Personalized Learning: Panel Discussion

I was part of a panel at the annual conference of Education Writers Association held in Los Angeles, May 16, 2018. The panel included:

April Chou, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Heidi Vazquez, Compass School/Highlander Institute; myself, with Jenny Abamu, journalist from EdSurge, moderating the panel.

The moderator asked three questions of all panelists and then specific ones addressed to each panelist. Here are both sets of questions and my answers to each one.


How do you define personalized learning?

I do not have a clear-cut definition for several reasons. First, in a nation of decentralized schools of 50 states, over 13,000 school districts, 100,000 schools, and nearly four million teachers there is no Ministry of Education that says what personalized learning is. All definitions depend upon where you sit. Inevitably, then, with this fragmented governance of schools, definitions of any school reform will vary.

I cannot give you a crisp definition for another reason: historically, there have been many efforts to get teachers to tailor their instruction to individual students. The best that I can do is to say that PL is a current incarnation of those past reform efforts to customize learning within the confines of the dominant structure of the age-graded school.

Finally, add to this mix, that those educators, donors, and political leaders pushing personalized learning also seek to alter drastically how teachers teach, that is, move teachers 180-degrees from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction.

For all of these these reasons, I cannot give you a crisp or singular definition of PL other than another attempt to individualize instruction within the age-graded school.

Do you see personalized learning scaling nationwide?

Already has. With mainstream and social media and the ubiquity of inexpensive tablets and laptops plus software, various versions of personalized learning appear in most districts across the nation.

The problem in making sense of the constant reference to PL in a decentralized system of schooling is to distinguish between policy talk, policy adoption, and policy implementation.

In policy talk the rhetoric of PL is already national albeit with varied definitions hand-made in districts and schools. With mainstream and social media and donor support, it has become the school innovation du jour.

When it comes to policy adoption and allocating money and staff, however, many—but not all–districts, adopt some off-the-shelf or home-made version of personalized learning, calling it “blended learning,” “teaching for mastery,” project-based instruction, and similar names.

But when it comes to putting the policy into classroom practice, far less has occurred simply because for many educators PL already seemed to fit what teachers were currently doing, inadequate staff development of teachers, insufficient hardware, software, and technical help, and uncertainties over what student outcomes should be in light of the press for meeting state curriculum standards, frequent testing, and accountability sanctions.

So PL talk differs from adoption of programs and adoption differs from classroom implementation in answering the question of whether personalized learning is nationwide.

What is one piece of advice you would give reporters who are covering this topic?

I have two bits of advice. First, when doing a piece on PL, ask district people who authorized the program what their definition of PL is and what they would consider a “successful” PL program. Then I would go into classrooms and ask teachers what their definitions of PL were and how they would know they were “successful.” finally, I would ask various students in different classes the same questions.  The noticeable gap between these points of view is the beginning of any story about educational innovations, including PL.


  1. Based on your research, how have you seen schools pursue different versions of personalized learning in the past?

The basic structure of U.S. education for nearly two centuries has been the age-graded school. In a decentralized system, it has dominated school organization. You cannot understand the current passion for PL without grasping the enduring structure of age-graded schools in the U.S.

Unlike the historic one-room schoolhouse where children of all ages mixed, in the age-graded school, six year olds are in the first grade, nine year olds are in the third grade and 12 year-olds are in sixth grade. There is a separate teacher for each class and that teacher is expected to teach the content and skills assigned to that grade level. The daily schedule, homework, and tests are tailored to each grade. At the end of the school year, each student is promoted to the next grade or required to repeat the same grade. This step-by-step progression through the grades is considered “normal.” Because of this organizational structure and large classes, historically teaching to the whole group was common.

For generation after generation of students, these in-school experiences have become familiar features and Americans have come to think of the age-graded school as “real” schools.

Yet, over a century ago, educators had seen the weaknesses of this age-graded structure. Critics saw the structure as overlooking differences among children. While most students kept to the “normal” pace during the year, some grew bored with the slow pace, others failed and were held back, and even others dropped out,.

So beginning in the early 20th century, Progressive educators came up with attempts to individualize instruction within the age-graded school so that all students would succeed. From providing special classes for gifted and handicapped children to teachers dividing their classes into small groups for part of the day to innovations such as the Winnetka, Gary, and Dalton plans in the early decades of the 20th century to adopting teaching machines in the 1950s to today’s ala carte menu of personalized learning approaches—each generation of school reformers tried to customize teaching and learning within the confines of the age-graded school.

Because of the dominant age-graded school structures, differentiating teaching practices and lessons to accommodate individual differences among students has been and will continue to be part of the history and contemporary experience of teachers and students in public and private schools.

  1. While putting together your book, you observed personalized learning teaching methods in several classrooms, what are the different types of PL that you observed?

