I’m Afraid of Personalized Learning

by Guest Blogger
August 18th, 2015

There. I’ve admitted it. I’m afraid of personalized learning. Of course, I’m fascinated by it too. But the allure only adds to my fear—there’s a small chance that personalized learning could radically improve education and a large chance that it’ll produce the next flood of snake oil.

Writing about DC’s foray into personalized learning, Natalie Wexler sums up the benefits nicely:

In any given classroom, some kids grasp the material easily while others struggle. Under the prevailing model, teachers have generally taught to the middle, with the inevitable result that some kids are bored and others are lost. The personalized learning movement aims to engage and challenge all students, wherever they may be.

Wexler also notes many possible pitfalls, including students not pushing themselves or being off task, teachers being unable to support all students at different learning stations, and the lack of opportunities for whole-class discussions.

All of these challenges could be addressed—giving us a small chance that personalized learning could work at scale—but will they be? I doubt it.

One hurdle is that there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on what personalized learning is. Some people seem to be talking about personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum; others seem to be talking about personalized pathways and personalized content.

Here’s a typically jumbled description of personalized learning from “creative learning strategist” Barbara Bray:

A personalized learning environment is more competency-based where students progress at their own pace instead of by grade levels. No more “mandated” seat time. The learner has their own learning path with multiple strategies to meet their different learning styles…. Learners are co-designers of the curriculum with the teachers. Teachers are co-learners with the learners. The teacher doesn’t have to be the hardest working person in the classroom; the learners need to be. They want to learn because they chose the topic and understand what they need to learn. They want to succeed so they try harder. They succeed because they designed their learning goals.

Moving at your own pace is alluring—especially if students who are behind are assisted with accelerating their pace. The risk is that the very notion of being “behind” evaporates, leaving us with students aging out of public schooling before they become college, career, or citizenship ready. But some combination of individual pacing, year-round options, and benchmarks for predicting on-time graduation could be very powerful.

Personalized content, in contrast, strikes me as irresponsible and dangerous. While it might be the path to engagement, it might also be the path to widening the achievement gap and locking even more people out of our democracy. Young people don’t know what they need to learn. They don’t know that comprehension—and therefore everything else—depends on broad knowledge and an enormous vocabulary.

If allowed to choose my own content in elementary school, I would have become an expert in princesses and dogs. Fortunately, most of my elementary and middle years were in a school that had English, math, science, history, French, Latin, and PE every day. By high school, not coincidentally, my interests were as broad as my elementary curriculum had been.

Personal choice of some content could be layered on top of a rich, pre-established curriculum. But the school must remain responsible for steering students toward worthwhile studies. As a recent article by Daniel Willingham notes:

Researchers have long known that going to school boosts IQ…. Schooling makes students smarter largely by increasing what they know, both factual knowledge and specific mental skills like analyzing historical documents and learning procedures in mathematics.

This view of schooling carries two implications. If the benefit of schooling comes from the content learned, then it’s important to get a better understanding of what content will be most valuable to students later on in their lives. The answers may seem intuitive, but they’re also subjective and complex. A student may not use plane geometry, solid geometry, or trigonometry, but studying them may improve her ability to mentally visualize spatial relationships among objects, and that may prove useful for decades in a variety of tasks….

The aforementioned research [on long-term retention] also implies that the sequence of learning is as important as content. Revisiting subjects can protect against forgetting, and sustained study over several years can help make certain knowledge permanent. Thus, when thinking about what expect students to learn, it’s not enough that content be “covered.” Evidence suggests that a student must use such content in his or her thinking over several years in order to remember it for a lifetime….

Education-policy debates tend to focus on structural issues—things like teacher quality, licensure requirements, and laws governing charter schools. But research on human memory indicates that academic content and the way it is sequenced—i.e., curriculum—are vital determinants of educational outcomes, and they’re aspects that receive insufficient attention.

For personalized learning to work, advocates will have to become far more careful about what students are learning and how they are able to revisit and build on their knowledge over several years.


Personalized pacing (with safeguards) and personalized content are very different things (image courtesy of Shutterstock). 


