Personalization Is More Than a Slogan: It Requires a Vision and New Structures (Ted Sizer)

Theodore R. Sizer was University Professor Emeritus at Brown University, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1984. He and his wife Nancy Sizer served as co-principals of the Francis Parker Essential Charter School in 1998-1999.  Sizer died in 2009. The Coalition of Essential Schools will close in 2018.

This article appeared in Educational Leadership in September 1999. 


People differ. Thank goodness they do. How boring the world would be if we were all the same—clones, predictable in our progression through life. Much of the progress of humankind has come because of the restlessness of persons who have stepped beyond the predictable mold. The differences among us have provided the pepper upon which modern society depends.

Those of us who have made our careers in secondary education are daily confronted with a cacophony of difference. Yesterday’s little, dutiful William is today’s sprawling, sloppy BillyBoy. The noisy kid over there used to be a quiet cherub. The shy, intense girl over here used to be fascinated with science but today seems fascinated with nothing at all. The distracted, tough-talking kid in the corner used to be a bouncy little boy endlessly looking for attention. Hormones cause sprouting of all sorts, the sprouts changing not only how an adolescent looks, but also how that adolescent perceives himself or herself. The dutiful in October become the rude in April. The gigglers of September become the sirens of May.

So has it always been. The load is heavy on each young person to decide which mask to wear for which audience, which ideals to care about, what to believe in and whom to believe, what to aspire for, or even whether to “aspire” at all. No one wants to be a clone. We have our role models, but each of us wants to be someone special. We insist upon our difference, and it is right that we do so. Without difference, our culture and our economy would shrivel. Without citizens who feel that each has something special to offer, we would have a culture without vitality.

A Rigid System

Ironically, for a century, secondary schools in the United States have been built on the assumption that all children should, save those at the carefully defined “special” margins, be treated more or less alike.

Students are catagorized by their ages. You were born in June 1985, you are 14 now, so you are a 9th grader. If you were born in December, you are an 8th grader, still in middle school. That is, unless you are in a school district with different cut-off dates.

Grade level counts, socially and academically. There is 9th grade social studies and 10th grade history. There is honors history, but you have to be a 10th grader to get into it. Yes, a few 10th graders take AP classes along with 11th and 12th graders, exceptions that prove the rule. Age relentlessly counts. Anything special beyond that is a matter of exceptional negotiation.

If you are a 10th grader in Massachusetts, you take the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests. If you had been born but a few months earlier, you took that test last year. The MCAS is administered in a rigorously consistent way to all students of a certain grade, this in the name of fairness. Of course, one student may feel ill on examination day. Another might be intellectually adept but less able to express that power in a timed, carefully channeled testing routine than in another sort of setting. Yet another glories in the orchestrated, hushed pressure that the testing site reflects, a seriousness often lacking in class discussions. However, such differences make no dent in the testing “instrument.” One size fits all; one score makes or breaks one’s reputation.

The hold of age grading on the consciousness of the education system is ferocious. The metaphor of steps on a ladder dominates: Learning is always to be a sequential act, block building on block. One must travel up those stairs. There must be no “social promotion.”

There is, of course, logic in some of this. You cannot do well at calculus without algebra. It is unlikely that you will create a persuasive 10-page essay unless you can craft a persuasive paragraph. However, such sequencing does not always hold in every field, most obviously in the arts. And sometimes people leapfrog, seemingly serendipitously—a student “gets” a connection among characters in a play, a proof in mathematics, a sophisticated legal argument arising from a historical incident. Such a student doesn’t fit in.

The traditional high school confines itself in other ways, including pigeonholing the members of its staff. All of us have specialties. I am a teacher of mathematics. I am a counselor. I am a Dean of Students. I teach physical education and coach lacrosse. I teach art. No one of us, save the students and the librarian, is to express and be held accountable for a general education—even as a “general education” is the ultimate goal for the students. As a science teacher, I do not have to show any interest, much less competence, in the arts; indeed, I can be audibly contemptuous of them.

The school routines through which the student passes reflect this confinement. Little has much to do with anything else. Success at high school is measured by an accretion of scores in subjects taught largely in isolation from one another. A student can have a personal style or a consuming interest as long as it fits the prescribed pattern, but there is precious little room for the student who might harbor interests not reflected by a particular school’s division of faculty labor. Again, in many schools, exceptions are made. They remain exceptions, however. Unless an aggressive student or his or her parents or an influential teacher pushes for an exception, nothing happens. There is little incentive for intellectual idiosyncrasy or social idiosyncrasy.

