Zombie Reforms and Personalized Learning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I described an instructional innovation Professor Fred Keller designed in the mid-1960s aimed at transforming the traditional college undergraduate lecture course in psychology. Called Personalized System of Instruction, PSI was a course using behaviorist techniques that permitted students to move at their own pace in finishing assignments, taking tests, and completing the course. Similar courses in the social and natural sciences spread rapidly across university campuses throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Initially popular as they were in converting traditional courses into individually guided lessons, these university courses faded.  By the mid-1990s, few faculty used PSI for introductory courses.

Evidence of higher student scores for those completing the PSI course as compared to traditional lecture course, however, clearly supported the innovation. Dropping PSI, then, had little to do with its demonstrated success with students. Other factors played a part in the disappearance of PSI on college campuses. Many professors who had adopted PSI came to realize the huge amount of work they had to put in with few tangible rewards from their department. Moreover, the lack of university incentives for improved teaching–research was believed to be far more important than teaching–drained enthusiasm from those who saw positive results of PSI courses. These and other factors led to the demise of an innovation that seemingly worked.

It is puzzling, however, that research studies demonstrated the superiority of PSI over traditional lecture courses yet still universities dropped such courses. With the growth of online learning–or distance learning–advocates in the past decades have talked about resurrecting versions of PSI especially because of the current ubiquity of devices and software that could be easily applied to undergraduate science and math courses. So it is possible that some incarnation of PSI may stage a comeback not in its original behaviorist design reliant upon text but as online course software conveying science concepts in undergraduate courses. A once-heralded innovation may arise from the pile of dead reform. Alas, another zombie reform.

Zombie reforms, according to economist Paul Krugman, contains “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” Think of “learning styles,” “left brain/right brain” teaching, and year-round schooling (see here, here, and here).

That is not the case for PSI. Strong evidence supported it continuation. But that second life for PSI hasn’t happened yet in higher education. Something similar to what occurred with PSI in higher education, however is occurring in K-12 schools.

With the onslaught of high-decibel policy talk on “personalized learning” and an array of programs popping up across the country funded by donors and corporate icons in technology in the past decade, self-paced and individualized software, most of which have few if any studies about their effectiveness, have appeared in many schools. In the history of school efforts to individualize teaching and learning, such reforms have appeared again and again (see here and here). And here is another “again.”

Why do zombie reforms pushing individualization in K-12 schools and often lacking solid evidence keep getting resurrected?

Answer: The abiding impact of age-graded school structures and cultures.

The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12), a 19th century innovation, solved the  problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to masses of children entering urban schools in the 20th century.  Today, the age-graded school is everywhere. Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma.

As an organization, the age-graded school allocates children and youth by age to school “grades”; it houses teachers in separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into weekly chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through a school year of 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted.

These structures and the culture that have grown within age-graded schools over the past century, however, say nothing about which of the multiple purposes tax-supported public schools should pursue (e.g., civic engagement, preparation for the workplace, strengthening individual character, cultivating problem-solving and critical thinking, and making society more just). Taxpayers, voters, policy elites, and donors decide.

Late-19th and early 20th century critics of age-graded schools saw these structures as crippling the intellectual and psychological growth of individual children who learn at different rates hence causing school dropouts as students of different ages piled up in lower grades because teachers flunked them repeatedly.*

The development of twice yearly promotions and ability groups smoothed out some of the inherent problems of age-graded schools. But left untouched the overall structure of the age-graded school that required teachers to cover the content and skills specific to a 3rd or 6th grade class where every student had to learn that content and skills by the end of the school year or be held back. These regularities became the “grammar of schooling” and have persisted decade after decade. The notion that children differ in how fast they learn knowledge and skills was out-of-sync with the age-graded school.

Nonetheless, reformers launched repeated efforts to “individualize” instruction.  The Winnetka Plan and the Dalton Plan appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, teaching machines in the 1950s, computer-assisted instruction in the 1970s and 1980s, and now “personalized learning”.**

In each instance, a flurry of hyperbole accompanied the innovation, programs spread proclaiming the end of the graded school, but as time went by, these efforts to individualize teaching and learning lost their mojo. The age-graded school won again and again.

The hullabaloo of new technologies again has promised that 1:1 devices and extraordinarily powerful interactive software will turn the dream of individualization into a daily workable reality in U.S. schools.


No reliable and valid body of evidence yet supports such claims for any version of “personalized learning” that is marketed now. Thus, another zombie school reform climbs from the grave to do battle with the historic age-graded school.



