The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning

Pupils are working on their own. The second and third grade reading class of 63 pupils … is using a learning center and two adjoining rooms. Two teachers and  the school librarian act as coordinators and tutors as the pupils proceed with the various materials prepared by the school’s teachers and … developer, The Learning and Research Development Center at the U. of Pittsburgh. Each pupil sets his own pace. He is listening to records and completing workbooks. When he has completed a unit of work, he is tested, the test is corrected immediately, and if he gets a grade of 85% or better he moves on. if not, the teacher offers a series of alternative activities to correct the weakness, including individual tutoring, There are no textbooks. There is virtually no lecturing by the teacher to the class as a whole. Instead, she is busy observing the child’s progress, evaluating his tests, writing prescriptions, and instructing individually or in small groups of pupils who need help.*

The school is Oakleaf elementary near Pittsburgh (PA) and the time is 1965. Implemented across all grades, the innovative program was called Individually Prescribed Instruction or IPI (el_197203_tillman-2, p. 495).

Over a half-century ago, before there were smart phones, laptops, and tablets, university developers and school-site practitioners championed IPI as a program where students move through materials at differentiated paces until each achieved mastery of the content and skills to then continue on to the next unit of study.  Observers found students engaged in the process, pleased with the prompt feedback, and delighted that each could move at his or her pace rather than wait for the entire class to move to the next lesson. Here was the apex of student-centered learning. The algorithms of the day made it possible for students to learn independently, find out how they were doing swiftly, go from easy to difficult content on their own, ask teachers for help, and avoid the dominant teacher-centered repertoire of whole group-lecture, discussion, textbook chapters, quizzes and exams that took days to return—you get the picture.

In 2017 looking in the rear-view mirror, IPI in 1965 sounds familiar to those of us who enter schools and  see contemporary lessons where students learn content and skills independently on their tablets and laptops that machine learning algorithms have matched to each student’s proficiency level. Today, it is called “personalized learning.”

Look further into that rear-view mirror. IPI in 1965 was a more sophisticated version of psychologist B.F. Skinner’s “teaching machine” in the 1950s that evolved from “programmed learning” engineered by psychologist Sidney Pressey in the 1920s.


From our perch in 2017, we can see that IPI was a prototype for subsequent “personalized learning” and online learning once electronic devices and sophisticated algorithms became widespread in K-12 and higher education in the past decade. The DNA of present-day blended learning (e.g., Summit charter schools, Rocketship’s Learning Labs, Teach to One  and MOOCs in  higher education) stretches back nearly a century from IPI to  “programmed learning,” to “teaching machines.”


Sure there have been earlier renditions of self-paced, individualized learning  nearly a century ago. So what?

At that time and now, those various incarnations of individualized, self-paced learning sprang from competing ideologies of what children and youth should learn and how they should learn it. Student-centered vs. teacher-centered ways of teaching and learning (and mixes of both) have competed for time and space in K-12 schools for the past  century. Variations of teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, discussion, textbook, worksheets, quizzes and tests) has won time and again and continues to dominate classroom lessons.

Connecting students to the real world, students working in small groups and individually, teachers acting as guides and mentors, and a host of other student-centered activities that blend different subjects and skills (e.g., math, science, art, and poetry) moved to center stage of public attention on different occasions (e.g., progressive curriculum and instruction in the 1920s; open classrooms in late-1960s). But after a brief fling in the reform spotlight student-centered learning receded to the wings in past decades.  Of course, there have been hybrids of both where many teachers hug the middle of the spectrum of instruction mixing old and new ways of teaching, but advocates for each pedagogical ideology continue to contest one another even today when K-12 battles erupt over Common Core standards, different kinds of math and science content, and now, “personalized learning.”

The answer, then, to my “so what” question is that pedagogical ideology of student-centered learning that drove earlier versions of individualized, self-paced instruction have reappeared in the highly touted “personalized learning” programs proliferating across the nation.

And in reappearing, questions similar to ones raised by earlier and contemporary generations of reformers emerge.

How is the interactive connection between a machine and a learner similar to and different from  the relationship of teacher and student?

Do algorithms embedded in the skills and content that dominated IPI then and now drive “personalized learning” programs today make a difference in what and how students learn once they reach “mastery” of the program?

Do programs like IPI and current incarnations of “personalized learning” capture the essence of student-centeredness when students participate in small groups, make independent choices, interact with peers to solve problems, and become involved in real-world activities and decisions?



*Thanks to Justin Reich and Dan Meyer for pointing me to IPI as a past reform mirroring the present.



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7 responses to “The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning

  1. David F

    Hi Larry—so, what happened next? Did Oakleaf Elem decide to stop IPI and move on to something else? Was it their decision or their Board?

    FYI, you might find this interesting from Richard Gibbony at Penn:

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord: Advocacy, Accountability, and Singing Together – Schools & Ecosystems

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