Personalized Schooling Gets Most of the Attention

I was initially surprised when my July blog post—Personalized Learning or Personalized Schooling?—became one of my most widely read and shared posts so far this year. In particular, this graphic resonated with educators: 

Chart of Learning vs Schooling

This framework clarifies critical distinctions that are too often overlooked in conversations about Personalized Learning. These distinctions are increasingly relevant to the work of improving schools and student achievement in the years ahead because Personalization is getting much more attention. In fact, last month's EdWeek article, What Is 'Personalized Learning'? Educators Seek Clarity, summarized efforts by iNACOL and other organizations to develop a working definition of Personalized Learning that also includes "critical questions for K–12 officials to consider in implementing personalized learning."

Their working definition has four parts:

  • Competency-Based Progression
  • Flexible Learning Environments
  • Personal Learning Paths
  • Learner Profiles

If we place these four parts and their sub-components on the Personalization matrix above, they fall almost entirely on the Schooling side—they mostly describe structurally focused strategies that relate very little to pedagogy and the student-driven cognitive actions that take place in lessons and learning experiences. School systems certainly need ideas for how to improve connections with learners, so it's not a problem that this working definition describes Schooling strategies instead of Learning strategies. But the focus on structures rather than pedagogy further emphasizes the need to draw the distinction between designs for Schooling and designs for Learning.

Another important point to note about this working definition is that schools that address these four elements will not inevitably create more a personalized environment. In reality, there are also impersonal ways to apply these ideas. For example, a high school could claim it has implemented Personalized Schooling because it creates a Learner Profile for each student, and therefore knows the college and career aspirations of every junior. However, if most juniors are enrolled en masse in a typical Algebra 2 course—regardless of their post-graduation goals—then the school is acting impersonally in practice because its math course offerings aren't responsive to varying college and career goals documented on the Learner Profiles.

So while I agree that the questions posed within the four parts of the working definition are important, Personalized Schooling can only result from certain answers to these questions. For example, the table below contains examples of how different forms of Competency-Based Progression could exist in both Impersonal and Personal Schools. As a reference point, Competency-Based Progression is briefly summarized as follows: "Each student's progress toward clearly-defined goals is continually assessed. A student advances and earns credit as soon as he/she demonstrates mastery."

Designing Personalized Schools

Impersonal School Design Competency-Based Progression Personal School Design
Assessments are Administered: Pencil-Paper Tests Standardized Diagnostics How should we assess levels of mastery? Evidence is Gathered: Performances, Interviews, Tests Various Digital & Analog Sources
Only in Formal Brick- and-Mortar Settings Where should we assess levels of mastery? Both Formal & Informal Settings, Face-to-Face and Online
All students are tested simultaneously at set times during the year How frequently should we assess each student's level of mastery? Continually gather evidence according to unique student-centered schedules
Not formally. Mastery is determined twice per year. Perhaps informally in an Independent Study (no credit). Can students pursue new learning as soon as they master prerequisite content? Yes. Formally and Informally. Students could begin or finish studying any course or topic at almost any time.
Participating in a course for a full calendar term and earning a passing grade with the instructor's grading system. How can students attain course credit based on mastery? Demonstrating proficiency on agreed upon assessments, artifacts, and portfolios aligned with relevant standards.

From this breakdown, it's possible to see how educators and officials could ask the right questions about Personalized Schooling but still enact policies and structures that result in an Impersonal environment.

As mentioned earlier, despite how critical these questions are, they don't focus the conversation on how the specifics of Personalized Learning play out in the lessons that students experience in classrooms and online. The working definition does not yet include details about how, for example, to pedagogically make student learning of algebra or biology more Personalized from day to day. Last month I wrote about the obstacle that mathematics has become for students in community colleges (The Math Barrier: An Unfortunate Reality). Considering the high failure rates among community college students enrolled in developmental math courses, it's clear that even when adult learners are personally motivated, they too often fail because the pedagogical approaches and assessment frameworks in these courses are impersonal and ineffective.

Personalized Schooling initiatives and supporting documents like this working definition are hopefully helping move the conversation toward examining how we can make classrooms and online learning more personal for students every day. More personalization in schools is a structural step in the right direction, but we have to look closely at each student's learning experiences within those schools. We need to continually remind ourselves that Personalized Schooling is a strategy for achieving the ultimate goal: improved learning for all students. Which means that one of the biggest challenges to achieving truly Personalized Learning is actually answering the most important question that's implied (but ignored) in the Competency-Based Progression questions above: "What is mastery?" I'll expound on that question in a future blog post, but in the meantime, the December 2013/January 2014 edition of ASCD's Educational Leadership, Getting Students to Mastery, is a valuable reference for investigating that question. It includes a great piece by Grant Wiggins in which he provocatively points out this reality: "Benjamin Bloom, the founder of modern mastery learning … nowhere defined mastery …"

Tim Hudson