“Personalized Learning”: The Difference between a Policy and a Strategy

“Personalized learning”–and whatever it means–has been the mantra for policymakers. technology entrepreneurs, and engaged practitioners for the past few years. Mention the phrase and those whose bent is to alter schooling nod in assent as to its apparent value in teaching and learning.  Mentions of it cascade through media and research reports as if it is the epitome of the finest policy to install in classrooms.

But it is not a policy, “personalized learning” is a strategy.

What’s the difference?

Read what Yale University historian Beverly Gage writes about the crucial distinction between the two concepts:

A strategy, in politics, can be confused with a policy or a vision, but they’re not quite the same thing. Policies address the “what”; they’re prescriptions for the way things might operate in an ideal world. Strategy is about the “how.” How do you move toward a desired end, despite limited means and huge obstacles? We tend to associate strategy with high-level decision makers — generals, presidents, corporate titans — but the basic challenge of, in [Saul] Alinsky’s words, “doing what you can with what you have” applies just as much when working from the bottom up.

While the two are connected, making the distinction between policy and strategy is essential to not only political leaders but military ones as well. Strategies are instruments to achieve policy goals so, for example, in the 17 year-old war in Afghanistan, ambiguous and changing U.S. goals—get rid of Taliban, make Afghanistan democratic, establish an effective Afghan military and police force–influenced greatly what strategies U.S. presidents–three since 2001–have used such as sending special forces, army, and marines into the country—frontal assaults on Taliban strongholds, counter-insurgency, etc. (see here and here).

Without recognizing this distinction between policy and strategy military and political leaders behave as blind-folded leaders  taking one action while devising another plan to implement to achieve ever-changing goals.


Photo illustration by Derek Brahney. Source image of painting: Bridgeman Images.


But the key distinction that Gage draws between policy and strategy does not only apply to politics or the military, it just as well covers continual reform efforts to improve public schools. A successful reform often gets converted into policies–the vision–and those policies get implemented–the how– as strategies to achieve those policy goals in districts and schools

Also keep in mind that public schools are political institutions. Taxpayers fund them. Voters elect boards of education to make policies consistent with the wishes of those who put them into office. And those policies are value-driven, that is, the policy goals school boards and superintendents pursue in districts, principals in schools, and lessons teachers teach contains community and national values or, as Gage put it above: prescriptions for the way things might operate in an ideal world. Of course, these value-laden goals, e.g., build citizens, strengthen students’ moral character, insure children’s well being, prepare graduates for jobs, can be contested and, again become political as tax levies and referenda on bilingual or English only instruction get voted up or down. So policies do differ from strategies in schooling. The distinction becomes important particularly when it comes to media-enhanced school reforms.

In light of this distinction, consider “personalized learning.” When I ask the question of teachers, principals, superintendents and members of school boards about”personalized learning”: toward what ends? I get stares and then answers that are all over the landscape–higher test scores, reducing achievement gap between minorities and whites, getting better jobs and motivating students to lifelong learning (see here).

The question is essential because entrepreneurs, advocates, and promoters  pushing “personalized learning” expect practitioners to reorganize time and space in schools, secure new talent, buy extensive hardware and software, shift from teacher-centered to student-centered instruction, and provide scads of professional development to those putting what has now become a policy into practice.

The fact is that “personalized learning” is not a policy; it is a strategy. What has happened here as it has in politics and the military is that a “strategy” has become the desired end replacing the initial policy goal.  Leaders forget that a policy is a “what,” a prescription for the way things might operate better than they do, a solution to a problem, not a “how”  do you move toward a desired end, despite limited means and huge obstacles? While this switch from policy-to-strategy is common it is self-defeating (and consequential) in an organization aiming to help children and youth live in the here and now while getting ready for an uncertain future.

The fundamental question that must be asked of “personalized learning” is: toward what ends? It seldom gets asked much less answered without flabby phrases or impenetrable jargon. The conflicts that arise when the goals of PL are unclear or ambiguous (or worse, unexplored) occur because PL as a strategy–the “how” –has morphed into the “what” of a policy. Here is what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says:

We want to make sure that [PL], which seems like a good hypothesis and approach, gets a good shot at getting tested and implemented.

