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Personalized Learning … What is it?

April 21, 2011

A Phone Call

Where is it?

Earlier this week I had a phone call with a colleague and we drifted into the realm of personalized learning. This was not where we started but it is certainly where we stayed for a while.

In her district there has been a lot of talk, and more questions, about personalized learning.  I asked what she thought personalized learning would mean for students, parents, teachers, schools and the district. As I expected, she was very excited about the possibilities but noted that the district is very early in the process and while there are feelings of optimism from all stakeholders there are also many unknowns. There was a lot of excitement on her part to work with the people in the district to work things out.

So what is personalized learning?

At one point in the call I asked, “How do you define personalized learning?” To be honest I was asking this question on totally selfish grounds as I am having trouble coming up with a definition. It seems that every time I feel I am getting close solidifying things in my mind someone adds a new component which makes me rethink. I understand this is all part of the process but there does come a point when you hope for some closure … or do you?

Finding Personalized Learning

Later that day I came across a tweet from @crozitis which simply stated “#edtechbc I found personalized learning on Google maps” I decided to check it out and the image to the left came up. I know this is not the personalized learning people have been talking about for so many months but it did get me thinking.

Personalized Learning a Journey Not a Destination

The tweet from @croztis made me realize that it may be more important to determine some of the qualities of personalized learning and not focus on a definition. I also came to realize that as you start to define some of the qualities of a personalized learning environment you start to be able to determine the aspects of personalized learning that are your end goal as a learning environment. Equally important is determining aspects which are not part of your vision of a personalized learning environment.  As a result,I started to create a list of qualities that could be part of a personalized learning environment. As a the name suggests personalized would allow for as many possibilities as there are people so I suggest that a second list of qualities be created to help define an environment that may not necessarily be personalized. The start of my list can be found below and is only a starting point. As a learner who benefits from discussing with others I welcome your comments below.

Personalized Learning Environment

  • Students first
  • Teacher facilitator
  • Draws primarily upon the strengths and interested of the student
  • Integrated and differentiated instruction
  • Allows for student choice
  • Technology as a tool for learning
  • Draws upon a multitude of sources for learning
  • Focuses on learning for life

Not Necessarily A Personalized Learning Environment

  • Instructor first
  • Teacher as “sage on the stage”
  • Draws upon the strengths and interests of the teacher
  • Once size fits all instruction
  • “Individual” rather than “individualized” learning
  • Technology used as the only means of learning
  • Focuses on learning for school
12 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    April 21, 2011 1:16 pm

    I think it’s a really interesting and important question you’ve raised, with no straight-forward answers.

    To further complicate the question, I think each of these bullets needs to be further analyzed and defined. For example, people often talk about drawing on the things that a student is interested in and passionate about. But what does that mean? Let’s say a student is really interested in and good at soccer. Does that mean that his math instruction is built around examples from the soccer field and he is able to choose to read books and write about soccer? What does that mean for topics that can’t really be linked to soccer, like Canadian history? Can he opt-out of things that he isn’t interested in? What happens if he is really gung-ho for soccer from K-10, then totally changes direction in Grade 11? Will too much focus on interests and strengths put a student into more of a specialized stream that provides a less well-rounded experience? Also, what happens for students without any clear sense of where they want to go?

    It seems like we have a several big tensions. On one hand, we want to give every student a personalized learning environment that is more engaging and personally relevant. However, leaders in education, business and government are also saying that in order to prepare students for the ever-changing world of the 21st century, we need to ensure that all graduates know certain things and have developed key skills. How do we balance the broader societal goals versus the goals and interests of the individual?

    And that’s just scratching the surface of unpacking one of those bullets… 🙂

    • April 21, 2011 1:59 pm

      Great points about the definitions Nick. That is part of the reason I had to use the term “Not Necessarily a Personalized Learning Environment” above. For every point I placed in the two categories above I could think of a case when it should go in the other. I was therefore a little hesitant to state “Not Personalized Learning.” In fact I even thought about not putting any points down but that seemed to be taking the easy way out and less likely to result in any real leaning on my part.

