Problems with Personalized Learning

A reader pointed me to this interesting article in the current Educational Leadership on “personalized learning.” She said it raised an alarm for her that she couldn’t quite put into words and she asked if I heard that same alarm and, if so, what words I’d use to describe it.

I hear a few alarms, some louder and faster than others. Let me point them out in the piece.

Here we describe a student’s typical day at a personalized learning school. The setting is the Waukesha STEM Academy-Saratoga Campus in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

You could be forgiven for not knowing, based on that selection, that one of the authors is the principal of the Waukesha STEM Academy and that his two co-authors have financial ties to the personalized learning industry the Waukesha STEM Academy is a client of the other two authors [see this exchange. -dm]. What should be disclosed in the article’s first paragraph can only be inferred from the authors’ biographies in its footer. This minimal disclosure is consistent with what I perceive to be irresponsible self-promotion on the part of the personalized learning industry. (See also: “… this robot tutor can essentially read your mind.”)

(Full disclosure: I work in education technology.)

Then, in describing a student’s school experience before personalized learning, the authors write:

… [Cal’s] planner, which looked similar to those of the other 27 students in his class, told him everything he needed to know: Math: Page 122; solve problems 2—18 (evens). [..] Each week looked about the same.

If this is truly the case, if students didn’t interact with each other or their teacher at all, if they simply opened their books and completed a textbook assignment every day, every week, we really can’t do much worse. Most alternatives will look great. This isn’t a sober analysis of available alternatives. Again, this is marketing.

[Cal] began to understand why he sometimes misses some of the things that he hears in class and ands more comfort in module-based courses, where he can fast forward and rewind videos and read instructions at his own pace.

Fast-forwarding, rewinding, and pausing instructional videos are often cited as advantages of personalized learning, not because this is necessarily good instruction, but because it’s what the technology permits.

And this isn’t good instruction. It isn’t even good direct instruction. When someone is explaining something to you and you don’t understand them, you don’t ask that person to “repeat exactly what you just said only slower.” You might tell them what you understand of what they were saying. Then they might back up and take a different approach, using different examples, metaphors, or illustrations, ideally responding using your partial understanding as a resource.

I’m describing a very low bar for effective instruction. I’m describing techniques you likely employ in day-to-day conversation with friends and family without even thinking about them. I’m also describing a bar that 2017 personalized learning technology cannot clear.

His students don’t report to class to be presented with information. Instead, they’re empowered to use a variety of learning tools. Some students, like Cal, prefer step-by-step videos; others prefer songs and catchy rhymes to help them learn concepts. [..] He opens a series of videos and online tutorials, as well as tutorials prepared by his teacher.

In the first sentence, we’re told that students like Cal aren’t presented with information. Then, in the following sentences, we’re told all the different ways that those students are presented with information.

Whether you learn concepts from a step-by-step video, a rap, or a written tutorial, you are being presented with information. And a student’s first experience with new information shouldn’t be someone on a screen presenting it, no matter the style of presentation.

Because there is work students can do before that presentation to prepare themselves to learn and enjoy learning from it.

Because the video presenter treats students as though they have the same existing knowledge and prior conceptions about that information, even though those conceptions vary widely, even though some of them are surprisingly durable and require direct confrontation.

Because these video presentations communicate to students the message that math is something you can’t make sense of unless some adult explains it to you, that learning is something you do by yourself, and that your peers have nothing to offer your understanding of that new information.

I like a lot of the ethos around personalized learning — increasing student agency and metacognition, for example — but the loudest, fastest alarm in the article is this:

The medium is the message. Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough. Its gravity pulls towards videos of adults talking about math, followed by multiple choice exercises for practice, all of which is leavened by occasional projects. It doesn’t matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of that learning. Taking your pick of impoverished options still leaves you with an impoverished option.

2017 Mar 22. There are too many interesting comments to feature them individually. I’ll single out two of them directly, however:

  • Todd Gray, the Superintendent of the School District of Waukesha.
  • Anthony Rebora, the Editor-in-Chief of Educational Leadership.
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.


    • Hi Dan,
      I believe your conclusion is an oversimplification of a really complex phenomenon. What you dismissed – videos, practice, and classroom projects – as an impoverished option is just not true. Using exactly this model, my students have thrived. They enjoy math more, their confidence is higher, their standardized test scores are better, their acceptance into accelerated math programs increased, and graduates of this system report great success as they move into the next years of math. The personalized learning system I have been using is Khan Academy, and it is really good. I have seen that it does matter that students can choose the pace or presentation of learning. The thing that sells me most about personalized learning is the confidence boost for kids who are struggling. Your comments (and subsequent others) seem to come from the ivory tower, whereas I have seen actual results.

    • Hi Pete, thanks for sharing your experience. I agree that the research I’m sharing may seem detached from your experience. But one feature of good research is generalizability. Once these ideas have been tested with lots of populations, and tested against alternatives, we can feel confident that they work.

      In your case, I don’t know if your students would have flourished even more under an alternative program. Nor do I know if your population of students is representative of other populations. If, for example, you teach gifted students in a high-SES district with lots of home resources, that may not generalize well to other students.