Authentic Options

Does this sound familiar? There are explanations for each piece of the enormously complicated comprehensive high school. Ironically, one reason for the complexity is to accommodate “individual differences”—to make various curricular paths (however age graded and compartmentalized) available for students to match with their likely destinations in life. The school decides the worthy options to be available for all students and then counsels each one (usually advisors who carry loads of 100 to 300 students do this) to take what appears to be the most sensible path. Each path is carefully demarcated and usually age graded (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985).

Something for everybody is the ideal of the U.S. high school. But options are different from personalization, from taking each young person where he or she is and imaginatively using that understanding. Personalization requires knowing each young person well. If we can achieve that goal, then flexible options among programs make sense. However, options offered without knowing the students well are not authentic options at all.

We all understand this poignantly when we fall ill. If our physician does not know our condition well, how can he or she prescribe a proper treatment? By the same token, if our counselor does not know our minds and dispositions well, how can he or she prescribe a likely regimen?

Facing up to the rigidities of high school is fiercely difficult work. It is not that most educators do not know that “whole school change,” especially at the secondary level, is compellingly needed. It is because everything important in a school affects everything else that may be important. When one tries to refashion one part of a school, most other parts unravel. As a result, most reform efforts avoid that prospect and settle for tinkering, often very imaginatively, at the margins—a revised course here, an alternative program there, great gobs of professional development.

However, such tinkering never gets to the heart of the matter, especially if the goal is to know each student well and to use that knowledge in shaping and directioning that young person’s education.

Realistic Student Loads

I cannot teach students well if I do not know them well. Each of my adolescent students is in the midst of a growth spurt and the struggle for independence that characterizes every person’s route from childhood to adulthood. Each is a complex and evolving human being. Each learns in a somewhat different way; there are discrete “styles” and “intelligences,” Robert Sternberg (1997; 1999), Howard Gardner (1983; 1999), and others tell us; their research squares with our experience in classrooms.

How many young people can I know and serve well at once? Assume that I meet with my students in groups each day, this absorbing the majority of my school-time hours. How many minutes a week, either sandwiched amid regular obligations into the school day or spent after school and at home, do I need to read and comment on each student’s work and, periodically, to meet with him or her one-on-one? What would happen if I, on average, set aside 10 minutes a week for each student for this personal attention? That works out to an hour a week for every six students. If I have 120 students, that’s 20 hours. Impossible.

If I have 50 students, that’s a bit more than eight hours a week. Let’s say that I, on average, see each student and his or her work every other week. That brings the load down to between four and five hours a week, assigning an hour (in snippets of time, at school or at home) each day to “personalization.” Given my other obligations, that is a stretch, but, if I am reasonably experienced, an acceptable one.

But, I think, that is impossible! I then look at the number of students in my (typical) high school for each full-time equivalent professional staff person. It is 14:1. Given that ratio, I conclude, 50:1 for each teacher is possible, at least arithmetically. However, everyone at school is now working flat out. Something has to give. The only recourse is to simplify the school; to narrow its options; streamline its routines; and increase the number, authority, and responsibility of classroom teachers. But won’t these narrowed options

decrease the possibility of “personalization”? They will only if we do not define “personalization” as access to a set of free-standing separate programs.

A choice clearly emerges. “Personalization” can be a student’s choice among a variety of special programs, but that forces most teachers to carry loads in excess of 100 students. Or “personalization” can start with loads half that size in a school where we can accommodate adaptations to individual needs within a simple, common program.

A Hobson’s choice? Not necessarily. Paradoxically, simple, focused schools can provide more opportunities for individual students than can the more typical comprehensive high school.

Time and Scale

So I have my 50 students. I see them daily in groups, usually in classes of 15 to 25. My homeroom is largely drawn from this same group. I know these young people. They are not quick studies before me, two-dimensional characters. I hope to know their minds and dispositions well, so well that I can sense a change in mood, from engaged to disengaged, or from loneliness to joining in with friends—or whatever—when such appears to emerge.

“Knowing” young people this well results (perhaps paradoxically) in the realization that I never know them well enough: They are too complicated and changeable for that. To help me get the fuller picture, I need, at the least, the counsel of teachers who share these same kids. That means time to talk with those teachers and time to coordinate approaches to help each of the students and their families.

Impossible? It is possible if the design of the school is simple—and thus flexible—and common to all. Time for “talk about our kids” needs to be part of the schedule. If it is not, such talk will rarely happen.

The Authority to Act

All this “personalization” will come to naught if I and my colleagues who share students do not have the authority to act upon our conclusions about an individual or a group of students. Within the basic course of study (one kept sufficiently flexible to allow individual variations), we have to control our time and that of the students. Our decisions have to stick.

