Part 2: Draining the Semantic Swamp of “Personalized Learning” : A View from Silicon Valley

In Part 1, based on what I have seen in 17 teachers’ classrooms in eight schools, I tried to explain what I observed by offering a “personalized learning” continuum. As small as the sample is–I will continue with the project in the Fall and add more classrooms and schools–I wanted to take a first pass at making sense (for myself and readers) of what I saw in schools located at the heart of technological enthusiasm, Silicon Valley. Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of “personalized learning” are better than others.

This “personalized learning spectrum,” I pointed out, is anchored in the tangled history of school reform, the family fight a century ago among those Progressives who were efficiency-driven and behaviorist in their solutions to problems of teaching and learning and fellow Progressives who sought student agency,  growth  of the “whole child,” and democratic schooling solving societal problems. Both wings of educational Progressives tried to uproot the traditional whole-group, direct instruction model dominating public schools then and since.

The efficiency-driven, behaviorist wing of the Progressives was victorious by the 1930s and has largely dominated school reform since. Innovations appeared each decade trumpeting the next new thing that would make teaching and learning more efficient and effective. In the 1950s, it was “programmed learning machines” (launched by behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner); in the 1970s, it was “mastery learning” (anchored in the work of University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom) followed by “competency-based” learning in the 1980s. Each of these innovations, in different guises, continue to be found in schools in 2016. In all instances, past and present, psychologists and school reformers broke down knowledge and skills into its small, digestible parts so students could learn at their own pace through individualized lessons and teacher use of “positive reinforcement.” Extrinsic rewards from teachers and, later, software programs, guided students along paths to acquiring requisite skills and knowledge. Promoters of these innovations claimed that these approaches were both efficient and effective in getting students to acquire prescribed content and skills, graduate,  enter the labor market, and become civically engaged adults.

Challenges to this dominant approach to teaching and learning occurred periodically from the student-centered, “whole child” wing of the Progressives who championed project-based teaching, student participation, and collaborative learning to achieve the same desired ends. While these determined efforts to individualize lessons to match academic and ability differences among students and create more student agency in lessons and units rose and fell over the years (e.g., the 1960s, 1990s) incrementally increasing within more and more schools, the dominant efficiency-driven whole-group, teacher-directed approach prevailed.

What has happened recently, however, is that those efficiency-minded school reformers, filled with optimism about the power of new technologies to “transform” teaching and learning, have appropriated the language of “whole child” Progressives.  Imbued with visions of students being prepared for a world where adults change jobs a half-dozen times in a lifetime, these efficiency-minded reformers tout schools that have tailored lessons (both online and offline) to individual students, turned teachers into coaches, and where students collaborate with one another thus reflecting the changed workplace of the 21st century. Efficiency-minded reformers’ victorious capture of the vocabulary of “personalized learning”  has made parsing the present-day world of school policies aimed at making classrooms havens of “personalized learning” most confusing to those unfamiliar with century-old struggles over similar issues.

Now consider the “personalized learning spectrum,” my first pass at making sense of this world I observed in Silicon Valley. At one end are teacher-centered lessons and programs tailored for individual students to progress at that own speed. Such “personal” instructional materials and teaching seek efficient and effective learning using a behavioral approach rich in positive reinforcement that has clear historical underpinnings dating back nearly a century. At the other end of the continuum are, again, century-old efforts to create student-centered whole- and small-group lessons and programs that seek student agency and shape how children grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.  And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle of the range are hybrids mixing the two approaches. To get at this spread in 2016 within the eight schools I visited and 17 teachers I observed, I will give examples drawn from earlier posts on this blog and instances elsewhere in the U.S.  of each end of the spectrum and ones that inhabit the center.