      I too wonder about those “certain things” and perhaps equally important who defines them. This has been a real struggle for a number of years in the field of K-12 mathematics education.

      Appreciate the comments.

  2. April 21, 2011 1:37 pm

    A thoughtful post Richard. I’ve had a few thoughts on what personalized learning means.

    First, I make a big distinction between ‘personalized’ and ‘individualized’. Personalized comes from a common core, which I think will be a part of any 21st Century education. Students will always need a core foundation from which to collaborate, be creative, problem-solve, etc. It’s not that the core will be identical to the current core, but there will (I think) be a core nonetheless. A personalized vehicle, for example, no matter how personalized, will still need brakes, tires, steering, etc. I know kids are not cars…just an example to illustrate the difference between personalized and individualized.

    Second, I believe that the ‘means’ and ‘ends’ of education will/should flip. We have always used skills as a means of accessing content (synthesize to master content). I think we are moving to a time where we will use a variety of content to synthesize. Again, it won’t be the same…we will likely ask students to synthesize from a more global perspective and about a much larger, overarching idea, but in essence the means/ends are redefined.

    Just two thoughts on personalized learning. Obviously there is more to think about, but these are two thoughts I’ve had lately.

    Thanks Richard!

    • April 21, 2011 2:06 pm

      Thanks for the post Tom. I like the analogy to a vehicle as I totally understand what you mean and I think it is one that is easy to understand.

      The reference to “individualized” is one that I find interesting. I have had some talks with people where I think they were definitely in the “individualized” camp. Most of these were in relation to distance education and often had students working on their own at their own pace. I have not tended to think of this as personalized as I am not sure how you bring in the key skills and attitudes mentioned in your second point above. Perhaps this is possible but I have not seen it to date.

      Appreciate the comments.

  3. April 24, 2011 2:09 pm

    This is the hot topic these days isn’t it. One of the great things about blogging is not only the thought-ful posts (like yours) but the comments / dialogue that comes after.

    Anyway, I think like anything, there needs to be a balance between personalized (ie taylored to the individual) and required (core learning for our society/world). Assessment needs to be designed to suit what’s worth knowing, understanding. Students need choice in how they might represent their learning, how they will learn it. Need to have consideration for whole class vs individualized learning. Flexibility for students to move at their own pace, self-direction, and intervention for those that need more help. What might this mean for timetabling in secondary schools? Should kids be required to attend classes on some block schedule? Or perhaps only those that need assistance need attend and others work in groups or individually elsewhere in the school.

    A few thoughts anyway…

    • April 25, 2011 9:26 am

      Thanks for the comments Brian. I agree the dialogue is key!!

      Good questions about scheduling. I think once the talk turns to personalization, scheduling, etc. there is a need to look at how schools organize their day. While I have not been teaching for a while I know the implications are massive. We tried to look at this when I was in the arctic teaching but I think we may have been more on the individualization side.

      I remember one class where there were about 20 students taking 6 different mathematics courses. The only way we could make this work was to have students use distance learning packages. This was not the best situation for the students or for me. Shifting between 6 courses at the blink of an eye as students asked for help was tough (you need to know the content). This was further complicated with limited time for instruction in any one course let alone exploration of mathematics concepts.

      Technology will certainly help as we move forward so I am curious to see how it all goes. Especially since I am going to back to a classroom in the fall.

  4. April 24, 2011 2:48 pm

    Personalized Learning won’t mean anything until groups agree on a meaning and then act in response. However, since the term originates with iNet it might be useful to look at some of the source documents at in order to have something to which we can respond.