If we must always ask for permission or refer every change to higher authorities, there is no “personalization.” The people providing the permission are those who, in fact, know the affected students the least. Higher authorities can monitor us (that is, surely, part of their job), and they can help us when we need help (also a part of their job). However, if we cannot control our own piece of turf within our school, we cannot readily act upon judgments arising from “personalization.”

Complexity Within Simplicity

Few Americans would disagree with the proposition that each child should be exposed to the worlds of language, science, mathematics, the arts, and history. Within each discipline are a plethora of topics to study. A number of equally engaging topics cut across the disciplines. There is much to learn, far more than time to learn it. Further, we forget most of what we “cover” in school, retaining only that which we use or fragments that appeal to us. The important residue is an understanding of how a discipline works and habits in its use.

Understanding something—and being able to use it in unfamiliar situations—takes time. Engendering the habit of its use requires enough engagement with a discipline, on one’s own terms, to be so persuaded of its efficacy that its use becomes almost second nature. Beyond the rudiments, what, in particular, one studies is less important than that it sparks legitimate interest in each learner. Without such interest, most adolescent students will not engage (and do not deeply engage, even as they may appear dutiful and as they may churn out “work” that gives evidence of immediate, limited engagement but not understanding).

My task as a teacher is to cajole each learner into an essential discipline both on the terms of that discipline and on the student’s terms. I must interest the student in something that the society deeply believes is important and that the individual adolescent also senses—or can be persuaded to sense—is important. I must ram what is essential down the kid’s throat and at the same time pander to his or her immediate interests.

To be successful at this, I must settle on some crucial common knowledge—reading Romeo and Juliet, watching West Side Story, and studying mid-20th century south Asia and the late 20th century Balkans, for example—as a way of addressing human conflict. Concurrently, I must find any and all means to gather into each student’s consciousness and conscience a conflict that may deeply move that child, asking him or her to write about it, argue about it, understand it. If such a ploy works, it is an easy step, for example, to the reasons for and the design of democratic governments, including bills of rights. There are crucial connections here within history and the humanities. With different material, there are analogous ones in every domain. From the connections that I the teacher push forth and those that may energize a student can come serious learning.

Such activity takes time, more time than allotted in most high schools, where coverage is king. Grotesque coverage—Cleopatra to Clinton by April 1, three Shakespeare plays in six weeks, evolution as one of 36 chapters in an eight-pound biology textbook—is a recipe for teacher frustration, academic trivialization, and student detachment. Yes, we all “covered the material.” We passed the test at the end. But, if such were ever given, we could not pass that test 18 months from now, and we could not explain what the purpose of the time we had earlier spent together might be. For most—all save those engaged by the standardized lesson—the time would have been largely wasted.

Give me the smallest defensible number of the absolutely most critical matters, disciplines, and skills that I should teach. Give me time, autonomy, supportive colleagues, and few enough students so that I can understand each one well enough to tailor some of my teaching to him or her—and I will show you students who perform well, today and tomorrow.

A simple program allows complex learning. A simple program makes possible the adaptations in teaching that arise from authentic personalization.

It is inconvenient that students learn in different ways and that they are attached to differing enthusiasms. But, unless we face up to that inconvenience, we will not teach well.

Progress by Performance

If strict age grading flies in the face of the commonsense experience of teachers and researchers, what is to replace grade levels? The only alternative is progress by performance. It means an individual educational plan for each student, not just the “handicapped” or the “precocious.”

This approach is as difficult to accomplish as it is easy to embrace. Its practice demands that the school be clear on the shape, standards, and character of the “performance” and on the basis upon which such performance will be judged. Being clear on this is very hard and very unfamiliar work for teachers. We are more used to “U.S. History up to the Civil War” in the 10th grade or “Physics” in the 12th grade. The state frameworks or district curriculums are usually an amalgamation of “content” and “skills” to cover over a defined period of time. They rarely address—beyond necessarily constricted standardized paper-and-pencil tests—how the student expresses mastery or uses that mastery over time.

Further, few schools insist on the regular “cross grading” of papers by staff. In most schools, each teacher is assessment king in his or her classroom. “Cross grading”—the collective assessment of pieces of work by a variety of teachers, students, and parents—is very rare. So if a B does not mean the same to Ms. Schmidt as it does to Mr. Saginaw, what does a B at their school really mean? If Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Saginaw don’t take the time to tune their standards, inequitable fuzziness will be the rule.

There must be agreement on what a student puts forth for consideration of the quality of his or her “performance,” agreement that participants and outsiders constantly monitor. For obvious reasons, the students and their guardians must also understand the criteria for this performance. When “What is good enough?” is a question on the table, all sorts of issues emerge. Is what is appropriately good enough for Jose precisely the same as what is good enough for William? If not, how can the same ultimate standard be applied to different expressions of that standard (for example, Jose depending heavily on written work and William using oral and artistic devices)?

