A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

After visiting over three dozen teachers in 11 schools in Silicon Valley and hearing an earful about “personalized learning,” I drafted a continuum where I could locate all of the different versions of “personalized learning” I observed and have read about.

If readers have comments about what’s missing, what needs to be added or how I organized the continuum conceptually, I would surely appreciate hearing from you.

In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often.

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definitions (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). No one definition of personalized learning monopolizes the reform terrain. [i]

When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this should be surprising since “technology integration” and other reform-minded policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly  for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied,  but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy   percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teacher adaptations of policy is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in district schools and classrooms is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their personalized learning  (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.[ii]

The Personalized Learning Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I have constructed a continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons seeking short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the personalized learning continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs, switching back and forth between phrases on “competency-based education” and “personalization,” use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards, to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently. At this end of the continuum, these lessons contain a mix of whole group, small group, and independent activities but with a decided tilt to teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from  Virtual Learning Academy Charter. [iii]

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. Finally, these programs and schools, operating within traditional K-12 age-graded schools, are descendants of the efficiency-minded wing of the Progressive reforms a century earlier.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools often departing from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons. These places seek to cultivate student agency and want children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults. Like the other end of the spectrum, these approaches draw from the pedagogical wing of the Progressives a century ago.[iv]

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), 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 San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well. [v]

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

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 many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.[vi]

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, 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.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed  who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two 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. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson.

Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them. In hugging the middle, however, these programs also embody distinct traces of both the efficiency- and pedagogical wings of the century old Progressive reformers.

The popular policy innovation of “personalized learning” has a history of Progressive reformers a century ago embedded in it. Implementation today, as before, depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that rigorous–however it is defined–lessons will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of the policy. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, 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.


[i] In the glossary of educational terms, the entry describes a full array of meanings for the phrase. One of the longer entries in the glossary, personalized learning includes programs, instructional applications, and academic strategies. See: http://edglossary.org/personalized-learning/

[ii] Each of the programs named claim that they have personalized learning. See their websites for descriptions of what each does. Rocketship can be found at: http://www.rsed.org/

Alt/School can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

Agora Cyber School can be found at: http://www.agora.org/home

[iii] The New Hampshire Virtual Learning Academy Charter website describes its format and content at: http://vlacs.org/ .

An article on the virtual school’s creation and operation is: Julia Fisher, “New Hampshire’s Journey toward Competency-Based Education,” Education Next, February 1, 2015; USC Hybrid High School’s website is at: http://www.ednovate.org/about-usc/#image1-1

Also see Mike Syzmanski, “USC Hybrid High School Graduates Its First Class, with All 84 Heading to College,” LA School Report, June 13, 2016.

For Lindsay Unified School District, see Christina Qattrocchi, “How Lindsay Unified Redesigned Itself from the Ground Up,” EdSurge, June 17, 2014.

[iv] See Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993) in chapters on New York City and Denver for student-centered reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

[v] Descriptions of Big Picture Learning schools can be found at: Katrina Schwartz, “Can Truly Student-Centered Education Be Available To All?” KQED News, December 8, 2015 at: https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/12/08/is-the-public-system-scared-to-put-students-at-the-center-of-education/

Stephen Ceasar, “For Students at L.A.’s Big Picture Charter School, Downtown Is Their Classroom,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2014; for a YouTube description that includes interview with one of the co-founders of Big Picture Learning, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT716pobd2o

For Mission Hill School, see: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Open Classroom at Lagunitas can be found aat: http://lagunitas.org/open/

Edina’s Continuous Progress elementary school option is at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

Private micro-schools called AltSchool can be found at: https://www.altschool.com/

The Khan Lab School, a private school, is at: http://khanlabschool.org/

[vi] Mission Hill School’s website is: http://www.missionhillschool.org/

Lagunitas Open Classroom’s history and offerings are at: http://lagunitas.org/open/history/

Continuous Progress School in Edina (MN) has a description of its program at: http://webapps.edinaschools.org/sw/cp/newcpinfo.html

On the AltSchool, see Rebecca Mead, “Learn Different,” New Yorker, March 7, 2016; for the Khan Lab School, see Jason Tanz, “The Tech Elite’s Quest to Reinvent School in Its Own Image,” Wired, October 26, 2015 at: https://www.wired.com/2015/10/salman-khan-academy-lab-school-reinventing-classrooms/


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

48 responses to “A Continuum on Personalized Learning: First Draft

  1. David Callaghan

    Fab Larry
    Just tweeted out: https://twitter.com/dbcallaghan/status/844606652343107585
    Chimes with Ken Robinson’s lament on the age structures of contemporary education systems – you’d have thought Silicon Valley would be first in line here!?
    Kindest regards, David

  2. David F

    Hi Larry–see this, as well as the link to Dan Meyer’s comments: https://fivetwelvethirteen.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/pushing-back-against-personalization/

    My problems with it continue to be “what the heck is this really?” and “is it truly worth the time, effort and money”? Neither has been really answered by anyone with evidence…