At the behaviorist pole of the spectrum where skill-driven lessons tailored to differences among students cluster, different public schools and districts* drawn from across the nation exist such as  New Hampshire Virtual Learning CharterUSC Hybrid High School, and Lindsay Unified School District (California). While these examples inhabit the behaviorist end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from New Hampshire Virtual Learning Charter. Yet I locate these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using existing online lessons (or crafting their own) anchored in discrete skills and knowledge, aligned to the Common Core standards, and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Even though these schools and programs have appropriated the language of student-centeredness and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, their teacher-crafted playlists that vary for each student accompanied by assessments of skills and knowledge locates them here. And, finally, these programs seek the ends of thoughtful, fully engaged, and whole human beings–the same as other programs along the spectrum. And they still operate within the traditional format of K-8 and 9-12 age-graded schools

In the middle of the spectrum would be classrooms, schools and districts that have blended learning models (there are more than one) combining personalized lessons for individual students and teacher-directed classroom lessons such as ones taught by Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin  and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons. Urban Rocketship schools in Silicon Valley, for example, has students working on online math and literacy software geared to questions  students will face on tests. They sit in cubicles for part of the day followed by chunks of time spent in classrooms where teacher-directed lessons occur.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting a bit toward the behaviorist end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on. Also in Oakland is James Madison Middle School using a rotational version of blended learning for its 6th through eight graders.

I would also include teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed (Summit Prep–here–and Summit Rainier–here) who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning,” the projects were largely chosen by the teachers who collaborated with one another in making these decisions for all Summit schools; the projects were aligned to the Common Core state standards. While choices were given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects were in teachers’ hands (the nine classes I observed at Summit schools were, for the most part, lodged at the second stage  (see here) of putting project-based learning into practice. This is why I placed these teachers and schools in the center of the continuum.

Such schools mix competency-based, individual lessons for children in large cubicle-filled rooms with teacher-directed lessons, project-based teaching. Like those at the behaviorist end, these programs lodged in the center of the spectrum contain differences among them. Yet they all work within the traditional age-graded school organization.

At the pole opposite the behaviorist end is the student-driven, “whole child” set of arrangements that prize multi-age groupings, high student participation in their learning through working on projects that both student and teacher develop, cultivate cross-disciplinary linkages, and dispense with age-graded arrangements (sometimes called “continuous progress”). Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are less than two-score of these schools nationally.

For example, there is High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning (and, from documents and exhibits, seem to be at the fourth stage of PBL). The teacher-led Avalon charter school in St. Paul (MN) relies on PBL implementing it through individualized learning plans. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Sycamore school in Claremont (CA), the Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as The AltSchool, a series of small private schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. They say that they, too, “personalize learning.” Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum and in the middle, much variation exists among these schools harbored here.

In the few months I observed schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley, I saw instances of technology being integrated into lessons and school programs aimed at achieving larger purposes of public schooling mentioned above. However, I saw no examples among these schools of multi-age groupings, advanced stages of project-based teaching, and other features listed above for this end of the continuum.


These two posts are my first effort to make sense of the uses of technology to “personalize learning” that I have seen over the past few months in Silicon Valley schools and classrooms. Highly recommended to me as instances of teachers and schools that integrate technology seamlessly into their daily work, I found that their uses of technology to teach content and skills through “personalizing Learning” fell into types of programs that I could array along a continuum. All of these schools sought similar ends of producing graduates who could be problem-solvers, find jobs in a competitive labor market and become engaged in their communities.

I would appreciate comments from viewers about this first pass at understanding what I observed in these classrooms and schools. I welcome comments on the clarity (or lack of it), coherence (or lack of it) and helpfulness (or lack of it) of this spectrum in draining the semantic swamp of “personalized learning.”


*None of the 17 teachers I observed taught wholly online so I do not include any examples here. Many of the teachers I watched, however, used a combination of online resources, teacher-directed lessons, and small-groups to “personalize learning” while conveying prescribed knowledge and skills aligned to Common Core standards adopted by the state of California.


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

7 responses to “Part 2: Draining the Semantic Swamp of “Personalized Learning” : A View from Silicon Valley

  1. Hi Larry. Very exciting to read your analysis after seeing the data pop up live. As I’ve analyzed that spectrum, I think that there are two intellectual/academic/branding movements that capture the ends. On the Thorndike end is Blended Learning as defined by Michael Horn and others, and on the Dewey end is Connected Learning, as articulated by Mimi Ito and others.

    Here’s one post making that argument:

    I gave a talk at Berkman that expounded on the idea, with slides, text, video, and tweets here:

    I see a resonance between these writings and yours, which I assume is a function of all that I’ve learned from your writing over the years 🙂 I think the point about that you make about efficiency minded reformers co-opting whole child language is spot on.

    I’d put the Alt-School and Khan Lab more in the middle, or in a different section somehow. In someways, they are trying to do both ends at the same time full throttle– Montessori plus surveillance: . They are distinguished by an earnest commitment to both poles, more than a hedging in the middle.

    Looking forward to reading more observations and reactions.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much for giving a critical read of my first pass at making sense of “personalized learning” ala Silicon Valley schools and classrooms. I will read the links that you sent. As for where you and I differ on the placement of Alt/School and Khan Lab is that the behaviorist pole and the middle of the continuum on “personalized learning” remain committed to the age-graded organization but the cognitive, student-centered, whole child end of the continuum experiments with multi-age grouping or dispenses entirely with the age-graded school (where I place Alt/School and Khan Lab). Nonetheless, I appreciate your points and want to read your links and think further about them.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Reads: Could Massachusetts be headed for a Common Corexit? | Chalkbeat

  3. JMK

    Hello Larry –

    Thank you for sharing your descriptions of the schools you visited and the historical context for personalized learning. I’m a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and for the past two years we have also been studying Personalized Learning through similar methods as you. We have several of your “whole child” style personalized learning schools in our backyard that we have been privileged to visit and write about. Most of them downplay their technology component, emphasizing that technology is what allows them to personalize at scale, but it could be done without (and in some cases is).

    We’ve found some interesting things ( including a conferring process around individual learning data between students and teachers, a culture of student and teacher agency developed in many ways, and sociotechnical ecologies of learning resources/tools. (The writing up of findings continues.)

    We have wrestled with what you’ve done as well, trying to articulate some kind of continuum. Something that I found interesting in comparison to yours is that though we initially thought of interest at one end and standards at the other, much like the current Progressives vs. the current Conservatives, the programs we’ve seen actually weave the two: standards are a sort of “cadre” within which students have latitude to pursue their interests.

    I’d be curious to know what kind of measurements the programs use to document and guide student learning. How do they measure this holistic growth? What “proof points” do they use? Do they use data (other than math and reading scores) to direct student learning paths? This question is based in what we heard from educators in the programs we studied: some can point to success raising math and test scores, but not all, and they need assessments that capture the influence of their “whole child” program.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, Julie, for your comments. I will read the summary of the pilot research that your group has undertaken in the five schools. Thanks for sending it along. I am still playing with continuum and I am open to comments. The comment: “the programs we’ve seen actually weave the two: standards are a sort of “cadre” within which students have latitude to pursue their interests.” fits, at least for me now, the middle of the continuum. Teachers usually cluster at the center of a spectrum because they create hybrids drawn from each pole of the continuum. As for measures, nearly all of the classrooms and schools I have visited, regardless of where they are on the continuum, refer to test scores, graduation rates, daily attendance, and other familiar outcome measures. As for the the “whole child–cognitive–student agency” end of the continuum, I saw no measures of that–I would have needed to spend more time at each place–except for the Summit charter schools that do measure their success by how well their graduates do in college, that is, persist until graduation. Again, thanks for the comment.