To make sense of what I observed in 41 classrooms in Silicon Valley schools during 2016-2017 and what I know historically about instructionally-guided reforms over the past century, I constructed a spectrum of classrooms, programs, and schools that include varied ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons aimed at achieving particular goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the spectrum. I do not suggest that some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, this spectrum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

At one end of the continuum are classrooms that use online and offline technologies daily. Program leaders at this end of the spectrum use phrases like “mastery learning” and “competency-based education.” They want students to successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons typically call for a lot of whole group instruction, some small group work, and much online activity where students work independently.

Examples of schools and programs at this end of the continuum would be the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire,  USC Hybrid High School CA, and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples are at this end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another They differ in organization and content from one another.

These schools and districts are at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge 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 in daily and weekly chunks. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in their lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teacher as they move individually through a sequence of math, science, and reading skills.

At the other end of the spectrum are student-centered classrooms programs and schools 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 decision-making. They want to shape how individual students grow cognitively, psychologically, emotionally, and physically.

These programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the competency-based end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter college, succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults.

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. And private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) fit here as well.

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. At this end of the continuum, these online and offline lessons bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

There are many such schools scattered across the nation. Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools anchored at this end of the continuum.

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. From customized online lessons to team-led projects and teacher-led discussions, these schools, in their quest to personalize learning tilt toward the competency-based, teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum. Examples from my research would be the Summit Charter School network in Northern California, Teach To One (a math program), and most of the 41 teachers I observed and interviewed in six different districts in Silicon Valley.

While choices were given to students within these classrooms for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, for the most part, 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.

Finally, I did notice that wherever  these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts  fall on the spectrum 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.

  1. In your book, you say personalized learning focuses on growth, but that clashes with state and federal accountability measures that require students to know certain things at each grade level. Talk about the benefits and drawbacks of what a widespread adoption of personalized learning and how it could conflict with the goals of policymakers or civil rights groups.

Here is the conflict in simple terms. Personalized learning is rooted in the belief that individual students should progress through content and skills until they have mastered it regardless of how long it takes. Lessons are customized to fit each student.

Standards-based testing and accountability, however, believes that students should know content and skills by a certain time and demonstrate that knowledge on periodic tests. Lessons are taught to entire class.

These beliefs conflict so that even as policy talk and adoption of personalized learning programs has spread nationally, teachers and principals in most districts have to wrestle with the degree to which they integrate PL into their lessons while meeting obligations to district, state and federal accountability deadlines.Lessons are driven by content and skill standards periodically measured by tests.

Consider that schools trumpeting their alignment of lessons to Common Core standards and personalized learning in the same breath have their students take state tests with multiple choice questions that assess how much knowledge and skills listed in the curriculum standards they have learned. That tension exists but seldom arose in my discussions with teachers, principals, and superintendents implementing PL.




Filed under technology use

12 responses to “Personalized Learning: Panel Discussion

  1. Hi Larry,

    Thank you for including your write-up of the panel. By any chance, do you know if the session might have been recorded? It sounds like a fascinating conversation.


  2. Laura H. Chapman

    I like your discussion of a continuum, but there are some things overlooked or not well developed.

    One is that learning IS personal, it does not need to be “ized.” Impersonal learning is a display of rote regurgitations of definitions and facts and memorized content with no real understanding, internalization.

    Methods of instructional delivery can be more or less individualized, also content and tasks/exercises that hone skills. A paradigm can be seen in IEP plans.

    Much of the talk and action under the broad umbrella of personalization is really about instructional delivery of conventional content. Screen-based access to content and adaptive testing for “mastery” is a method of delivering instruction, but the content and this delivery system is not, in the main, varied for individuals. One-of-a-kind (idiosyncratic) learning is rarely the aim, except perhaps in project-based instruction and creative work in the arts.

    • larrycuban

      Nice points, Laura. Especially when you say: “Much of the talk and action under the broad umbrella of personalization is really about instructional delivery of conventional content.” Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. BRHolland beat me to it–hope this was recorded!

    “Personalized learning is rooted in the belief that individual students should progress through content and skills until they have mastered it regardless of how long it takes. Lessons are customized to fit each student.

    Standards-based testing and accountability, however, believes that students should know content and skills by a certain time and demonstrate that knowledge on periodic tests. Lessons are taught to entire class.”

    The second definition is brilliant, and so rarely captured exactly. However, I’m not sure that personalized learning *is* rooted in that belief. I think many of the reformers pushing personalized learning think of it exclusively as individual learning, and hold out the hope that students will learn the content and skills *faster* than the certain time expected by accountability.

    You do mention that there’s no clear definition for personalized learning. I just have never seen any of the major proponents explain that hey, if a kid takes 10 years to get to 8th grade reading levels, so be it.

    • larrycuban

      Neither have I heard any advocate for “personalized learning” say “if a kid takes 10 years to get to 8th grade reading levels, so be it.” Thanks for comment.

      • Ha! I shouldn’t have used quotation marks. What I meant is that I don’t often hear advocates for personalized learning argue that some kids might need consistently and dramatically longer times, and that this is a feature of personalized learning. I agree that, ideally, this should be what personalized learning entails. I don’t think the advocates envision that.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for clarification.

  4. Pingback: Framing the Personalized Learning Discussion – #BWRSDReady

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