Personalization—meaning fundamental fairness arising from the differences among students—requires the expression of common, general “standards” in a variety of forms. Creating such standards is difficult work, far more difficult than saying that “high standards” are to be assessed by one “instrument” in one way and at one time. Time has to be made for it—the same sort of time that each of us prays happens among our physicians when they caucus to decide on a treatment for our disease.

Leadership to Personalize Learning

A school or school system that resolutely accepts the lively but annoying diversity among its students must break away from many deeply ingrained notions about the keeping of school, from One Best Curriculum to One Best Test to One Best Schedule. Something far more complex and more fluid must take their places. Schools must adapt to the legitimate differences among students; these adaptations will themselves be in constant flux.

Idiosyncrasy is an obvious fact: Those of us who are parents of at least two children and who thereby see daily the variety of energies and enthusiasms emerging from the same gene pool and kitchen table are keenly aware of that. But accommodating those realities within a school system designed to be universal in its routines is intellectually very demanding and politically very dangerous work.

Some will find the implications of “personalization” so unsettling as to be far-fetched. Nothing can come of it, they will say. But today something is coming of it, most usually in small schools at the edges of big systems or in autonomous small-schools-within-big-buildings. Nothing that I have suggested is not being tried somewhere. And where the trying has gone on long enough, the results are beginning to show where it counts—on what is happening to the graduates of schools that have”personalized” (Meier, 1995).

Those of us who are struggling with personalization will be the first to say that the work is as difficult as it is unfamiliar and that the trade-offs necessary to get the time to do the job well are nerve-racking. At its heart, “personalization” implies a profoundly different way of defining formal education. What is here is not the delivery of standard instructional services. Rather, it is the insistent coaxing out of each child on his or her best terms of profoundly important intellectual habits and tools for enriching a democratic society, habits and tools that provide each individual with the substance and skills to survive well in a rapidly changing culture and economy.

It can be done. It is being done, however against the traditional grain. *



Filed under Uncategorized

Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?(Julia Fisher)

Julia Fisher is Director of Education Research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This post appeared in EdSurge on April 12, 2017.

Education innovators love to talk about adoption curves. It’s a fancy way of looking at a pretty basic concept: the rate at which a given tool, model or approach saturates a market.

Lately, I’ve been seeing these curves crop up a lot in the conversation about personalized learning. As more school systems attempt to customize learning environments and more education advocates and funders champion personalized models, people are increasingly anxious to know: At what rate might we can expect new ideas and tools to permeate the traditional school system?

But not all adoption curves are created equal. Depending on the features of the tools and their intended users, the arc of adoption might look vastly different. One of those distinctions hinges on the degree to which a new tool or model conforms to the traditional school structure.

To understand these differences we can look to historical data on how consumers absorbed all sorts of new gadgets that hit the market throughout the 20th century. My colleague at the Christensen Institute, Horace Dediu, has researched these patterns to try to explain such trends and interrogate anomalies. Last year, he highlighted a puzzling divergence in the data on the early adoption of home appliances. In the 1930s, two delightfully convenient innovations hit the market: the refrigerator and the washing machine.

Refrigerators quickly took hold, gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s. But households crept much more slowly up the washing machine adoption curve, only getting close to market saturation in the late 1990s. Dediu hypothesizes that this had little to do with housewives’ weighing the pros and cons of being clothed or fed. Instead, he argues, the disparate adoption rates reflect the relative conformability of each innovation to the midcentury home or apartment. Most households had electrical outlets that refrigerators could plug into directly, thus leaving iceboxes in the dust. But few homes had the pipes and drain lines required to install a washing machine.

In other words, homes at the time were never designed with washing machines in mind. As a result, to take advantage of the new technology households didn’t just have to shell out money; they had to hire a plumber to configure the pipes that would pump water into and drain water out of the new contraptions.


The same might be said of the various technological innovations hitting the education market today. Most edtech companies enthusiastically claim to make teaching and learning more effective, efficient and convenient. But not all tools plug into the same interfaces, and not all schools and classrooms were built with these modern innovations in mind. Some tools are proving to be plug-compatible tools that can be inserted into traditional classrooms relatively seamlessly. For example, short cycle tutorial tools, like Khan Academy, fit tidily into many classrooms and can unobtrusively supplement traditional models on the margin. These tools tend to help classrooms achieve outcomes along traditional dimensions like boosting average test scores and providing help to learners who are struggling on a given topic.

