First-person perspective: Personalized learning is real—and it works

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In a recent blog post, University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham posits three possible types of personalization in personalized learning—children learning at their own speed, pedagogical tailoring, and individualized content. I have sought out all of these variations for my children over the years and, as Willingham notes, they are not mutually exclusive. But neither are they equally important. Let me make the case, as a father of two high school girls, that personalized pacing is a must-have, personalized pedagogy is a nice-to-have, and personalized content is largely to be avoided, at least until the end of the K-12 experience.

Personalized pacing and pedagogy

My children’s experience at The Metro School, a 6-12 STEM-focused early college school in Columbus, shows that students learning at their own speed is the prime mover of successful personalized learning (PL).

Metro’s model generally compresses what would be year-long courses in traditional schools into one semester. Course material is divided into discrete units and subunits, with each having clear goals for students and teachers and clearly connecting to the next. It moves fast, the expectations are high[1], and there is little downtime. Students’ progress is assessed regularly along the way, usually by teacher-created tests, giving teachers clear feedback about the challenges students are experiencing. Difficult-to-grasp concepts can be reinforced somewhat in future lessons, but Metro students are generally required to remediate their previous work while continuing with new material. More on this in a moment.

Willingham and others suggest that such a model sounds messy for teacher and student, but it is here that pedagogical tailoring comes in. Approaches to remediation must be varied: student-driven efforts to find and correct errors (test corrections, report revision, etc.), the same material taught in a different way by another teacher or a tutor, watching a Khan Academy video and doing sample problems, etc. Remediation can take place as homework, in a study hall, or after school in office hours. Whatever works to make the material understandable to students must be available. At Metro, pedagogical tailoring is not a distinct version of PL but just another tool in the same box.

Even with pedagogically tailored remediation baked in, however, fast-paced PL won’t work perfectly for every student in every subject, as my children can attest. But that is not a reason to reject the approach. Consider: The students who pass an accelerated class at the end of the semester move on (to another class, another teacher)[2], leaving, say, the sixth grade math teacher with only those students who still need help. By stating clearly what students must know and be able to do to succeed in the next math course and by employing ongoing assessment and remediation during the regular course to determine specific proficiency gaps, the teacher can concentrate her post-course remediation where it is needed. A rigorous, focused “recovery week” should be enough to boost most students’ skills up where they need to be. And even if a student is so far from proficiency that he would benefit from repeating the entire course, it’s still only one additional semester—ultimately the same amount of seat time as in a traditional sixth grade math class. The clear goals and unit/subunit breakdown allow teacher, student, administrator, and parent to know exactly where the child needs to concentrate her efforts in order to become proficient.

Contrast this approach with most traditional schools in which a student earns a “D” at the end of a full year of sixth grade math. If such a school would dare to hold him back, he would repeat the entire course again over another year. Perhaps there would be additional tutoring, perhaps not. If he takes the course again and finishes with a “C,” he has improved, but he has taken two years to do so and he still may not have proficiency enough to be successful in the next math course for which he is already “late.”

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to math at Metro. It also works for English, social studies, and science, too. Assessing and addressing students’ proficiency gaps from beginning to end of every course and having remediation time and methods immediately available provide the needed backstop to keep students moving forward even at high speed and even if they have incomplete mastery along the way.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of prep work involved in building a PL education model. All teachers in a department must be on the same page as to what their incoming students must know and be able to do to succeed in their courses; assessments must accurately define the required level of proficiency all along the continuum; and administrators must make sure that remediation practices are thorough and rigorous while causing the least interference with overall forward progress. But once that infrastructure is in place, PL looks pretty much like regular teaching and learning. Students and parents must understand the acceleration and remediation processes, but the basic pedagogy is wholly recognizable. The various lessons and approaches need not be invented anew every year. New teachers will need to get up to speed and additional approaches can always be workshopped and added to the rotation, but if you've got three or four reliable ways to teach sixth grade math or freshman biology concepts, that's probably all you'll ever need.