  1. Harry O'Malley

    March 16, 2017 - 12:43 pm -

    Traditional schooling is ruthlessly effective. If you view a school from above with the roof peeled off in fast forward time lapse, you will see people in rectangular pods learning lessons. At regular, tightly scheduled intervals, the people will enter a travel passageway briefly, then pop into another rectangular pod and learn another lesson. For each child this will happen, like unstoppable machinery, 7-10 times per day, 180 days per year for 12 years.

    In each of these 20,000 lessons they will be forced to pay attention, to think about and talk about the material, and to practice using it. If, at any time during this massive 12 year process, their attention starts to drift away from their learning, they are immediately held accountable and redirected.

    This process, without question, produces an intense amount of learning. An amount that would be very hard to duplicate using any other method that I can think of.

    Dan uses Marshall Mcluhan’s famous idea that “the medium is the message” to frame his critique of the personalized learning tools mentioned in the article. Mcluhan’s idea is a great framework, in my opinion, although I think it can be applied differently to reveal an even more negative critique than Dan provides.

    Dan argues that, since this version of personalized learning basically gives students different ways of being told information, it is no different than being told information in one way. In other words, being presented with information is being presented with information is being presented with information. I know where he is coming from and I agree. Being presented with information is the medium, and it is the same with or without this personalized learning.

    I would like to argue, though, that not only is it no more effective, but it is actually much less effective than traditional schooling.

    Dan uses “presenting information” as the medium in his analogy. To see my point, we will have to see “traditional schooling”, in all its mechanistic power as I describe it above, as the medium. The power of this medium comes in its synchronicity. Even within a lesson, within each of the 20,000 rectangular pod delivery sessions, everything is synchronized. All students should be looking at the same page, at the same problem. All students should be writing at the same time and have their pencils down at the same time. Because of this, teachers can easily hold students accountable to that process. If students should all be writing, they can simply glance up, find one that’s not and address it.

    The personalized learning described in this article fights against this mechanical symphony, losing efficiency, and offers nothing in return to make up for what is lost (as Dan points out).

    Traditional schooling has its flaws. But, overall, it produces incredible results because it forces people to due extensive amounts work related to learning.

    It will eventually be replaced, but only with another massive, overhauling process. The personalized learning described in this article is no such thing.

    • Nicole Friend

      March 18, 2017 - 5:09 pm -

      “Traditional schooling is ruthlessly effective.”

      Yes, traditional schooling is often ruthless. But how effective is it, really? Adult Americans are famously ignorant about their own government and history and unaware that the rest of the world exists. We have a thriving anti-intellectual culture. Schools “teach” kids lots of things they really never need to know and if they resist that we shut opportunity doors in their faces. If we truly had personalized learning we would provide each child with the experiences and support they need to develop in the direction they’ve personally chosen.

      In the alternative education world, and in a few rebellious or privileged mainstream schools, this is already being done. Personalized learning (mediated by human beings) has already been developed. It’s beautiful and it’s the future… if the tech & accountability industries will allow it.

  2. Joseph Mellor

    March 16, 2017 - 12:59 pm -

    You were on a panel at a NCTM regional in 2013. You or one of the other panelists called this style of education “individualized” but not “personalized”. I am in agreement that the social connection between learners is being glossed over in many circles. Thanks for the post.

  3. ASCD responds.

    Dan: Thanks for your comments on this Educational Leadership article. I just wanted to point out that, on the question of the authors’ disclosure of their ties to the personalized learning movement, they do note in the very first paragraph that the schools they are familiar with “participate in the Institute for Personalized Learning network, an organization with which we are involved. …” We thought that made their ties to PL and the school–and their basic orientation on the topic–quite clear right from the outset. Their roles are then stated very clearly in the author bios–I don’t think their connections are left to be “inferred,” as you suggest.

    But in any case, we do welcome your critique of the piece. As I hope the rest our issue on personalized learning makes clear, Educational Leadership is committed to providing a forum for dialogue and insight on important issues facing educators.

    Anthony Rebora
    Editor in Chief
    Educational Leadership, ASCD

    • Hi Anthony, thanks for the response.

      At no point is the article explicit that Waukesha STEM Academy is a client of the Institute for Personalized Learning Network. It can only be inferred from the end of the first paragraph to the beginning of the second.

      At no point is the article explicit that Waukesha STEM Academy is administrated by one of the authors. The second paragraph describes relevant contextual details about the school and I can think of no detail more relevant than the fact that one of the authors is its principal.

      I have amended the post because it is explicit that two of the authors have financial ties to the personalized learning industry. I hope you’ll consider amending the article to clarify the relationship of the school to the network and the authors to the school.

      Also, I’m curious why the article is now paywalled. It wasn’t when I was writing this piece.

    • Anthony Rebora

      March 17, 2017 - 7:47 am -

      Dan: Again, appreciate your input. We will definitely take your points about the authors’ disclosure into consideration.

      On the paywall issue: The article was open-access for a two-week period under a special arrangement. (In general, under our subscription/membership model, only select articles from each issue are open to nonmembers.) However, since you have brought a lot of attention to the piece, I’m looking into opening this article back up again (for a limited period).