On the other hand, other edtech products and models can’t simply plug into the traditional classroom structure or school schedule—the school instead has to fundamentally change or adapt its infrastructure in order to accommodate the tool. For example, models like Teach to One or Summit Learning’s Platform require far greater re-engineering of classrooms processes. Schools need a new set of proverbial pipes—potentially new infrastructure, new schedules, and even entirely new approaches to teaching—to adopt these innovations and to use them to their full potential.

It also bears noting that unlike the drainpipes, this reconfiguration of schools is extremely complex and often interdependent with local policies, culture, and geographic or financial limitations. It’s not surprising, then, that the past few years have seen a flourish of intermediaries, like Transcend and 2Rev, that are stepping in to work alongside schools to help them to fundamentally reengineer their pipes and plugs.

Sketching out these distinct adoption curves might feel bleak if you’re an entrepreneur building the proverbial washing machines of edtech, or a funder hoping for speedy adoption of next-generation models that disrupt traditional classrooms. But they should also lend us a healthy dose of hope and reality about what adoption looks like depending on how much reengineering customers will be expected to do in order to absorb a new tool. It should also help us to better align resources that philanthropists and policymakers are investing in moving people along edtech and personalized learning adoption curves.

Luckily, it’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.

With that dose of reality we can start to predict adoption with greater precision. We can also predict when adoption might not take off. On the other hand, if we ignore the costs of conformability and hope that schools will just figure out how to use wholly new models within their existing paradigm, the promise of new innovations may fall short. It’s like trying to plug a washing machine’s hose into an electrical outlet. It doesn’t end well.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Cartoons on Using Technology

Yeah, I know I have been showing lots of cartoons about using technology. But I cannot help myself since I do laugh at how technologies have penetrated our (I include myself) lives. Taking a step back to laugh at ourselves as immoderate users of new technologies is, I believe, healthy. So enjoy this batch of cartoons.











Filed under Uncategorized

Teachers Practice MicroPolitics*

Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students, besides teaching lessons every day, teachers also practice politics.

Arguing that superintendents and principals, in addition to their managerial and instructional roles, are political in leading districts and schools is credible because of all the stakeholders involved in districts and schools. Those stakeholders have to be mobilized, massaged, and influenced—given the value conflicts over which goals to pursue, how much money to spend, how to teach, what students should learn, and how much testing to do–all of which naturally divide voters and parents. But putting politics and teaching together? That’s a bit too much. I know this is going to be a hard sell but bear with me.

In previous posts on principals and their political role I pointed out that at the end of the 19th century big-city Republican and Democratic political machines handed out teacher, principal, and janitorial jobs to supporters. Textbook publishers bribed school board members to buy their products. School board members put their nieces on the payroll. Teachers often paid district officials to get a post in the district. They were hired year-to-year and fired if the superintendent’s in-law needed a job. Corruption was the norm.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs.

Not only because of the Progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers, the power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of the above means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school–because teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micropolitics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.

Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored phrases.

But it is politicking, whatever you call it. Consider that many teachers in a school faced with adopting “personalized learning” or a mandated math program, or the state’s new standardized test will enlist other teachers to support or oppose the venture. Non-political euphemisms avoid the obvious conflicts in power, influence, and values that permeate teaching and being a teacher in a school and district.

And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum, use new technologies, differentiate instruction, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy while nervously glancing at the wall clock. Potential conflicts hover over classrooms. Teachers are authorized by the state to teach content, skills, attitudes and values to reach particular outcomes. They are expected to both control and support learning. They figure out which students will be helpful and which might hinder reaching their goals. This is a political analysis that seeks to avoid conflicts.

But conflicts occur anyway. To reach their goals, teachers use their formal and informal powers to reduce tensions. So teachers work out conflicts, for example, by negotiating compromises with students over behavior and achievement. They bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they do politics (see here and here)

Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do everyday in managing lessons, practicing the craft of teaching, and finessing conflicts.

Remember those films that celebrate heroic teachers such as “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Freedom Writers.” They show these teachers acting politically time and again. These bigger-than-life teachers mobilize their students, bargain–even fight–with school principals, and negotiate with outside organizations to acquire money and help. These film heroes know that exerting political influence inside the classroom and outside the school is crucial to their success in pushing and helping students to do their best.

Non-film teachers, however, who labor day in and day out may not use the vocabulary of politicking and may even detest the words but they also practice micropolitics every day (micropolitics and leadership). Few, however, get on the silver screen or brag about it.

So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?

Here is the hard sell: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that teachers perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development–every teacher  in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that teachers inhabit every single day.


*This post is a revision of an earlier one written in 2010.