  1. Aha!! Now “personalized Learning” is the flavor of the week. Is it something like “differentiated instruction”? Enough already! Learning at their own pace? Is life going to give them this opportunity? Is the boss going to say, “whenever you get to it”? We’re going to leave it up to a child to decide what he needs to learn! Let’s just admit that we will never reach any consensus, and that the only people who succeed academically and otherwise in life are those who take it upon themselves to learn beyond the walls of the school because there is not enough time there to learn what we need. How ironic is it that all the information the kids need or require is right at their fingertips via the Internet on their phones, iPhones, iPads, computers, but when they go there, they can’t understand what they are reading. I see it firsthand practically on daily basis. Most learning doesn’t take place in school; I was my own best teacher.

    Comment by Janice — August 18, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

  2. I agree, personalized learning as its being implemented today is scary. But so is competency based and blended. All because the implementations are led by thin guidelines and wishful thinking. The approach is not systematic, but sporadic. And the tools to tame the incredibly complex logistics are not generally available. You read articles equating student learning profiles to their course grades, and their learning plans to play lists.

    The issue I see is the complete absence of a responsible education system architect – a leader at the district/school level to define, develop and guide education operations. Asking teachers to do this in their spare time is irresponsible and unfair. Until we recognize that within a school system, K-12 education is a complex set of integrated, interdependent processes from start to graduation 13 years later, we never will never see significant improvement in learning outcomes.

    E. D. Hirsch, Jr. saw the need for a systematic approach clearly when he founded Core Knowledge and lead the development of the Sequence. Districts/schools need to first define clear, learning objectives like the Sequence does. Only then does it make sense to design the teaching/learning processes. The scary part is that few districts/schools have clear objectives that are both teachable and measurable. Building off the Sequence never looked better.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — August 19, 2015 @ 2:54 pm

  3. I ask with Janice if personalized learning is something like differentiated instruction. Or is it something like individualized instruction? Is each one only a “new” way of speaking of the same illusion that denies the value of a common foundation of knowledge?

    Comment by Susan Toth — August 19, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

  4. The fears concerning personalized learning seem rooted in the author’s lack of familiarity with high-quality personalized learning models in practice. While she raises some reasonable concerns, she also seems to have some misperceptions about personalized learning. I hope I can help ease her fears.

    The move to using technology to blend learning in schools and classrooms to provide for a personalized learning experience for students is driven by a recognition that the ‘wait-to-fail, teach-to-the-middle’ approach necessitated by print-based, one-size-fits-all curricular materials and methodologies is simply demonstrating far too little success for far too many students; better to harness the ubiquitous and sophisticated educational technology tools to make learning more engaging, results-driven, and powerful for learners.

    While students may, in fact, be creating some content themselves in many personalized learning environments (e.g., in project-based approaches), student outcomes aligned with state content standards for math and English Language Arts consistently demonstrate powerful gains in mastery at an accelerated rate from traditional models.

    It is absolutely true that there is an ongoing and pressing need for good, quality, standards-aligned content. To truly personalize learning, the content must have sufficient breadth and depth, as well as rigorous internal alignment. Observing any of the nation’s growing number of personalized learning exemplars goes a long way to allaying these fears.

    I don’t think Lisa would argue that innovation is not needed, or that continuous improvement in teaching and learning is unnecessary; no, it is how we embrace the move to personalized learning, rather than whether we embrace it, that will determine whether we collectively improve the educational outcomes of our schools. Perhaps Core Knowledge will create technology-enabled, adaptive curriculum based on their own excellent content?

    Comment by Doug Mesecar — September 21, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

  5. I appreciate that you drew a distinction between personalized learning (pacing) and personalized content (choice of subject). As a math teacher, I like the appeal of students working at their own pace. Historically, “teaching to the middle” does not benefit struggling students nor does it challenge strong math students.

    On the other hand, I worry about replacing direct instruction with online tutorials as the primary resource as many teachers do in a flipped or blended classroom. I am curious to hear from math teachers about developing mini-lessons that are meaningful to all students regardless of their pace. Any advice for managing multiple student paces and integrating technology to benefit all students?

    Thank you,

    Comment by S. Hagen — September 19, 2016 @ 9:50 pm

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