    I agree with Richard that personalization cannot be taken to imply radical individualization but rather more limited choice within the intended learning outcomes in the curriculum. However, if one thinks of the intended outcomes as skill-based rather than knowledge-based then a wide range of content might be used to develop said skills and thus student choice of content would be quite broad. This is an appealing notion, but since skills are, for the most part, situated rather than generic it matters a great deal what content you choose. One cannot learn “critical thinking” generically. It has to be situated in a content regime. Critical thinking in math and science and art and social studies share many traits but they are also distinct. One cannot think critically in a content area without background knowledge and some understanding of the structure of the discipline. Thus, rather than simply switching from knowledge to skills as our focus, I think what is required is a matrix curriculum of skills that cut-across content areas and are also expressed uniquely within each content domain.

    For me, personalization does not just mean choosing what you want to study but having greater ability to choose areas of emphasis, modes of engagement and methods of demonstration of learning within a matrix curriculum. In other words, it has a lot in common with a Universal Design for Learning – which is another area that one can look for inspiration and guidance in the important process of defining what we want Personalized Learning to mean for students.

    • April 25, 2011 9:38 am

      Great comments Bruce. Again you have provided some background I did not know about. THANKS!

      The content piece seems to be one of the more challenging aspects of the personalized approach. As an example, I spent almost 4 years in two provinces trying to determine which mathematics content was most important for students wishing to continue into post-secondary education. See the complete report at the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) website at:

      In the end it was really the mathematical process as defined in the curriculum (communication, connections, mental mathematics and estimation, problem solving, reasoning, technology and visualization) which post-secondary instructors said was most important. However, when the curriculum drafts were further reviewed most of the resulting comments focused on the content (factoring, functions, measurement, etc.). This work really has me wondering how you come to agreement on the knowledge and skills that are important as they seem to change depending on who you talk to.

  5. April 24, 2011 10:08 pm

    Hi, I’m a teacher from Australia, Year 6 students, also studying a Masters In School Leadership. I incredibly excited by personalised learning (PL), so much so that I am undertaking an Action Research project with personalised learning at its core for my Masters. In my Region, others would know it is a school district, personalised learning has been identified as a priority, much the same as your colleagues. There is quite a bit of a shroud covering personalised learning in my Region, with school leaders trying to work out exactly what it is, which also makes me agree with your colleague and your own comments about what exactly it is.

    In my team of four other year six teachers we have begun to implement some aspects of PL, mostly PL for the learner, with a some PL by the learner (we achieve this using inquiry based learning, rich assessment tasks and other student choice activities).

    People (both other teachers and parents) see PL and inquiry learning as the teacher sitting back with the feet on the desk reading the paper while the kids are trying to find out what they are expected to know. The exact opposite is what actually takes place. I have never been busier in my classroom using personalised learning. I have 27 students, so often I have 27 different streams of inquiry going on. There is still explicit teaching and content delivery taking place, but not as much as compared with a ‘traditional’ classroom. I also feel that student engagement is higher using personalised learning.

  6. April 25, 2011 9:42 am

    Thanks for the post Alfie. This is very interesting.

    I am interested in the “nuts and bolts” of how you organize “PL by the learner.” I would be very curious as to how this works. Do you have material published or available?

    I can certainly see how you would be much more busy. To bad about the preconceived notions about PL. I think it would be very exciting as it would be hard for the teacher to “know it all” and it would put the teacher in the role of an active learner with the students as they follow their PL path.

    • April 26, 2011 5:39 am

      Personalisation by the learner comes from Dan Buckley from Cambridge Eduatoin and the Personalisatin by Pieces Framework. Saw hime speak at a Principals conference this year, great up until the sales pitch.

      I am looking at student engagement, student attitudes and student outcomes that result from personalised learning as my action research project for my Masters, and trying to develop a network of teachers, leaders and scholars that have an interest in PL, getting different perspectives, strategies and interpretations and gathering them into one place as a resource for all. Ambitious and lofty but I always set high expectations.

  7. April 26, 2011 10:07 pm

    Sounds like a great goal for your Masters. It may be a little larger than a Masters but that is part of the process. I must have cut down my thesis proposal 10 times before I got to the final cut (Case Study of Integration of Inuit Culture into a Science Classroom).

    Thanks for the link. I see there are some tools on there for competencies, etc. I will check these out.

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