One example taken from a recent report on PL:

Personalized learning is rooted in the expectation that students should progress through content based on demonstrated learning instead of seat time. By contrast, standards-based accountability centers its ideas about what students should know, and when, on grade-level expectations and pacing. The result is that as personalized learning models become more widespread, practitioners are increasingly encountering tensions between personalized learning and state and federal accountability structures.

Noting these conflicts between PL and standards-based accountability–both of which are strategies to achieve higher test scores, change school organization, raise students’ self-confidence in mastering content, and demonstrate responsibility to voters. Nothing, however, is ever said how raising test scores, altering how schools are organized, lifting students’ self-esteem, or holding schools accountable to voters is connected to graduating engaged citizens, shaping humane adults, getting jobs in an ever-changing workplace, or reducing economic inequalities.  These are the policy ends that Americans say they want for their public schools. Instead, distinctions between policy and strategy go unnoticed and the “how” becomes far more important than the “what.”





Filed under school reform policies, technology

13 responses to ““Personalized Learning”: The Difference between a Policy and a Strategy

  1. One of the most durable findings on Mastery Learning (as defined by Benjamin Bloom, and a progenitor of one flavor of personalized learning) is that it creates a huge spread in instructional time (time to mastery). Bloom reported a ratio of 6:1 in time to mastery.
    If you follow this to its end point, what it takes one child one hour to learn, it will take another child 6 hours to learn. What it takes one semester for one child will take 6 semesters for another child. And so on. Whether 6:1 is really the generalizable ratio is unclear, but the central point is clear: some students need much more time and resources to attain mastery than others.

    One thing the commentators fail to recognize is that accommodating so wide a spread within a traditional age graded school is all but logistically impossible. Alternatives exist, but have not gone to scale.
    So, in agreement with Larry, I would argue that PI as a strategy ultimately cannot succeed in schools until PI becomes policy – with all the radical changes in school organization and resource allocation implied.

    Another thing I wonder about: Bloom showed that in mastery learning, the spread in instructional time is along a roughly normal curve. The spread in achievement is roughly a J-shaped curve. This is exactly the opposite of a conventional classroom with fixed instructional time: a J-shaped curve of instructional time, and a roughly normal curve of achievement. We all consider the bell-shaped curve of achievement to be a fact of nature, but could it be that it’s really just an artifact of fixed instructional time?

    • Laura H. Chapman

      Which subjects are you referencing on mastery and instructional time. Which are you excluding? Are there subjects for which mastery is misleading concept? Are there educational aims, detached from or transcending subjects, for which the concepts of mastery and allocated instructional time are misleading?

      • The limits of applicability of mastery learning (or any personalized learning strategy) are not well defined in theory, and scarcely investigated in research. More generally, there is almost no comparative research on PI strategies, beyond comparison to some generic “conventional classroom.” So, the answer to your questions is: nobody really knows.

      • Laura H. Chapman

        Thank you for the reply. Coincidently, I assume your father was Arthur Foshay. I spent 10 days in his company in 1965. The occassion was a federally funded seminar on behalf of R & D in art education. He was not the only guru there. He also served as an advisor for a follow-up proposal for R&D on behalf of art(s) education. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the questions you asked of Wellesley, Laura. His answers and points that he raises are, in my opinion, salient for both policymakers and practitioners.

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate the points that you make, Wellesley, on the constraints on accommodating Mastery Learning (ala Ben Bloom) within the age-graded school structure. Should policymakers follow the advice of converting PL into a policy, the same basic question will have to be asked: toward what ends? The ambiguity, no, actually confusion about PL including the spread of PL versions from competency based learning (variations of mastery of content and skills) to project-based learning (pursuing similar but also different ends). Thanks for the comment and the back-and-forth with Laura Chapman.

  2. Yes Not to mention that it’s often on direct relations.between flesh and blood persons. The relationship is with a machine.

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Thanks for provoking thought.

    –& Abdi Arroyo

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