      Also: I encourage you to take a look at other articles from that same issue, which provides–we believe–a wide variety of perspectives on and examples of personalized learning. The TOC is here:

      Thanks again for your feedback on the piece.

      Anthony Rebora

  4. I agree with your general points and the conclusion — “Personalized learning is only as good as its technology, and in 2017 that technology isn’t good enough” — is spot on.

    Okay, fair.

    While I agree that stop-start-rewind does not constitute good instruction, neither is it valueless. During an actual class or lecture, my mind may wonder; there is an attentional problem, and this hits 20 students at 20 different points. Rewind addresses this. This allows for somewhat more focused and cogent lectures, since the presenter does not need to remain in perpetual sign-posting mode to ensure the audience hears everything. Again, this is not a dramatic benefit, just to say I think you are a bit overly dismissive. It is a marginal improvement over what is (at least for some) the status quo.

    Also, while you are rightly critical of lack-of-disclosure, I think you are too quick to blame the author. We should first chastize EW for low standards and/or poor editing.

    • Thanks, Blink. I think you raise fair points about the advantages of video lectures.

      Also, while you are rightly critical of lack-of-disclosure, I think you are too quick to blame the author. We should first chastize EW for low standards and/or poor editing.

      Assuming by “EW” you mean “Education Week,” I want to clarify that the article was published by Educational Leadership magazine, and mention that its editor-in-chief has responded above.

  5. Preach.

    I wonder about this… are “personalized learning” advocates arguing against a straw man?

    I mean, they seem to pose ‘PL’ as an alternative to the 100% lecture-based classroom where the teacher does not even respond to questions. Plus, the assumption is the lectures are not arranged in a coherent manner (for all students, perhaps). Or in this specific case, the students just arrive and do textbook problems all day every day.

    In THAT scenario, then it does seem better to let a student (1) choose lectures for themselves, and (2) control the pace of the lecture, or rewind/skip. This marginal improvement over a worst case scenario seems to get dubbed as PL.

    But how often does that worst case scenario exist? It strikes me as a conflation/combination of popularized stories about boring classes (from the student perspective) with the ed-circle-popularized notions that lecture = bad and students on computers = good. There’s also a version of agency in there– but students in PL only get agency over which thing to learn, not how to learn it… or how to *know* it.

    Harry O’Malley also notes that this model now reduces the effectiveness of all of the other sources of information in a school: the people with whom you share your experience. Individualized learning is a much better term, I agree. What does personalized learning even mean then?

  6. joe vignolini

    March 16, 2017 - 6:26 pm -

    Agree.. but also worry what the “result” leads to if we dismiss the idea – Does it “support” traditional “lecture” – I see “traditional” learning in the “directed lesson” to be limiting…and not real traditional, rather a consequence of the industrial age and the actions of 8-10 men in the 1800’s

    I look forward to the evolution of teaching to be less of the “sage on the stage” and more of the “shepherd” of students. – I long for the days we do “real traditional” teaching – called discovery, play and talk… like they had 2000 years ago…

  7. Strong

    If leaders really want to effect change in education they need to figure out a way to better teach the art of questioning to new (and veteran) teachers along with more practice with getting students to engage in discourse about math with each other. How can students develop and refine their own thinking without communicating with another human about math?
    • Agreed. But if every leader agreed on the importance of discourse and argument in math class, it’d be ten minutes before one of them proposed an individualized, self-paced, video-based system to teach it. Agh.

  8. I am a WI educator and saw the Waukesha STEM Academy up close. It was as people perceive it to be. Nothing I would want my child to attend. However, in my district we have taken a slow approach to what the nation calls personalized learning and I call “differentiation in 2017.” As the first comment pointed out we are still limited by our technology. That said, our approach is quite different.

    The piece that always bothers me with technology is its lack of personalization and its lack of rigor. Are there videos that could re-explain a concept a student does not understand, of course. Are they different than our chosen methods, of course. Do we use them…we would be fools not to. However, it is the avenue of giving students choices in their manner of learning. We basically run two main models of differentiation in 2017 with offshoots that meet students needs.

    The main delivery opens the concepts with rigor – high level DOK 3 problems. Then, we back fill from there.

    The first is allowing students to choose how they learn. Group-based, a more traditional delivery of math, or individualized. In all of these models there is a mixture of methods but the dominant delivery is the one stated. The academic results show a minor positive change. However, the emotional results have been huge. Students are digging in deeper because they are enjoying the mode of instruction more. Furthermore, if they don’t feel it is working or we see it is not working, we switch them.

    The second offers students choices in one classroom. It is very similar to the above method but allows students to be reflective learners by giving them different options in the single lesson. It is so similar that explaining it would appear to be repeating the information in the previous paragraph. However, the systemic change is one classroom vs. mutliple locations of learning.

    Personalization, at this time, is nothing more than taking what we can do now and differentiating. Technology affords us more options but we must continue to plant ourselves firmly in best practices. High rigor, high peer to peer communication, high expectations. If we expect proficiency, that is what we will achieve. If we expect more, we may just be surprised by the outcomes.

    • I’ve attempted to do this within my classroom at various points in the past. Let those who want, learn the material through videos and headphones, others watch videos in pairs or groups, and others from me, directly. But this was mostly for the info-delivery portion. Other intros, activities, and practice were combinations of individual, pair, or group work.

