Personalized Data Units or Personal Learning?

“The assumption here is that curriculum can be broken into little pieces, that skills are acquired sequentially and can be assessed with discrete, contrived tests and reductive rubrics. Tracking kids’ “progress” with digital profiles and predictive algorithms paints a 21st-century gloss on a very-early-20th-century theory of learning.” – Alfie Kohn

The semantics of school reform are sometimes deceptive. This is apparent when educators talk about “personalized learning”. Personalized Learning is an attractive proposition that is, in an increasing number of instances, ironically characterized by an absence of the “personal”. Many of the emerging “canned” approaches to Personalized Learning are predicated upon false assumptions about student engagement and motivation. Thomas Armstrong, writing for the American Institute For Learning and Human Development, articulates this concern in succinct terms:

“I’m taken aback by some of the highly packaged ‘’personalized’’ learning systems now being developed ….  These edtech products often give the appearance of offering personalization, but in reality, they more often rate and process a student’s learning needs, wishes, strengths, and aspirations through impersonal algorithms, then generate a profile of the student that includes content ‘’deliverables’’…. Sounds kind of de-personalizing, doesn’t it?”

Is it not ironic that some educational publishers (transformed from former textbook empires to digital content management monoliths) are beginning to try to standardize personalization? According to Elliot Soloway, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Michigan, “Many technology-based approaches to personalized learning amount to nothing more than tailoring or personalizing the reading of texts to students of different abilities—rather than personalizing a mix of activities that give students a richer and more meaningful educational experience.”

The problem of the semantics of “Personalized Learning” includes a danger of this phrase becoming an overused label that means different things to different people. I think Armstrong sums up our ambition in developing a Personal rather than Personalized Learning Program: “I think what we’re really talking about when we say we want to expand opportunities for personalization in the classroom, is that we want to empower students to make meaningful learning choices that reflect their own personal needs, wishes, beliefs, feelings, aspirations, strengths, and challenges.”

We already offer our students an extensive Elective Program in which things like the arts, creativity, design, and expression are central. We felt the need to take this further, to extend the choices and personal options that would enable students to take greater ownership of their learning and offer opportunities locate their personal passions. Our starting premise was to respect the personal needs of learners and to base our learning philosophy upon the school’s research-based Learning Principles to reflect a commitment to things like: personal relevance, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, connecting, inquiry, balance, communication, diverse perspectives, media literacy and authentic contexts. Each of these themes is linked to four central, overarching, learning imperatives: to Engage, Connect, Innovate and Empower.

If we want our students to take greater ownership of and agency in their learning, there are several key, interdisciplinary skills that we need to equip them with that will permit them to become more engaged, connected, innovative and empowered learners. Our ambition must be, first and foremost, to provide students with opportunities to work in the kinds of ways that are essential to modern learning. From this, we developed a set of core personal learning modules that we provide to all students. Some of these are listed here.


In our planning, we decided that we also needed to ascertain what the identified needs, interests, and potential passions of our students were. A survey of all students allowed us to understand these things. We then looked into the personal learning passions of our faculty, students, and members of the school community to devise a program that would permit students to select the learning they would like to focus on during the Personal Learning block for extended periods of time during the first and second semester of the school year. This is just a sample of options that students have chosen from:


We have noted in these first months of the program that there are several spin-off benefits of this work. Apart from the obvious intent of providing students with an explicit voice in their interdisciplinary passions and learning goals, we are also strengthening an already strong learning community around a culture of shared goals, collaborative learning, co-teaching, and risk-taking. To date, we have a strong sense from ongoing student and teacher feedback that we are providing an innovative, dynamic approach to learning that centres around the essence of the person, the personal. Our approach is technology-rich, but, more crucially, personality-infused.

Sarah Jenkins, in her research on Personalized Learning, highlights some of the reasons why teachers are committed to the quest to make learning personalized. Her findings are strikingly similar to ours. As Personalized Learning becomes increasingly dominated by impersonal systems of content distribution and mastery measurement, we believe that starting this important journey towards greater student agency should begin with the personal, the learner, not the system in mind.

Alfie Kohn, “Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning.” February 23, 2015.
Thomas Armstrong, “Personalized Learning Systems From Big Ed Are Depersonalizing”, American Institute For Learning and Human Development, September 14, 2016.
Sean Cavanagh, “What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity”, Education Week, October 22, 2014.
Sarah Jenkins, “Why Do Teachers Implement Personalized Learning?” KnowledgeWorks, September 21, 2016.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery.