Personalized Learning is a Practice, Not a Product

Is it learning, if it’s not personal?Personalized Learning. What images or thoughts surface when you read those words? When I heard “personalized learning,” my thoughts went to Derek, a long-ago student. A few years after having the honor of teaching and learning with Derek, I received a postcard from him in Hawaii. I had forgotten that he had chosen to study rock during one of our units until I read his postcard. The action of sending the postcard and his recollection of his study suggested to me that the learning was personal for him. He wrote,

“Hey Mrs. Hunter! I saw igneous rock! I saw magma! Did you know there are different kinds of volcanic rock?”

Of course, as a teacher, my thoughts go to what else might I have done to support Derek. Was he ready to learn about the different kind of volcanic rock when he was with me? Naturally, the NWEA voice in my head says, “If only I had the MAP assessment at that time…”

So what does personalized learning mean? According to The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership, “The term personalized learning, or personalization, refers to a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students.” It has come to the forefront of education with the backing of foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Charter School Growth Fund, EDUCAUSE, and the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). In Personalized Learning: What It Really Is and Why It Really Matters, the authors suggest, “The semantics of the title set us up for yet another ‘war on definitions.’”

Linking thoughts about what I know and read about effective teaching, the goal of personalized learning, and Derek, I continued on my quest for clarity. I did a bit more research and quite a few more Google searches. According to “Personalized Learning: A Working Definition,” in EdWeek (published 10/22/14), there is a four-part working definition of the attributes of personalized learning:

  • Competency Based Progression (Continuous assessment against clearly defined goals)
  • Flexible Learning Environments (A learning environment driven by student needs)
  • Personal Learning Paths (learning path based on progress, motivations and goals)
  • Learning Profile (individual strengths/needs, motivations and goals)

Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill suggest that we think about personalized learning as a practice rather than a product. In addition, they state, “Technology then becomes an enabler for increasing meaningful personal contact.” They call out three main technology-enabled strategies for lowering classroom barriers to one-on-one teacher/student (and student/student) interactions.

  1. Moving content broadcast out of the classroom (flipping the classroom; sharing lectures through recordings assigned as homework).
  2. Turning homework time into contact time (utilizing digital products to make visible student thinking/work and trends in student work).
  3. Providing tutoring (using adaptive learning software to support students in areas of need that don’t require a human instructor).

In the Glossary of Education Reform, the Great Schools Partnership reminds us that “…personalized learning, as it is typically designed and implemented in K-12 public schools, can differ significantly from the forms of ‘personalized learning’ being offered and promoted by virtual schools and online learning programs.” I admit to taking a deep cleansing breath after reading that, and smiling when I found “Through the Student’s Eyes.” It stated that “although this more comprehensive approach to personalized learning may be facilitated by technology, its tenets may be applied without technology or, more likely, in a blended context.” I was quite pleased with the clear delineation of personalized learning and products that may help to facilitate it!  recalled the suggestion of Feldstein and Hill as fitting: “Think about personalized learning as a practice rather than a product.” Teaching is indeed a Practice! The practice of effective teaching encompasses curriculum, assessment, and technology. Knowing where a student is in his or her learning before setting off on a learning journey is essential.

I went back to thoughts of Derek. We did indeed have continuous assessment. We were practicing formative assessment minute-to-minute and checking progress daily. Derek had clearly defined goals based on his individual learning needs. We used pre-assessments to determine where Derek was in his learning, and then Derek, my teaching partner and I developed goals and worked together to develop a path to support him in reaching his goals. Our learning environment was student centric. It extended beyond our two classrooms into the halls, media center, and school yard. Although we didn’t have one-to-one computers, we did have a few that students used for research and the development of products.  Did we practice personalized learning? We practiced the art of teaching, which requires personalization.

While I started with the question, “What is personalized learning?” I end with the question, “Is it learning, if it’s not personal?”

To learn more about formative assessment, check out our formative assessment PD offering or our previous post on four key formative assessment practices that form the foundation of successful implementation.


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