      The problem I had with giving them choices on their mode of info delivery was that, SURPRISE, they didn’t always choose what was in their best interest. After a while, and because I couldn’t figure out a good process by which to assign them, it became counterproductive. Do you give them full choice or do you have a method?

  9. Great read and incredibly timely. I just did an open-open-open problem that confirms the research you linked to, “Because there is work students can do before that presentation to prepare themselves to learn and enjoy learning from it.” I do use Khan for some rote procedure practice, but the value of modeling problems cannot be overstated.

  10. Regarding your point about this not being a sober analysis of available alternatives; the article claims “The attendance process that used to require the first 10 minutes of every class is now done within seconds.”

    For a class of 25 students, that’s 24 seconds per kid to determine and record whether or not they are present. Taking and recording attendance takes me less than 24 seconds *total.* Imagine what a 24-second long conversation with a student to determine their whereabouts would be like:

    Teacher: “Kevin?”
    Kevin: “Present.”
    Teacher: “Kevin, are you sure?”
    Kevin: “Yes, I’m here.”
    Teacher: “You’re present?”
    Kevin: “Yes.”
    Teacher: “How are you doing?”
    Kevin: “I’m fine.”
    Teacher: “That’s good. So you’re here, yes?”
    Kevin: “Yes.”
    Teacher: [moves on to next student…]

    Seriously though, that particular line should have been caught by an editor. It undermines the authors’ credibility.

  11. I completely agree with the points made it the article, but I think it is important to push it one step further: this “personalized” learning does not necessarily give students the social education they need to be successful in the future. One of the biggest reasons why young people struggle in college and in the workplace after they finish high school is because they are not pushed to struggle with content and then follow up with questions. Simply skipping to another video or rap does not teach that student how to ask for help. This is beyond mathematics – this is about life skills.

  12. Full Disclosure: Superintendent of the School District of Waukesha

    I would presume that Mr Meyer has not spent any appreciable time, if any time at all, at the Waukesha STEM academy examining the instructional and learning processes taking place there. This school consistently earns the top level of state school report card scores and greatly exceeds the state averages for student achievement and student growth in mathematics. I find the author’s criticisms hypocritical given the fact that he is marketing his own brand of for-profit math instruction training services which might differ form those used in this school. I would invite Mr. Meyer to visit our Waukesha STEM school to see how it really works!
    • Chester Draws

      March 17, 2017 - 1:24 pm -

      Oh you …

      I’ll reply to this, in part because while I respect him, I’m not exactly a Dan fanboy. He’s probably too polite to do it himself.

      This is pure ad hominen. Please play the ball, not the man. Dan’s criticisms are reasoned and evidenced, and I find them very persuasive.

      That the Waukesha academy does well is hardly surprising — it’s not exactly drawing from the same pool as the competition. In my town there is a school down the road that consistently tops the results charts by some margin — but they teach very traditionally. If results charts were what I based things on, I would reason from there performance that I should teach very traditionally. As it happens they are a private school, and the intake isn’t exactly normal.

    • Superintendent Gray, thanks for the note and the invitation to visit.

      I would presume that Mr Meyer has not spent any appreciable time, if any time at all, at the Waukesha STEM academy examining the instructional and learning processes taking place there.

      This is true. I was relying on a firsthand account from your Principal Murray, an account which I suspect is as favorable as any I’ll find. If you think the article misrepresented Waukesha STEM’s practices, I would be interested in knowing how. (As would Principal Murray, I imagine.)

      I find the author’s criticisms hypocritical given the fact that he is marketing his own brand of for-profit math instruction training services which might differ form those used in this school.

      It’s true that I have conflicting interests here, but my critique above is not that the authors have conflicts themselves, but that they’re so poorly disclosed by Educational Leadership.

      Also, I take it by your use of the word “might” that you haven’t had a chance to peruse our digital activities or software or found out that they’re in fact free for teachers and students. It’s possible our work could add more dimensions to the mathematics your students experience. We’d be happy to arrange a demo.

  13. My district is in the process of implementing personalized learning now-and has been for the past few years. One of the requirements set forth by the district is the use of technology for personalized learning. I’m all for the use of technology, but as you mentioned several times, 2017 technology has some major areas of weakness in the personalized learning market.

    Excellent summary.

    And it seems like they all have the same weakness – adults presenting their all-knowingness of math to those who don’t. There’s no time set aside for students to get out of their own heads and talk about what they know (or don’t know) with other students. The creative side of math is being pushed aside by this kind of “teaching” and that’s a shame.
  14. Stacey Sisler

    March 17, 2017 - 11:35 am -

    I don’t generally comment on blog posts, but I find this one particularly intriguing. I don’t think we can equate “personalized learning” with a structure that takes the teacher out of the equation. Personalized learning in it’s most ideal form allows student voice and choice in determining the time, place, path and pace of their learning. This could very well mean a traditional classroom setting. It could mean an online learning platform of some sort. It could mean transforming a traditional course into one that is project-based. I would even argue that it goes beyond simple differentiation in it’s most ideal form. It does not have to mean that the students are simply left to watch videos and make sense of mathematics on their own, or that a student is devoid of all opportunity to interact with teachers and other students, devoid of opportunities to pose and wrestle with questions, or devoid of a mathematically rich experience.