Personalized content: Proceed with caution

As for the “individualized content” concept, in my experience, its usefulness is far more limited than the others. My daughters attended a Montessori school from age three through the end of first grade. Montessori education is a tried and tested version of the individualized content concept. Children are free to choose their activities from the classroom materials and those activities are often multi-disciplinary. It allows students to spend a lot of time on subjects and activities of interest (making calendars was a huge favorite for both of my girls) but it also allows for procrastination and outright avoidance of topics of lesser interest, as Willingham and others fear. That’s where my family hit the wall with Montessori education—math avoidance. For me and my wife, that was a no-go: We were okay with our kids picking whatever they wanted from the buffet, but they still needed to eat their vegetables, too. When preschool was over and the stakes got higher, we left for a more traditional private school where math was never optional.

Interestingly, as our daughters are currently finishing up their high school requirements early (thanks to the acceleration described above), the opportunity to reintroduce individualized content has arisen: higher level elective classes, college credit-bearing classes, student-interest driven research, community service projects, student-led theatrical productions. Self-tailored and largely self-directed work, with an advisor to oversee inputs and outputs, this content is less traditional and more an exploration of future paths they could take in college and in life. Having achieved the “goal” of high school (i.e.—graduation) early, the stakes are lower for them than in preschool–the vegetables having been consumed, as it were–my daughters can take better advantage of the last two years of high school in fully personalized learning.

To summarize: the basis for successful PL is an accelerated course model with solid structure and frequent assessment of mastery. Most students can learn material successfully at a faster pace than in a traditional school. Those who need more time should get it, along with additional teaching methods based on the students’ individual needs. Once basic education goals have been met, individualized content can be deployed to take the place of readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic, and the rest.

A note about technology

In my experience, technology is an adjunct to personalized learning, not the center of it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that tech billionaires interested in education would lean heavily toward this as the prime driver of personalization, but these tools are only as good as the knowledge of the user. Giving kids access to Quizlet, Prezi, Google docs, and Grammarly is valuable and may help some students engage more with the material, but software cannot educate a student in isolation. Coding is an important course that kids can take, but it’s not a way to learn English or American history. The ways that, say, literature have been traditionally taught are still rock solid—vocabulary, reading, analysis, writing papers—even at an accelerated pace. On the teacher side, Curriculet and Newsela are good reading applications and Schoology is a great platform for tracking gaps in proficiency—but it still takes great teaching to actually fill those gaps. My children can attest that laptops and tablets are valuable and one-to-one technology programs in schools should certainly be expanded, as should home internet access. But the personalization part of PL is inside the student, not inside the machine. “Kids on computers” is what you may see from outside the classroom window; inside, you will see that kids are learning the material at their own pace and in the ways that make sense to them.

My children have been inside those classrooms. It works.

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Professor Willingham ends his piece by asking, “is personalized learning worth pursuing?” and suggests that more research on the topic is required to answer that question. Chan/Zuckerberg seems to agree and is proposing a rigorous R&D plan to engineer PL for the future. That’s fine—and those of us at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute would be happy to participate. But personalized learning has already proven its worth to me and many others. My children have thrived and I have seen the model I described work for students who were grade levels behind in math or English as well as d for students who would be considered gifted. I love this model and am gratified that others in education reform are starting to discover it. My children are living examples that PL works and allows students to achieve quantifiable growth and proficiency in subjects across the board.


[1] Metro employs “mastery grading”, in which students must reach at least 90% on most assignments or their work is “incomplete” and must be remediated up to 90%. This is not a requirement for successful PL, but is a good fit for acceleration of this type. With seat time eliminated as a determination of course completion, the proficiency bar can be set as high as we dare.

[2] Metro holds an intersession between semesters to facilitate remediation and elective courses, but the details are too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that deviations from a traditional school calendar are clearly required for an accelerated course model.

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,