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    Great research and documentation. Here is a question that you might want to consider in your full-spectrum discussion of technology and “personalized” learning. This came to my attention to day: begin quote

    Do the rights of Tennessee students to a public education extend into the right to have a teacher, and if so, does a computer program count?
    Those questions were posed to a state appeals court Tuesday during oral arguments in a case involving a Nashville student, Toni Jones, that could set a statewide framework defining school districts’ obligations to their students.
    “The slippery slope so to speak is that if a teacher is not essential, then a school system can be offered entirely by computers,” he said. “Students can be placed in a gymnasium and put a computer on a desk, and say, here is your teacher. And we’re going to have a hall monitor to keep you from acting up. That is basically what happened to Toni Jones. That’s not teaching.”
    Melissa Roberge, a Metro lawyer, argued Tuesday that a student’s right to education does not extend to the education’s components, such as how classes are delivered or the specific classes themselves.
    “Miss Jones does not have a property interest in the most appropriate education as determined by her,” she argued. “Stated differently, there’s no property interest in remaining in a specific class or being entitled to any particular test.”

    I hope you enjoy this example and consider the prospect of students who are not educated by teachers but by the people who create the algorithms and programs delivered to students on iphones. The students are untethered from schools and learning is unmediated by interaction with live or virtual teachers, not even avatars.


  4. Thanks for your interesting blog post describing the spectrum of personalized learning you have seen. Unfortunately no surprise that the schools (as described in your article) continue to operate without any understanding of what cognitive science has brought to bear on learning, nor the many empirical studies that inform us of the most effective way to teach. Specifically that fully guided direct instruction by a teacher is the most effective way to teach novices compared to partially or completely unguided instruction, and the weakness of project based learning in developing subject knowledge. Also that we know creativity, critical thinking, problem solving are domain specific skills that depend of a great deal of domain knowledge to develop, not isolate skills that can be taught separately. To me it seems only reasonable that as teachers we operate according to the best evidence from cognitive science and accumlated quantitative education research, rather than idealogy. The biggest concern with the pedagogies of personalized learning that they encompass methods that benefit students from privileged backgrounds over under-privileged and perpetuate the achievement gap in society.

    • larrycuban

      Your point about direct instruction being consistent with evidence from “cognitive science” guides the one end of the continuum where teacher-directed “personalized learning”is most evident. Also programs like “Teach To One” and others lean heavily on research studies that support what you state.

  5. HI, I appreciate the scope and insights of your essay, Larry. I’ve got 25+ years of education and admin experience in all flavours of PL, through a couple of schools I’ve pioneered in BC Canada – ‘Virtual High’ in the 1990s, and ‘SelfDesign Learning Community’, started in 2002. Today, SDLC – an online independent school has close to 3K kids enrolled – is considered an exemplar of the ‘PL’ direction of the new K-12 curriculum in BC. I’ve recognized and played on the ‘spectrum’ for years, knowing that not only is the schooling infrastructure more inclined to rigidly adhere to one flavour or another, but students also have preferences for one flavour or the other that I honour (Can. sp) in my praxis. I don’t have an issue with the continuum and it’s nesting in schools; but when schools pretend learning doesn’t happen beyond school property is when their ‘walls’ can and do impede learning and short-change students. That learning – and it is very significant learning for many kids – arises through YouTube, SoundCloud, Makerspaces, 4H, Scouts and Guides, jobs and service activities, and a thousand other ways these days, and it’s long past time for schools to recognize, validate and support this kind of learning. That will be truly disruptive to the traditional model. And it’s coming … we honour and support this in SelfDesign, for example.
    – Michael Maser

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Michael for your comment and description of what you have done in “personalized learning.”

    • Trevan Walker

      “…when schools pretend learning doesn’t happen beyond school property is when their ‘walls’ can and do impede learning and short-change students.” I agree and have come to the conclusion that many federal and state policies, and the policies that districts must adopt to be compliant, actively bar efforts to personalize student educational experiences and break down traditional model schools. The definition of a school day, a master schedule, even attendance…they are (relatively) easy to manage and easy for states to measure for accountability purposes. However, I believe they are becoming increasingly irrelevant for students, and their parents, seeking the flexibility that Personalized Learning requires and that schools are willing to provide “…through YouTube, SoundCloud, Makerspaces, 4H, Scouts and Guides, jobs and service activities, and a thousand other ways…”

  6. Larry, excellent post as usual. One relatively minor point of clarification: the school in New Hampshire that gets quite a bit of positive attention for its focus on personalized and competency-based is the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS, see http://vlacs.org/.) That is the school mentioned on in Julia Fisher’s article and it has been discussed in quite a few other articles as well. The website that you linked to in the end notes is for a K12 Inc. school and I believe in fact that website is largely a placeholder and the school either doesn’t exist, or it is very small.

