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 increasingly 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?”

There’s an oft-quoted, dismissive description of what social scientists do that goes along the mocking lines of, “if it moves, measure it”.  How ironic that education would appear to be moving in a similar direction. Is it not also 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.”

I have also previously written on the problem of the semantics of “Personalized Learning” and noted the danger of this phrase becoming an overused label that means different things to different people:

“Personalized Learning has been associated with differentiation, individual learning, competency-based learning, mastery learning, and confused with individualization. Its 20th century context and 21st century intentions are very different. While we hope to provide students with greater agency over their learning — and to provide them with the skills to do this — we are currently using the term Personal Learning, (not personalized) to describe this.”


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.”

As we prepared to launch our 1:1 laptop program at our school back in 2006 – an exciting and ambitious project at that time that we were confident would be greeted with universal support – we found ourselves confronted by deep resistance that masqueraded as a desire for data. How will you prove that this will improve learning, we were asked. Our response was, let’s get students engaging and working in ways that we intuitively know are right and let’s worry about the data (that did not exist then) at another time. While the pendulum swings more towards the importance of data these days (with some, limited validity), the logic remains the same: there is safety in data. It justifies our decisions. It frees us from blame. It still shelters us from taking a leap of faith for our students. Surely now, more than ever, this is our moral imperative?

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 then 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. The research base here is abundant. 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 – with an energetic, talented, and dedicated group of faculty leaders – 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. It is rooted in a strong rapport between teachers and students in a context that is independent from grading and testing. Our approach is technology-rich, but, more crucially, personality-infused.

Too many great ideas die at the altar of data. If schools can’t prove it, they often don’t do it. There’s great comfort in that resistant position. The greater danger is that this sheer commitment to data loses sight of the the things we want to see students doing in the first place.

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. I know that the proponents of Personalized Learning who I am familiar with are committed to the same principles that we believe in. We are not data-averse – far from it – but we are determinedly, first and foremost, student-centred. Our decision was to start with the personal and analyse growth and data together, as our program develops. As Personalized Learning becomes increasingly dominated by monolithic platforms for data collection centred on 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.