater percentage of students to manage their own learning effectively. For example, the first thing most schools do is put in a “minimum pace” to help address the “slow velocity” problem.

Opponents argue that students will avoid hard thinking in personalized environments without teachers. I generally agree that teachers are best positioned to lead cognitively challenging activities like Socratic seminars, deep reading, and math talk. Personalized learning environments are better suited to teach basic skills and background knowledge than to teach critical thinking. That said, students with significant background knowledge are capable of hard thinking when they take more ownership of their learning, and we need to honor those capabilities.

Similarly, opponents assert that personalized learning precludes great pedagogy like argument, discussion, and debateThis is a false choice. Students can engage in personalized learning for a portion of the day and spend the rest of their time in rich learning activities that only teachers can provide. The bet here is that if students can drive their development of basic skills and background knowledge, teachers can “trade up” and focus their energies on challenging tasks and compelling experiences. Teachers should be in the business of creating “aha” moments for children, not figuring out seven different math lessons for 25 different students.

Ben Riley argues that one of the important roles of the teacher is to “pick what to study next,” and Dan Willingham acknowledges that “craft knowledge trumps science” when it comes to differentiation. But clinical diagnoses have extraordinarily high error rates. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites a study in which experienced radiologists contradicted themselves 20 percent of the time when they saw the same chest x-ray on separate occasions. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that 28 percent of ICU patients had at least one missed diagnosis when they died. It is not unreasonable to believe that error rates are higher in education because of the lack of reliable heuristics and a relatively thin research base. This is not teacher bashing. If education is anything like other professions that rely on clinical judgment, it is likely that one in four education diagnoses (probably more) is incorrect. Students are best served when they have access to both expert judgment and the types of algorithmic supports possible in personalized learning environments.