  7. Great article, thanks very much. I do wonder about what responsibilities the students and parents have in these (all) schools? It seems to me that personalized learning is a very ‘personal’ thing, and so parents and kids have to consider how they will curate their online digital personas via engaging activities such as blogging or art-making etc – no mention of the arts as a vehicle for personal expression and critical thinking either – thanks again, Rich B

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Rich, for taking the time to comment. Your point about parents, students, and the arts is one that I had not considered. Thanks for bringing them up.

  8. Alice in PA

    I put my teacher hat on for this, trying to see where I fit on the spectrum and then my researcher hat to attempt to place my colleagues. Here is what I found. You can judge whether it matches with your intention.

    Placement on the spectrum is not about the specific lesson design such as on or off line, student groupings etc. Instead I think I am seeing a difference in the perceived goals of the classrooms:
    “lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge” teacher-centered
    “asking big questions that combine reading, math, science, and social studies.” student-centered

    Also I am wondering if you see a tilt towards one end of the spectrum depending on the grades/ages of students. As you noted, most of the classrooms separated students according to age/grade but the student centered ones had examples of getting away from that. However, I focused on the high schools with older students because A) I am a high school teacher and B) high schools tends to be more content driven. I specifically looked at the student projects displayed on the High Tech High website. It appears to me that many of the overall projects were designed by the teacher with the students choosing only how to display their findings. Also, the integration of the reading, math, science, and social studies seemed weak in the displayed projects, seeing to be nothing beyond the typical “teacher centered” classroom except they were more long term.
    For example, in the computer programming one, it was a typical capstone programming assignment for a high level programming course with little integration of reading, math, science, and social studies. It is a great project, just not seeing the big picture integration. The example of the “Art & Science of Meaning” had physics in the description but I saw none in the project “product.” Now it could be that the physics class was learning about optics at the same time this project was occurring, but that is not the same as using the physics in the project and integrating the subjects in a big picture project.

    So my point in these examples is that maybe some more work is needed to explain the student-centered end of the spectrum. What does integration of the different subjects (typically separated in a teacher-centered school”) look like at there grades – what are the boundaries?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for looking more closely at High Tech High projects on their website, Alice. You raise a good point that student-centered as I have defined it for one pole of the continuum is less common at the secondary level where teacher-centered lessons and straight disciplinary content is the order of the day (AP courses, etc.). Big Picture Learning schools would be one example that fit closer to the student-centered end of the continuum for secondary schools. See:https://www.google.com/#q=big+picture+learning+schools&*

  9. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This is interesting as Personalized Learning is all the hype, but sometimes is missing the substance and clarity that is needed.

  10. wrubens

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for your contribution. To be honest, I think reality is even more complex. I think it is rather a polyhedron than a continuum. In recent white paper about ‘customised education the Dutch organization for ICT in higher education suggests:
    Customised education can take a number of different forms, which can always be defined in 5 dimensions from the student’s perspective. The selected mix of dimensions, along with the breadth of each dimension, leads to customised education for each institution. Two dimensions relate to what the students learn, three to how they learn.

    SURF also mentions several limitations. See: https://www.surf.nl/en/knowledge-base/2016/whitepaper-customised-education-in-2016.html

    • larrycuban

      Thank you very much, Wilfred, for giving me the link to the SURF paper. I will read it. The two-dimensional continuum, as you note, is limited and other dimensions are, indeed, missing. I have tried to include other dimensions by creating different shapes–polygons–but so far have failed.

  11. Vivian Johnson

    Thank for the thoughtful blog posting. As you mention one MN school I am wondering where you would place the St. Paul Public Charter School Avalon, which is centered on project based learning. The school was created in 2000 and is a small, tuition-free public charter school for students in grades 6-12.

    • larrycuban

      Based on the website description, Vivian, it would probably fit at the student-centered end insofar as project-based learning. School governance and administration is shared by teachers but that is not part of the continuum. Avalon might also go in the center of the continuum were an informed outsider to observe classes and interview teachers and students to determine to what degree student choice and participation occurs routinely. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Renee

    Come to Riverside. We are a blend now, but doing our best to reimagine schools as more student centered, flexing the school environment to suit student interests and aspirations in a large urban setting and students thriving in an impacted environment.

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  15. Hi Larry, Wonderful piece. Trying to define “personalized learning” is like trying to define “LMS” ten years ago. I applaud and am thankful for your effort.

    I propose expanding your defined spectrum to include when the learner is gathering personalized learning from more than one place or school. A student-centric and student-owned approach. Today students are learning from multiple places and need a way to capture that learning to enable them to show what they already know and what they are capable of learning next. This is only possible if the student has a tool containing these accomplishments. This needs to be owned by the student (or parent for younger students) and portable but able to be leveraged by the institution (school/class/organization) with the student’s permission to help in their personalized pathway. This would personalize the student’s accomplishments from multiple places, enable personalized learning on the macro level (and, in some cases, micro), and lead to a the lifelong learning that is often discussed but seldom executed. Companies like Degreed in the corporate world and trovvit (my company) in K-college are trying to do this.

    Thank you

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