*William T. Harris, “The Early Withdrawal of Pupils from School: Its Causes and Its Penalties,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Boston,1873; E.E. White, “Several Problems in Graded-School Management,” National Educational Association, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses, Detroit, 1874 (Worcester, Mass.: Charles Hamilton, 1874).

**With the Education for All Handicapped children legislation becoming law in 1975 and the subsequent creation of Individualized Education Plans (IEPS), a version of “personalized learning” became a mainstay in special education but has had limited influence in regular schooling.




Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

15 responses to “Zombie Reforms and Personalized Learning (Part 2)

  1. An enjoyable and informative read, thanks. Age graded schools have always been a practical way to organize things and they can work very well.

  2. willrich45

    Kids are learning powerfully with technology all the time, just not in school. Learning in school is measured by numbers. Learning outside of school is measured by the extent to which we want to learn more. The big question facing schools today is whether or not we will serve learning as it happens in the modern world, or education as it’s happened for hundreds of years. It’s tough to do both well.

    • Hello Will and Larry.

      I must say that I am really excited to potentially have both of you in a conversation at one time!

      Building off of Will’s comments, I am wondering if we are asking schools to do too much? The 1966 Coleman Report remains a seminal piece that addresses the influences of factors from outside of school. It highlighted the fact that it takes more than just school to close the achievement gap by presenting evidence that schooling has less of an impact on students in high-performing schools than in low-performing ones. Therefore, it seems as though external factors have more of an impact on a student’s learning than school itself. This brings me around to both Will’s comment about learning outside of school as well as two other pieces of literature.

      First, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown wrote about the idea of “learning collectives” in their book A New Culture of Learning. Perhaps one role of school is to help students form communities outside of the classroom – to engage in the deeper thinking that we wish could happen inside – but which the grammar of school actually thwarts? Second, Farrington and colleagues wrote in 2012 about the idea of forming coalitions to support the development of students’ noncognitive skills. They advocated for leveraging groups such as Americorps, the Boys/Girls Club, etc. to extend the capacities of school to develop the whole student. Maybe we need to look at external forces to supplement or supplant the existing organizational structures (connecting back to that idea of learning collectives)?

      Finally, returning to the idea of personalized learning as another “zombie reform.” Are current efforts trying to personalize the wrong area? Technology seems to address scope and sequence through prescribed content absent student interest or relevancy. Perhaps the focus should be more on personalizing the experience instead of the curriculum?

      I am looking forward to hearing from you both.

      • larrycuban

        Beth, as before, you raise fine points. I suggested to Will to look at Larry Cremin’s work that touches upon both what he and you (with nice examples) point to–that is informal education goes on all the time and harnessing those learning activities outside of 9-3 remain challenging, to say the least.

        As for “personalized learning,” when I took a crack at a spectrum of programs touting their take on “personalized learning” I saw that there is a heavy weight given to those programs that are at the competency-based end of the spectrum–which means acquiring content and skills identified as essential for the 21st. I believe that is what you say in your second sentence of the last paragraph. What society deems important drives, I believe, many of these “personalized learning” programs–what I call the “new” vocationalism compared to the industrial economy vocationalism of the early and mid-20th century.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Will, for your comment. Larry Cremin wrote a three volume history of American education arguing that formal schooling is just one way that children and youth learn. He sketches out how the young learn informally in and from different institutions such as churches, the arts, family, peers, et. al. A short version of his argument (less than a 100 pages) can be found in Popular Education and Its Discontents (1990).

    • Chester Draws

      Kids are learning powerfully with technology all the time, just not in school.

      This is the new dogma, but I’ve seen no actual evidence it is true.

      I know a few kids that have learned to code. Usually quite badly, because self-teaching is an inefficient way to learn such a difficult skill.

      Overwhelmingly the students I know learn ephemera. They take and send videos that they never even bother to edit. They learn a new game. Nothing anyone else rarely care about.

      Skills that will last their lifetime are rarely learned. Most can’t even type very well.

      In fact, because they read fewer books, I would argue that most kids are learning less usefully out of school than they used to.

  3. Pingback: Do not go stupid into that personalized learning blood: Part 1, Mind the evidence | A Total Ed Case

  4. Yet another powerfully argued post 🙂 and it is timely with all the hype about personalized (note personal) learning, and edtech startups pushing their products to schools. Reviewing the research however, I realized that personalized learning does not have an impact on student achievement as differentiated learning.

    I would love a short bibliography of successful school reform or critique of school reform.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment. Try David Labaree’s Someone Has To Fail and David Tyack’s Tinkering toward Utopia.

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