    Teachers are key in facilitating a personalized learning experience that is truly meaningful and personal for students. Teachers need to monitor progress and help students set goals for academic success. Teachers need to be part of the assessment and, if necessary, re-assessment of information until students are able to demonstrate mastery, in whatever form that looks like (test, quiz, video of student explaining a concept, project, etc.). Teachers need to be closely involved n vetting and/or designing technology resource that will serve a meaningful purpose in the instructional process.


    Additionally, courses or other learning experiences that are designed for personalized learning need to be steeped in strong pedagogy. Pedagogy should always trump technology. Even in an online course, structures can be put in place to ensure a meaningful experience for students. The technology needs to be used in a way to facilitate many levels of mathematical learning – used for delivering information, used for modeling mathematical ideas, used for facilitating mathematical discourse, used for discovery and exploration, used for practice and for providing feedback on that practice.

    It makes me sad to think this one example of someone’s idea for personalized learning could taint the possibilities that exist for our students through a personalized learning instructional model. Just like in mathematics classrooms, not all mathematics classrooms provide a meaningful mathematical experience, and not all personalized learning experiences will meet the needs of students. At the same time, we know powerful things happen in many math classrooms, and powerful learning can occur in a personalized learning structure that is designed with care and purpose to ensure a rich, rigorous, meaningful experience for the student that has chosen that path.

    • Thanks for your thoughts here, Stacy. Especially for the paragraph I highlighted above, which articulates the need to derive first principles from pedagogy not technology.

  15. Interesting alternative!

    I haven’t read the article because I can’t access it, but have had some positive experiences with personalized learning this semester that I think are worth sharing. I’m piloting a Blended, 9th grade, Algebra 1 class this semester. The format of my class sounds very different than the article, which might explain why I feel like I’ve had some big benefits. Students come to class 2-3 days a week. For the most part, they DO NOT watch videos (students have had a choice to watch 2 videos this semester). I decided that on days we’re learning new material, everyone will be in class. These are high impact days. Since students will have the choice to be out of the classroom the following day, they are more engaged than they were 1st semester when they saw me every day. They are motivated to learn new material so that they can apply it without me the next day. Students are asking a lot more “why is this true” questions as opposed to “how do you do question # ____?” because they might not see me for 48 hours and need to understand the concepts in order to complete the assigned tasks the next day. The days that I give choice for coming to class are often days that I’ve designated for “Day 2” of a target, task days, and review days before tests. For the students who feel really confident, they can be learning soft skills like responsibility and making good choices with their free time. For students who are stuck on a concept, they get to come to class and get more individualized instruction. Some days there might only be 5 students in class. I get to spend time asking them questions to draw out their understanding with prior knowledge instead of rushing around trying to interact with 25 students. I’ve also experimented with assigning half the class to come one day, and the other half to come the next. It’s been really beneficial to work with fewer students in one class period.

    I don’t want to paint a completely rosy picture, because there have been struggles along the way. The negatives of this format include the amount of time I spend checking in assignments. I’m constantly checking Canvas, Desmos, Padlet, email, etc. to find student submissions. I’m sure this process can become smoother as the students and I get more familiar with the format. I also miss having a classroom personality. Every class is defined by the students who are in it. And when those students aren’t seeing each other daily, the personality of the class gets lost. I feel like I have to formatively assess more often because I’m not always seeing students facial expressions. Instead of being able to respond to a classroom of confused looks, I have to ask a question, wait for them to submit their answers which might take a day or two, and then respond.
    There are many ways that personalized learning can be done poorly as described by Dan and in previous comments. When personalized learning is done well, it can be a really effective format for many students (some of my students are choosing to be in a traditional classroom next year, and some are choosing to be in another Blended class). Personalized learning should not be implemented just to keep up with the latest thing in education, but should be approached just as thoughtfully (if not more) as we would plan for our traditional face-to-face class periods.

    • Thanks for sharing your alternate model, Rachel. Next time I’m in Chicago, I’d love to stop by if y’all will have me.

      Also, Educational Leadership has made that article free again for a limited time. It’d be great to hear your thoughts on how their model compares to yours.

