The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What Does”Personalized Learning” Mean in Today’s schools?

on October 26, 2016

Over the past few months I have found the term “Personalized Learning” in several of the articles I was reading. Although I really didn’t understand what the term meant, it sounded like something I believed in was at last becoming popular in schools. Then, last week I received a booklet in the mail from the newspaper, Education Week, titled“Personalized Learning: the Next Generation.” I decided to read it carefully and find out for sure what this new trend was all about.  

In reading through the booklet I discovered that the term means different things to different people, but that it is also tied to the laws and practices that have ruled education over the past several years. Afterward, I read some other pieces on line that were written by critics or supporters of personalized Learning, so now I think I’m ready to explain to readers what the term means and how it is being implemented. I am also ready to give my opinion on its value and practicality. However, because of the length and complexity of the whole matter, I will present only my review of the Education Week booklet today and leave my opinions of the concept of Personalized Learning for my next posting.

 As I read through the booklet I found the statements by the EW executives fairly neutral. They appeared to be unsure about the meaning and value of this new movement, but felt it was their duty to continue to examine its procedures and results. The only definite opinion among them was that there is not yet any strong research to support it.

On the other hand, Helayne Brinauer Jones, the Senior Program Officer on the K-12 team of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), who was featured on the first page of the booklet, was all for Personalized Learning (PL) and cited one small school system as evidence of its success. Considering that the BMGF has contributed generously to the support and expansion of this innovation, I can’t accept that she is unbiased; nor do I feel that she gave any persuasive evidence that the movement is really helping students to succeed at school.

One early page in the booklet was devoted to diagrams showing the relationships among PL elements and the percentages of different results. I did not find them persuasive or even helpful to my understanding of PL. But, I must admit that studying information presented in this manner is not my strong suit.

For me, the most interesting parts of the booklet were descriptions of what is happening in various schools that have adopted PL officially. Their goals seem to be very much the same: improve the learning of all students, especially those who appear to be lagging behind; and all of them are relying much more on students’ use of technology than in the past. However, their classroom structures and procedures are still quite different.

All schools in Georgia’s Henry County system  are allowed to adopt their own processes and to decide how much they will rely on technology. As a result, there is a wide range of plans, some schools giving more control to students, while others have teachers map-out a series of activities over time for each student.

Some elementary schools devote one day a week to giving students “extra help.” Teachers focus on one academic area at a time, allowing students to make their own choices about where to get such help: from a teacher, on line, from textbooks, or in discussion groups. That seems like a good approach, but I could also see the complexity of extra preparation and evaluation in teachers’ responsibilities.

Another section of the booklet focused on research. Several studies have been undertaken in recent years, but according to the writer of that section,“the research evidence behind ‘personalized learning’ remains thin. The U.S. Department of Education has given half a billion dollars to districts that embrace the trend, with limited findings to date.” Also, the BMGF has given $300 million to support research and development. Officials there claim it’s too early to evaluate results. Other sources that have begun research studies tell much the same story: results seem promising, but it’s too early to make a definitive judgment.

There were several more articles recounting what some states or school districts were doing to implement PL, but I did not find anything remarkable or detailed enough to describe here. All I can say is there is a lot of variation and dependency on technology to carry the burden of teaching to the widely different needs of so many students.

I did not read two articles near the end of the booklet, because they seemed irrelevant to the issues at hand. One was on teaching social-emotional learning through technology and the other was on middle school students using a program called “Happify”, which is supposed to give a picture of a students’ character strengths to school officials.

Near the end the EW booklet reportrd on an assessment of the various forms of technology available. Over all, the school officials and teachers consulted were very skeptical of the value of ed-tech products to improve students’ learning or their involvement with schooling. At best, they felt it is very difficult—if not impossible—to provide a product that fits the needs of most students. They also were un-persuaded by the emphasis on producing data that some products boasted about; they felt that  most of it was not helpful to teachers.

Finally, the booklet compared the situation of PL in schools today to its inception around ten years ago by asking the opinions of a few school officials. Although they reported significant progress in the movement toward the use of technology in their schools, I felt they dodged the question of whether there were significant improvements  in students’ learning thus far.

2 responses to “What Does”Personalized Learning” Mean in Today’s schools?

  1. Joan Wink says:

    Oh, I love this, Joanne! Just yesterday I finished my little tidbit on it for the manuscript, and I thought I should post, but I just kept right on writing. If I get my piece up, I’ll be sure to mention yours. Thanks.


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