What is personalized learning?

In our everyday lives, we have choices.

We rarely buy whole LPs. We use programs like Spotify and Pandora to build custom playlists based on our individual tastes.

In everything from cars to spaghetti sauce, options have multiplied. Choice and customization reign.

As our culture has moved away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to personalization to better meet an individuals’ preferences, the education field is following suit.

However, there is one problem.

Experts say there is not one universal term to describe “personalized learning.” It means different things to a wide range of people who have different agendas.

Some say it is an excuse for unremarkable lessons with computers babysitting students for hours. Others say it is a new phrase that simply describes good instruction, where teachers connect with individual students.

At the same time, real changes are happening, and educators and advocates across the ideological spectrum beginning to embrace them.

Personalized learning has been discussed in policy circles as the most consequential shift in education.

  • Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said customizing learning and considering the “uniqueness” of each student, all aspects of personalized learning, is a critical step in the future of education.
  • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said: “Education should measure actual mastery of subject matter, not how much time you spend on that seat.”
  • An in-house publication of the National Education Association spotlighted a school’s shift to personalized instruction, which teachers found “rejuvenating.”

Sometimes, advocates of this change trip over their words – like the time a U.S. senator felt compelled to declare “education is not mayonnaise.”

Over the coming months, we will be reporting on the real shifts that are happening in Florida’s classrooms. What are the pitfalls? Where are big changes occurring? Who is getting it right?

I certainly want to be transparent about the words I am using in my posts to describe what is occurring.

Personalized learning is the tailoring of instruction to every students’ individual needs, strengths and interests. Educators help students take responsibility and ownership for their learning, giving them more choice and a voice in the learning process, letting them make decisions about how or when they learn.

Betheny Gross of the Center for Reinventing Public Education defines personalized learning this way. The Glossary of Education Reform defines personalized learning this way. Experts amassed by Education Next offer their takes on personalized learning.

Another system of instruction that dovetails with personalized learning is competency-based learning, which allows students to advance to a higher level of learning regardless of the time they spend on a subject once they show mastery. It is focused on the individual learner as opposed to the grade level and age of the student.

The U.S. Department of Education defines competency-based learning. Next Generation Learning describes competency-based learning here.

Blended learning is a method where classroom instruction is combined with some form of online learning. Here is Edutopia’s take on blended learning. And here is the Christensen Institute’s definition of blended learning.

Project- based learning is another strategy that has students embedded in real world experiences. For example, kindergarten and first-grade students at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School took part in Pizza by the Creek — a student-managed restaurant.

Experts weigh in on project-based learning here. And U.S. News defines it here.

What do you think? Do you agree with these definitions? Email me at lstanford@sufs.org and let me know.