    • After reading the article, there are definitely differences, and a few similarities to our model. We’re piloting 5 classes this semester in a school of about 3000 students, so we’re just beginning. One of the things that concerns me from the article, is the way they define personalize learning: “Nurtures powerful learners rather than just proficient students. Positions learners as partners with educators to identify learning goals, design learning paths, create learning experiences, and share accountability for learning progress and success. Is competency-based, in that progress is based on learning rather than on time spent in learning activities. Students share in monitoring growth in their competencies and progress along learning continuums, often across multiple subject areas.” I agree with the 1st sentence, but that could/should happen in traditional classes as well. I’m hesitant about the competency-based emphasis because I feel that their model leads to a to-do list mentality–check the skills off as you understand them. I never want mathematics to feel rushed or finished.
      As I’ve planned my course, I’ve considered the 3 P’s of personalized learning: Pace, Place and Path. In terms of pace, all of my students take the summative assessments in class on the same day. I assign daily assignments, and on independent days I also assign activities to be completed. These assignments should be done by the time of the test. As teachers, we know it’s best to keep up with the daily workload, but I am practicing being flexible. Sometimes a student might use my class period to get Chemistry help, and choose to do their math homework at home. That’s a good example of pace and place. Comparing that to the article, it seemed like Cal liked having the flexibility of where he could be in the school and the ability to choose what he was working on at times. That seems pretty similar to what my students get to experience, although our schools are different in that my students are limited to that flexibility for 50 min. a few times a week. An example of path is something I tried this week. On Monday I gave my students and image of some visual patterns and asked them to write questions. I asked the students who wrote questions about the orange pattern to come to class on Thursday and the students who wrote questions about the red pattern to come to class on Friday. Both groups of students got to choose which question to engage in. On the day they weren’t in class, they had some choice with the pace and place of their learning. On the day they were in class, students were engaged in problem solving. Students who had questions got help, and students who already understood the target deepened their understanding of Algebra. I think defining “path” as learning style (videos or songs) limits the possibilities of what it could be. Mathematics presents a thousand paths and I am passionate about helping students find one that engages them to learn deeper.
      Dan, you’re welcome to come visit. We’d love to have you!

  16. You need to check out the Summit model of PL. backed by Facebook engineers and Bill Gates. It’s amazing. I teach at one of the many schools across the country that has adopted their model. When run this way PL is amazing! I would not want to teach any other way. The biggest plus is I get to know my students especially 25 really well and not just how they are In my class but all their classes and as an individual through mentoring which happens weekly. We talk about SMART Goals and the SDL cycle. I am also constantly looking at my data to see where my students are and arrange my room accordingly for each class period. So I can foster peer tutoring, 1to1 instruction or small group instruction and even whole group interuptions. PL just like traditional teaching is only as good as the people involved not technology. Technology is a tool not the process.

  17. Provocative.

    As someone who helped pilot Teach To One (New Classroom’s infamous math program), I can’t but heartily agree.

    However, I also see that in the places that such teaching technologies are touted, there isn’t a really good direct-instruction alternative. Many urban areas that want “personalized education” have kids who are below grade level and lots of teacher turnover.

    I’m not saying I’m a fan, but that shortage is also pretty real and I can see why leadership wants to keep trying to get kids to learn from videos.

  18. Personalization is terrible for teaching new material, at least with current technology. But it’s necessary for detecting and addressing forgetting of old material. Each kid has forgotten different stuff, so you need adaptive assessment to track it. Even teachers who use paper-based SBG, like me, need an assist from tech here. It’s not hard to use SBG to track whether each student has finally learned skill X. Tracking whether they have forgotten it is much harder, for me at least. When I think about doing all that tracking with paper assessments, I end up imagining my whole classroom culture getting consumed by endless skills tests (and my energy being consumed by grading rather than lesson prep).

    I use frequent re-assessment of prior learning on paper to figure out the bulk of kids’ grades — and to decide how I allocate scarce teacher time for human-to-human interventions. If you’ve forgotten something, your grade goes down, prompting you to do something about that. Problem is, it could be 3 weeks from the time you forget something to the time you’re alerted to that fact. So adaptive tech provides a more student-facing feedback system on what they should try to *re*learn, because tech can reassess so much more frequently and efficiently than I can. It counts for a grade, but not a huge one. Like Sam Shah’s trig review 1-point quizzes, it counts for something, but is mostly a form of feedback. I aspire to use some class time to pair kids up so that both members of a pair have mastered a skill their partner needs to learn/relearn. Would humanize the relearning process a bit. Can’t figure out how to do that yet with the downloadable Khan Academy report, at least not yet. (Khan Academy, if you’re out there…this should be so easy for programmers to whip up. Please, pretty please?)

    Dan, from our running conversation, I believe you’re at least lukewarm about this approach, but I’m not sure. Any thoughts?

    Khan Academy, your site seems designed for personalized learning of new material. It requires a LOT of hacks to make it suitable for the purposes described above. Folks can see those hacks on my blog if interested.

    • Dan, from our running conversation, I believe you’re at least lukewarm about this approach, but I’m not sure. Any thoughts?

      I think my strongest concern goes back here:

      Because the video presenter treats students as though they have the same existing knowledge and prior conceptions about that information, even though those conceptions vary widely, even though some of them are surprisingly durable and require direct confrontation.

      I think your logistical concerns are totally valid, though. The technology of a single flesh-and-blood teacher in a room with 40 students at maybe 10 different stages in their learning is also not working well to personalize learning.

  19. Dan, what’s your experience with Montessori? Sadly, mine is limited and only through books. However, from everything I’ve read, it seems to fit the model (and achieve the results) PL desires. I question whether Montessori can scale – as it relies on the human connection vs the digital connection.

    It also seems an early ed environment. Wondered if you’d run across any K-12 or upper ed Montessori thru the lens of PL?

    • Nicole Friend

      April 13, 2017 - 1:30 pm -

      Montessori’s curriculum goes through 12th grade and scales well (at least at the elementary level that I’m acquainted with) because it’s often the kids who teach each other. Everyone’s not running to the teacher for instruction all the time. Maria Montessori actually preferred large class sizes with a range of ages, because that gave the kids more options for peer interaction and mentoring. Therefore, kids who have a fresh memory of learning a technique are able to solidify their own learning through teaching and reach peers in their zone of proximal development. Smart!

