Personalized Learning Software: Fun Like Choosing Your Own Ad Experience


After last week’s post knocking around “personalized learning”, Michael Feldstein argued that the term is too ambiguous to be useful:

All learning is personalized in virtue of the fact that it is accomplished by a person for him or herself. This may seem like a pedantic point, but if the whole point of creating the term is to focus on fitting the education to the student rather than the other way around, then it’s important to be clear about agency. What we really want to talk about, I think, is “personalized education” or, more specifically, “personalized instruction.”

Mike Caulfield described the value of structured discussion and how current personalized learning technologies undermine it:

… if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us thinking like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it, refactor it, and re-absorb it better than it was before.

Is personalization orthogonal to structured discussion? That’s debatable, I suppose.

In practice, do the current forms of personalization in vogue (see, for instance, Rocketship) undermine the ability of a skilled teacher to run productive structured discussions?

Absolutely. Not a doubt in my mind.

Alex Hernandez claimed I set up a false choice between personalized learning paths and structured discussion:

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 background knowledge, teachers can “trade up” and focus their energies on challenging tasks and compelling experiences.

Kevin Hall, one of the most useful foils I have at this blog, described a particular form of personalization:

Different groups could do the task with the same or isomorphic data sets in different contexts: sports, movies, etc. [..] My guess is ed tech will have us to this point relatively soon, don’t you think?

I just finished reading Daniel Willingham’s Why Students Don’t Like School, a challenging and affirming read at different times, and he takes a very dim view of this kind of personalization:

Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work. As I noted in Chapter One, content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interest is maintained.

I left comments in response to Michael Feldstein, Alex Hernandez, and Kevin Hall, in which I elaborate on the title of this post.

And Benjamin Riley, after starting this whole fire, tossed on another can of kerosene.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dear Dan,
    I’ve been reading all your last posts about personalized learning from a foreigner point of view, and I think all of you (advocate or detractor) are right and wrong at the same time:

    – right in your eternal seek of the ideal method of teaching (this is the only way we can improve ourselves’s method)

    – wrong in the point that all of you seem to think there is “one” ideal method of teaching.

    From my modest point of view, I bet that the combination of all of existing methods is the best one, because this way you’ll arrive to all kind of students, whatever their learning proccesses are.

    Use of thechnologies? Yes!! Personalized learning of some contents? Again, yes!! Use of “touchable” materials? Yes, of course! Structured discussions? Yes! Experimental learning of maths in the lab through chemical practises? Why not?

    Maybe the difficult task for us now is to find a perfect equilibrium for the usage of all these methods….

  2. Hi Dan, I’m reading Why Students Don’t Like School right now. I’d love to read a post describing your reactions sometime.