Filed under Uncategorized

More Comments on Personalization Continuum (Tom Hatch)

Tom Hatch is an Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. I met Tom at Stanford University when his wife, Karen Hammerness, was a graduate student and took one of my classes. Hatch had worked closely with Ted Sizer, Howard Gardner, and James Comer–leaders of whole-school reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He subsequently wrote thoughtfully about theories of action. I used an article he wrote in my seminars for many years (“The Difference in Theory That Matters in the Practice of School Improvement,” 1998 in American Educational Research Journal).

He posted this letter to me April 7, 2017. In it, he offers comments on the  Personalization Continuum that I had drafted, weaving together readers’ comments with his own research and experiences. 

Dear Larry

Your recent post describing the many versions of “personalization” you’ve seen in your visits to schools seems particularly relevant these days for a number of reasons:

Ironically, it’s probably worth noting that this surge in interest in personalization coincides with the closing of the national organization of the Coalition of Essential Schools – founded by Ted Sizer who put personalization on the map in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Your post prompted me to reflect on some of these developments and what I have been seeing in my own research on improvement efforts and “innovation” in several developing and developed countries.  In particular, I think your draft of what you call a “continuum” of personalization in many of the “lessons” you’ve observed nicely highlights the way that personalization often involves a mix of teacher-centered and student-centered activities. One way to expand the continuum and get at some of the complexities that you and your commentators have acknowledged might be to look at the extent to which several different educational decisions are made by teachers and/or students.  For example, many approaches to personalization talk about customizing the goals, the content, and the pace of educational activities. It seems like those approaches at your “teacher-directed” end of the spectrum adapt instruction to the needs/interests of students, but, for the most part teachers are still making the decisions about:

  • What the students should be learning (and why)
  • The materials they should use and the paths they should follow
  • The speed with which they move along those paths

At the other end, students may be making more of those decisions themselves.  In the middle, teachers and students may be sharing those decisions, teachers may make some decisions and students others, and teachers may make those decisions sometimes while students make them at others (e.g. higher performing students may be allowed/encouraged to make more of those decisions than their peers).

To make things more complicated, each decision about goals, content, and pace can be broken down into a whole series of related choices. Decisions related to content and materials, for instance, include who chooses reading materials, what to focus on in the reading, how to read it, and how material should be presented (as one of your commenters, Dylan Kane, noted).

It’s also possible to imagine a whole bunch of other decisions that we might (or might not!) want to take into account.  For example, I’m beginning to experiment with letting my graduate students choose not only when to take on particular assignments but also where (e.g. in the classroom or not; alone or with others).  I also remember passionate discussions at one meeting of educators working on designing a new school (the Celebration School, developed as part of the planned community connected to Disneyworld) about whether or not to enable students to determine the kind of lighting that best suited their “learning style.”

Adding to the complexities, as Laura Chapman pointed out in the comments, these decisions can also be made by those who develop the technologies used to support personalization.  It’s also possible, with the developments in distance and blended learning to imagine a variety of other people, including parents, taking a more direct role in these lesson-level decisions as well. (Extending the scope of personalization beyond “lessons” and courses, and making it a core concept in a reimagined system of education as in approaches like ReSchool Colorado can make it more complicated still.)

However we define the key instructional decisions, I think you’re right that the extent to which teachers or students make those decisions distinguishes many of the current approaches.  I’d be interested to know, though, how often you see personalized approaches that really give students wide latitude and extensive control over their own learning? Chris Ongaro, a graduate student here at Teachers College, is looking at student’s experiences in a variety of “personalized” courses (many of them online), and he tells me that even when students are given choices, those choices are usually extremely limited, rarely allowing students to imagine or pursue their own options.  As he said to me, students may play a role in shaping the means, but the ends are often predetermined.

While I raise these questions, following your descriptive lead, I’m trying not to place a particular value on one end of the continuum or the other.  But as we describe the role of the teacher and the student, I’m also reminded again of what Sizer often said (quoting James Comer, eminent psychologist and founder of the School Development Program):  The three most important things in schools (and school improvement) are “relationships, relationships, relationships.” For Sizer, personalization grew out of the belief that “we can’t teach students well if we do not know them well.”  That relationship both allows those in the role of teacher to recognize and respond to each student’s needs and interests, but it also opens up those in the student’s role to opportunities and challenges they may never have encountered on their own. While I often ask my students these days to explain to me why teachers are needed in schools (truth be told, I also ask them why we need “students”), it may be worth trying to capture something about the nature of the teacher-student relationships in these approaches to personalization as well.  But now your straightforward and clear continuum looks a lot more like one of those polygons and polyhedrons that you and W[ilfred] Rubens discussed…

At the end of the day, though, I see many of the same things you do: approaches to personalizing activities, classes, and courses that are often carried out in the regular school day or within typical course structures and with the expectation that “success” will mean meeting conventional graduation standards, going to college and getting a “good” job.  Perhaps it should be no surprise then, that under these circumstances, as you… put it:

…wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the continuum of personalized learning with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization.