  20. High school is the time when students will decide to do the work it takes to graduate or drop out. A positive relationship with a teacher can be the reason some students remain in school. Technology will never replace the teacher-student relationship that so many of our students need for success.

  21. Thank you for your post. One “alarm bell” going off that has not been addressed in your article or comments following relates to the touting in blended/individualized/personal learning of student self-directed/self-selected learning choices (ie., modes of learning such as traditional lecture, video, group work, etc).


    I am interested in your take on whether secondary and younger students are of an age/maturity to have the best insight into choosing for themselves the best mode of delivery for their individual needs. In my experience, most students choose the easiest path, or at best a more difficult path but one that is still well below the level of optimal academic difficulty. In my opinion that is one of the essential reasons for having teachers ( just like coaches)…to push a student to maximum growth. In short, individualized learning seems based upon student’s making optimilazed choices for themselves. Do student’s actually challenge themselves in that way? It seems to fly in the face of brian development scientific data and common sense. How is that measured? Thoughts?
  22. Thank you for the excellent reference. P.s. If one searches the author’s name and title of the article (“Personalization vs. How People Learn” “Benjamin Riley,” one can access it via the web. As a side note, it certainly appears that any hard data against this trend simply results in a renaming and repackaging of the same old product that has been tried before and failed our students; hence, so many names for the same thing: open classrooms, self directed learning, differential learning, personalized learning, blended, etc. Everything is a sound bite and smoke and mirrors. Mass marketing in our public schools at its best…and ugliest. It’s just the new progressivism of this generation. A read of educational history reveals there is a cycle of “progressiveness” or “equality” about every twenty years or so where the “new technology” of that generation is the panacea for all public education woes. Technology should be embraced and utilized, but the teachers (and parents) need to be the driving force of children’s education so that equality in educational opportunities do not result in the exclusion of academic achievement for the highest or more motivated learners. Equality and achievement should co-exist.

  23. Head of math at a personalized charter network. Tune in.

    Many teachers I’ve met believe their students’ proficiencies are all over the map: students are grade-levels behind, grade-levels ahead, and everything in between, all in the same classroom. They feel their lessons alienate students on both ends of this spectrum; like telling a story, when a portion of class has heard the story before, and another portion is lost because they missed the story’s setup and context. They don’t feel they were trained to address this. Personalized learning, viewed as a system that lets some students work ahead and others go back to address misconceptions, appeals because it swoops into that perceived vacuum. It’s seen as an alternative to “teaching to the middle.”

    BUT, the framing of this problem and solution is based on all sorts of dubious assumptions and mindsets: one, as this post argues convincingly, is that the change of medium to a computer is neutral on pedagogy (it’s not). Others include: a view of mathematics as a collection of facts to be learned and exercises to do; a view of math as one-dimensional and linear, where when a student completes an assignment the only place to go is ahead, and if misconceptions surface, the only place to go is back; etc. etc. If assumptions like these frame the “problem,” then this this vision of personalized learning makes sense.

    Thus, the key is surfacing the underlying assumptions, challenging them with reason and research, and replace them with better ones. For instance, let’s replace the assumption about math class’s purpose being to absorb a collection of facts to being able to problem solve and understand concepts and their connections. Let’s replace the assumption that tasks can only cater to the middle (or “the low” or “the high”) with the assumption that rich tasks that are accessible and extendable, by engaging the SMPs and allowing for depth, can be valuable to *all* kids in the room. Let’s replace the assumption that students’ misconceptions should prompt digging back through the archive for the right video with the assumption that unfinished learning from prior grades is best surfaced and addressed in the context of grade-level work. And so on. Personalization can be a worthwhile approach; but only when based on pedagogically sound assumptions.

  24. I’d like to talk about the elephant in the classroom. The strong feelings from this audience on this issue probably comes from a couple of central questions.

    Does a human teacher with nuanced understanding of their students’ feelings and instincts have an advantage over the promise of a computer with infallible encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter and teaching methods for it? Or will omniscient automatons transcending time and space eventually be the demise of the human teacher profession?

    Frankly, I don’t know the answer to these questions. In fact, I don’t believe anyone currently does. I suppose that as automated teaching algorithms improve, computers will show proven advantages over live teachers, but that day is not here yet. So for now, the best strategy is to use the best of both approaches. Technology like Desmos* show how it is possible to blend the advantages of computer-aided learning with the instincts of a caring, live teacher. This is the model we should strive toward for now – at least until we all become obedient servants to our robot overlords! ;>)

    *No, this is NOT a paid advertisement.

    • Or will omniscient automatons transcending time and space eventually be the demise of the human teacher profession?

      The demise of the human teacher profession will be the least of our worries in that event!

  25. Insider’s perspective right here.

    I am in charge of the math program at a blended learning school. Just like any other school, we have many problems. The technology and the curriculum can kill a program like this. As others have commented above, it’s the teachers that make the difference, not the technology. I really wish the technology could aid me in more helpful ways in 2017. But we just aren’t there yet.