  4. Had put these two posts in my reading list. Though your name has been popping up left and right, wasn’t familiar with your work.
    Out of context, these posts are a bit difficult to understand. Maybe it’s just me, of course. But they sound like they rely on a lot of subtext, shared references, mutual understandings, and even baggage.
    The continuum isn’t too hard to figure out. It does sound like a spectrum flattened to a single axis with two well-established poles. The two poles do sound to me like two sides of a very specific coin, but that’s par for the course.
    So, no lack of clarity there.
    However, the links between this line and the peculiar lateralisation of politics in the United States over the last hundred years gave me pause. They could help flesh out the continuum in something more nuanced and complex and multifaceted. But they’re the ones which would be much easier to grasp from an insider’s perspective than from the outside. While the approach used in your project bears some similarities to ethnography, these two posts sound (to me) more like fieldnotes (legible to a known audience) than like the “describe and tell others what was seen and explain it” step you described initially. Figuring out things in public is great, but it’s useful to keep in mind that the public may have its own “selection bias”.

    Something which was most puzzling, to me, was this insistence on not positioning yourself on the continuum built up in these posts. When Jay Rosen decries the “View from Above”, he describes something very similar to this, to be honest. A significant proportion of the people who mention your name explicitly associate themselves with one end of the continuum (the “Dewey” side). In some cases, it might even be a matter of activism, with social justice as a key issue put on the scale, to weigh a number of debates. Most likely, people at the other end of the continuum (the “Thorndike” side) also appreciate your work. But it doesn’t sound like they’re as vocal about it.
    It also sounds more like straight-up polarisation than like a model with a “fat middle”. There might be several teachers caught up in the centre of the range, but it’s not like there’s a clearly distinct “third way”.
    It may well be that you don’t feel any particular attraction to any position along this one line, at any point in time. But reflexivity often teaches us that people do perceive us through tainted lenses. So, if teachers taught you belonged to a specific camp, we could derive a lot of insight from those interactions. Maybe Thorndike was so much of your mind that you took on the project as something closer to ethology than ethnology, but the fact that you’ve been working with fellow human beings does have an impact on your observation.

    Hesitant to press the “Post Comment” button, for fear that said comment may be misconstrued. But you did say:

    > I welcome comments on the clarity (or lack of it), coherence (or lack of it) and helpfulness (or lack of it) of this spectrum in draining the semantic swamp of “personalized learning.”

    Well, it’s rather clear and coherent in terms of that Dewey-Thorndike continuum. Not sure “spectrum” is the best way to describe it, but that’s nitpicking. As for drainage and helpfulness, it probably depends on people’s needs. As usual, context is key.

    • larrycuban

      I do appreciate your comments, Alexandre. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and send along your reactions. You raised two points. First, my discussion of the split among educational progressives in the early 20th century as part of the larger political reforms sweeping the U.S. between 1890s and 1930s would be largely unfamiliar to non-historians of education. What I call a family fight among educational progressives (e.g., Dewey vs. Thorndike) is unfamiliar to most practitioners and policymakers who have not looked at the history of school reform. So I do agree that what I have written may sound arcane at best, and not understandable at worst. It would need to be re-written to achieve more clarity for a larger audience. Thank you.

      The second point is my unwillingness to place myself on the spectrum that I have drafted. In How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993), a book about attempts to reform teaching between 1890–1990,I received similar criticism that I did not express my preference for either teacher- or student-centered instruction, the subject of the book. I said then as I say now, I have no preference for one way of teaching over another since I believe and have practiced in my own teaching in borrowing from both teacher- and student centered practices. Why? Because students differ, schools differ, communities differ and hybrids of both forms of teaching are necessary to deal with all of those differences. As you said (and I agree), context matters.

      I feel the same way for the behaviorist/cognitive (Dewey/Thorndike) spectra. As I said in the post: “Let me be clear, I value no end of the spectrum more than the other. I have worked hard to strip away value-loaded words that suggest some kinds of ‘personalized learning’ are better than others.” The reason here–not elaborated which I should have done–is that both ends of the continua have something to offer me. I would probably end up somewhere in the middle (acknowledging the importance of context) because, like that earlier book I described, I would see worth in both sides of the spectra. Thank you again for taking the time to comment.

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