Filed under how teachers teach, research, school reform policies, technology use

Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice? (Part 3)

Eleven percent (N=4) of the teachers answered both yes and no. These teachers made a distinction between how they taught lessons before they had new technologies and what they now do with devices and software. They referred to students having more information available than before and how essential aspects of their lessons could be done easier and faster than before were common themes. But they drew a distinction between the help that high-tech tools give them and the constancy of core practices that are part of their planning and interactions with students during a lesson. They saw both change and stability in their lessons as a result of integrating digital tools into their teaching.

Nicole Lenz-Martin teaches in the San Mateo Union High School District at Aragon High School. An 11-year veteran of teaching, she teaches Spanish level 3 through level 6 (including Advanced Placement). Elenz-Martin is also an instructional coach in the district and an instructor in the Stanford World Language Project. Here is her “yes” and “no” answer to my question.

My teaching — in terms of pedagogical strategy and philosophical beliefs about World Language instruction — has not changed because of my regular use of technology; however, the regular use of Chromebooks in my classroom has dramatically changed my access to student learning, monitoring of their proficiency development, and my ability to cover more material over the course of a school year. 

Why yes:

 My students are required to be much more engaged and participatory in their learning because of their interaction with my lessons through technology.  When covering material in class, every student can interact with the presentation on my SmartBoard to share answers, respond to polls, or ask questions (Peardeck, Nearpod, Google Forms, etc.)  This has informed my instruction immensely and has allowed me to change my lesson “on-the-fly” to ensure understanding before moving on.

 Students practice new vocabulary and/or comprehension questions with Quizlet, for example, and I can see their results and areas of challenge in real time.  It allows me to change my path of instruction if necessary, as stated above, and it also allows me to personalize the learning for each student’s level and need.  

 Students have built classroom community and have strengthened camaraderie with review games (Quizlet Live, Socrative Space Race, and Kahoot!).  Not only has light ‘gaming’ sparked excitement and interest for the students in learning the material, but it has allowed me to formatively assess each students’ understanding and learning on a daily basis.  The comfort level and “fun” among classmates has allowed them to be better risk-takers and communicators with one another, and this is critical for a language class where students really need to feel confident and safe around their classmates.    

 Students have had individual access to more authentic materials from around the world, which is of course extremely important for culture and language learning.  Their interaction with videos, texts, and audio can be documented in EdPuzzle, GoFormative, and Google Classroom.  I can see their engagement with the material in a way that I was never able to assess before, and I can respond to students both individually and as a group much more efficiently and effectively.  I can see what they are learning about a culture and I can motivate them to respond more critically to what they are seeing and comparing to their own culture….

Why not?

Certain parts of teaching can never be replaced, enhanced, or changed by technology.  The very most critical aspect of my teaching is the relationship that I create with each and every one of my students.  Without having a strong, trusting, solid, and respectful relationship with each student, he or she is lost in my classroom and will be unable to learn from my teaching.  Because I speak almost exclusively in Spanish, the oral communication in my classroom and the relationships with my students are the very cornerstones of my teaching.  Therefore: 

  • Technology has not replaced the way I speak or communicate with my students, and since I am a Spanish teacher, they are still listening and responding to me and to each other through oral communication much more than with the technology.  The amount that I expect them to speak with me and communicate with one another is the same as it has always been, even before technology access. 
  • Complex Instruction and Groupworthy tasks:  I passionately believe in the importance of “student talk” and participation for learning, especially when it comes to working with partners and small groups on a communicative and/or complex task.  Technology is almost non-existent in my classroom when students are working on an assignment that involves learning through talking with one another.  Without going into too much detail — technology hardly has changed the way I engage students in partner and groupwork….[i]  

And here is Sarah Press who has been teaching English at Hillsdale High School in the San Mateo Union High School District since 2007. Press, like Elenz-Martin, makes similar distinctions between the deeper aspects of teaching that cannot be altered by digital tools and the features of teaching that can change.

In some ways, my teaching hasn’t changed much at all. My goals are the same—to give my students opportunities to do something with the ideas I suggest to them in class, to engage with each other around those ideas and to offer lots of ways to be smart. I still have a heavy focus on literacy—sustained engagement with text and inquiry around meaning making. I continue to try to find authentic ways for students to show what they’ve learned and what they think, not just regurgitate what they’ve heard.