    Technology COULD be very powerful in aiding teachers at a school like this though. I am hopeful to see more great tools like Desmos meet that need. Desmos is revolutionizing the way in which I teach! We need more effective tools like this. The technology developed MUST rely on more effective learning philosophy such as this: And that really is the downside for much of the technology currently being developed for personalized learning–a poor foundation on outdated and ineffective teaching methodology.

    We are in our second year and each teacher is developing their own vision of what our school should look like for each subject. Administration has been key to all of this. They have given us freedom to implement best practices for kids. This did not exist in other traditional schools I taught at. I LOVE my job! The kids also love our school. I have not had one confrontation with a student since we opened 2 years ago.

    We have a lot of work to do. I am, however, very optimistic that this model will become far more effective than the traditional model. These kids desperately need something better than that. It is painful to see just how bad it is in many schools. It is true that personalized learning has many ugly faces, but so does traditional schooling. It is my opinion that the downfalls we currently see in personalized learning are simply because of lack of effective ideas and tools. We can’t envision how a student could choose to learn at their own pace other than watching videos. We are viewing student choice in time, place, path, and pace through traditional paradigms. The biggest advantage that I see to personalized learning is the freedom given to both teachers and students.

    Cal’s math teacher served as more of a cheerleader than a teacher. This has been the case at my school at times and other schools like it that I am aware of. Some teachers have felt replaced by the computer and feel like they don’t get to teach anymore. If you ask students (I ask mine frequently and I’ve talked to many at other schools) about what they think their teacher does, they usually say something about how the teacher is their IF they need them. What they really mean is they don’t interact much with their teacher because they are learning it all on their own.

    We can’t let these kids down no matter what school they are at. The way I see it, if you are teaching at one of these schools like I am, the first thing you need to do is take charge of the curriculum. The curriculum MUST depend upon frequent interaction between students and between teachers and students. Don’t accept the curriculum that comes with the package. The technology is not there yet. Use the freedom you have to create a world-class education for these kids.

    • I noticed CPM (exploration & PBL-based) has some kind of relationship with DESMOS. I am piloting CPM next fall and am very interested to see how effective it is. I know it spirals so it would be unwise to haphazardly pick and choose which pieces to use. For example, replacing an activity without complete awareness of which standards are being introduced, which are being reviewed, and which are preparatory could create holes that undermine the system. Until teachers understand the importance of exploration and PBL, though, we are likely to remain stuck.

  26. Important follow-up.

    Although we appreciate the lively and necessary debate to clarify what personalized learning really is and how teachers are a vital part of working with students to coach their inquiry, exploration, and possible solutions, Dan is really talking about problems with personalized learning that are specific to this article. We whole heartedly agree that swapping out a teacher and swapping in technology to provide direct instruction and follow up problems is a low bar for effective instruction. Yet, In the spirit of necessary dialogue, we drafted a blog post to respond to some of the ideas that Dan references from his close reading of this one article and broadening his focus on what he considers problems with personalized learning in general.

    You can find it here:

  27. Meredith Thompson

    March 23, 2017 - 2:49 am -

    I haven’t been sure how to join this thread, but this week I had a “classroom technology” moment. First, I was using technology to do something we could not otherwise have done, which was to have a guest speaker who otherwise could not have participated in my class. Great, right? I tested the system, it worked, we were all set. Then, something didn’t work as planned. You’ve been there. What followed was 15 minutes of troubleshooting; troubleshooting that was somewhat entertaining for the students and pretty excruciating for the teacher (me). Finally, we got it to work.

    Once the talk began, something amazing happened. The speaker gave us a guided tour through a topic that he had thought very deeply about. He questioned foundations, and challenged our assumptions. Not only was he a talented presenter, but he engaged all of us in the conversation. In this way, the technology allowed us to initiate conversations and interactions between people. In thinking about educational resources, we often forget the most abundant and underutilized resource we have – our students. It is the connection between individuals, the exchange of ideas, finding new and different ways of viewing and solving problems that is the source of truly deep and meaningful learning. A near miss on an “epic fail” for technology, became an engaging conversation facilitated by an insightful teacher.

    Certainly, educational technology has potential. In our conversations about how to best use these new tools, we have to keep a few things in mind. We need to think about how technology can help us expand our classrooms in new ways we otherwise could not have done. We need to find ways to have technology be a bridge to communication, not a barrier. Finally, we need to remember the unique and important perspective on a topic that can only be communicated by someone who has thought deeply about a topic – an expert teacher.

  28. “By working through the profile, Cal realized that he prefers to learn kinesthetically and visually.”

    There is research that states students don’t learn any better when information is presented through their preferred learning style. Instead, the instruction method (i.e. presenting pictures vs words vs speech) should be determined by what is best for specific content.

    • True story.

      I decided not to take up that particular sword, but I’m glad someone said it.

  29. Patience, tolerance, competence, understanding the needs, multidisciplinary work that needs emotional intelligence, this deserves that the student stay at school in groups. It is what makes the teacher’s work a trascendent one: “Be aware that things as mencioned above must be taken into exercise-each student must exercise, being or not being aware, at the same time their are learning together”