I also struggle with many of the same issues I always have: what to do with the huge range of skill sets in my room, how to differentiate activities and assessments to meet the needs of all learners, how to give feedback in meaningful and timely ways, how to engage all learners despite varying interests and abilities, how to create a positive socio-emotional atmosphere in my classroom so students feel comfortable taking and learning from risks.

So I think it’s important to remember that technology is just one of many tools I have available to me to try to meet those goals. That said, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and I do see some potent ways in which technology helps me get closer to being the teacher I hope to, someday, become.

A huge one is the amount of choice I am able to offer students, about what they learn and how they learn it….

Another is the increased sense of collaboration in my room. While I have always striven to have students use each other as resources, to value each other’s expertise…I have not always been successful. Because technology allows students to simultaneously have access to a group project in a shared digital space that is co-editable…everyone can see a developing project and no can ‘mess it up.’ It’s also easier to track exactly what each student has contributed….

It’s a not insignificant note here that risk-taking becomes easier to encourage when erasing or changing work is as easy as ‘Control + Z’ or ‘Delete….’

Finally, technology is powerful because it makes it so much easier and faster to collect, distribute, and respond to data. I find myself experimenting more and more with forms of assessment when I can instantaneously collect responses from every student in my class….All this helps me adjust, clarify, and re-teach in much tighter, shorter cycles than before….[ii]

Like Elenz-Martin, Sarah Press saw both constancy and change in her lessons after adopting high-tech tools.


[i] Nicole Lenz-Martin’s email received May 8, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at:

[ii] Sarah Press’s email received May 12, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at:


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Have Silicon Valley Teachers Using Technology Daily Altered Their Classroom Practice? (Part 2)

Of the 37 teachers who replied to my questions, 24 (65 percent) said yes.

Nine (24 percent) said “no.” I sorted  the “no” answers into two bins. Six teachers who said “no” explained that using digital tools had not changed their ways of teaching because they had been using high-tech devices since they entered the profession or labeled themselves as “digital natives” even before they began teaching. The other three teachers who said “no” gave different answers.


Lyuda Shemyakina, a biology teacher at Mountain View High School in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, has been a teacher for six years, two of which were in Chicago. Her response was:

Technology facilitates the gathering and disseminating of information in my classroom, but I wouldn’t say it has fundamentally changed how I teach. 

For example, designing, scaffolding, and handing out homework and classwork are integral parts of my teaching practice. Whereas in another country or another decade I might have made paper copies or made students write these down, many/most things now are electronic. Students can see all my presentations (directions for class); students can e-mail me with questions, and students have fewer excuses for not knowing the homework. I literally post it in five different places from with the white board in my room to a public on-line space. I also post links to helpful videos, worksheets, etc. to help both struggling and advanced students….[i]

Ultimately, though, a teacher is still an intellectual who must design or select instruction and instructional materials, including assessments. If I don’t have the skills to appropriately design and assess activities, no amount of technology can help me. For instance, during the class you saw, I chose to have students design and share analogies. These were very telling as a measure of their understanding of basic genetics. If I had asked the wrong question, like “do you get genetics?” it wouldn’t have mattered what technology I used.  

David Campbell, a teacher of Spanish and a National Board Certified Teacher. He has taught 16 years, the last eight at Mountain View High School.

Technology has changed how I teach a little, but not that much. Ultimately it is the personality of the class and their engagement that allows a teacher to do what they need to do. If they don’t feel engaged with the material, or invested in the class, nothing you do will matter. Children are smart enough to know when their teacher cares and knows the material, putting up flashy things and bells and whistles isn’t going to automatically engage them.ii]

The rest of the teachers had said “no” because they had been using high-tech devices for years before I observed them. For example, here is Stephen Hine who is in his third year teaching physics at Los Altos High School.

To answer your question about if technology has changed my teaching, I would say not really from a typical ‘change’ perspective. I was trained into the technology focuses educational environment so I have been integrating tech into my classroom since my student teaching days. I have definitely developed my lessons to more smoothly utilize the various instructional tools so you could say my teaching has changed in that way. I am always open to learning about new tools as well. An example is halfway through last year I began to use “Actively Learn” which is an online reading assignment tool that allows for built in questions that students have to answer before continuing through the assignment. I now use it for all of my class reading homework.[iii]

Part 3 takes up responses from four teachers who said that integrating technologies into their daily lessons has both changed and not changed the ways they teach.


[i] Lyuda Shemyakina’s email received October 13, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of the lesson I observed is at:

[ii] David Campbell’s email received September 30, 2016. In author’s possession. A description of his lesson can be found at:

[iii] Stephen Hine’s email received September 20, 2016. In author’s possession. My observation of Hine’s physics lesson is at:







Filed under Uncategorized