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Second Draft: A Continuum of Personalized Learning

Author: Larry Cuban

A year and a half ago, I published a post that tried to make sense of the spread of “personalized learning” as the “next big thing” in U.S. schooling. To make sense of the heralded innovation in teaching and learning, I created a continuum of programs self-styled as “personalized learning” based upon my research in Silicon valley districts, schools, and classrooms. I received many comments on the post and continued reading reports from schools and districts after which I revised the continuum. Here is my second draft.


In 2016, when I visited Silicon Valley classrooms, schools and districts, many school administrators and teachers told me that they were personalizing learning. From the Summit network of charter schools to individual teachers at Los Altos and Mountain View High School where Bring Your Own Devices reigned to two Milpitas elementary schools that had upper-grade Learning Labs and rotated students through different stations in all grades, I heard the phrase often (see here).

But I was puzzled by what I saw and heard. When asked what a teacher, principal or district administrator meant by “personalized learning I heard different definitions of the policy. I heard that PL was an actual program, an instructional application,an academic strategy. Not a surprise since the history of school reform is dotted with the debris of earlier instructional reforms that varied greatly in definition and practice (e.g., New Math, Socratic seminars, mastery learning, individualized instruction). While scores of crisp definitions dot educational journals, social media, and professional organizations, no one definition of “personalized learning” monopolizes the reform terrain.


When I went into classrooms to see what “personalized learning” meant in action, I observed much variation in the lessons and units that bore the label. None of this, of course, is new since “technology integration” and other high-tech policies draw from the hyped-up world of new technologies where vendors, promoters, critics, and skeptics compete openly for the minds (and wallets) of those who make decisions about what gets into classrooms.

Not only have definitions of “personalized learning” among policymakers and entrepreneurs varied, but also diverse incarnations have taken form as the policy percolated downward from school board decisions, superintendent directions to principals, and principals’ asking teachers to put into practice a new board policy. Teachers adapting policies to fit their classroom is as natural as a yawn and just as prevalent. Variation in PL, then, is the norm, not the exception.

Translated into practice in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, the concept of “personalized instruction” is like a chameleon; it appears in different forms. Rocketship schools, the AltSchool, and the Agora Cyber School blazon their “personalized learning” (or competency-based learning) placard for all to see yet it differs in each location.

The “Personalized Learning” Continuum

To make sense of what I observed in Silicon Valley schools and what I know historically about instructionally-guided policies over the past century, I have constructed a revised continuum of classrooms, programs, and schools that encompass distinct ways that “personalized learning” appear in customized lessons as a strategy to achieve short- and long-term goals for schooling the young.

Let me be clear, I place no value for either end (or the middle) of the “personalized learning” continuum. I have stripped away value-loaded words in my writing that suggest some kinds of personalized learning are better than others. Moreover, the continuum does not suggest the effectiveness of “personalized learning” or achievement of specific student outcomes.

The “what” that is being taught and learned and the “how” that content and skills are taught and learned encompass both teacher and student at each end of the continuum. Both of these concepts–the “what” and the “how”–are present, of course, in every classroom regardless of the strategy being used.

At one end of the continuum are teacher-centered lessons within the traditional age-graded school. These classrooms and programs switch back and forth in using phrases such as “competency-based education” and “personalization.” They use new technologies online and in class daily that convey specific content and skills, aligned to Common Core standards–the “what” of teaching and learning–to make children into knowledgeable, skilled, and independent adults who can successfully enter the labor market and become adults who help their communities.

The format of these lessons including the instructional moves the teacher makes in seguing from one activity to another, handling student behavior, time management, and student participation in activities to reach the lesson’s objectives typically call for a mix of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–the “how” of teaching and learning. At this end of the continuum, these lessons have a decided tilt toward teacher direction and whole-group work.

For examples, consider the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire, USC Hybrid High School CA), and Lindsay Unified School District (CA). While these examples inhabit the teacher-centered end of the continuum they are not cookie-cutter copies of one another–USC Hybrid High School differs in organization and content from Virtual Learning Academy Charter.

Yet I cluster these schools and districts at this end of the spectrum because of their overall commitment to using online and offline lessons anchored in discrete skills and knowledge and tailored to the abilities and performance of individual students. Specific behavioral outcomes guide what is expected of each and every student. The knowledge and skills are packaged by software designers and teachers and delivered to students daily and weekly. Students use applications that permit them to self-assess their mastery of the specific knowledge and skills embedded in discrete lessons. Some students move well ahead of their peers, others maintain steady progress, and some need help from teachers.

Even though these schools and programs often use the language of student-centeredness (e.g., students decide what to learn, students participate in their own learning), and encourage teachers to coach individuals and not lecture to groups, even scheduling student collaboration during lessons, the teacher-crafted playlists and online lessons keyed to particular concepts and skills determine what is to be learned. The “what” of teaching and learning is specified beforehand and ultimately tested daily or weekly.

At the other end of the continuum are student-centered classrooms, programs, and schools. These settings often depart from the traditional age-graded school model in using multi-age groupings, asking big questions that cross academic disciplines to combine reading, math, science, and social studies while integrating new technologies regularly in lessons–the “how” of teaching and learning. Such places seek to cultivate student agency wanting children and youth to reach beyond academic and intellectual development to social, physical, and psychological growth.

Moreover, these programs seek learning that comes out of student interests and passions including community-based activities. The “what” of teaching and learning is partially shaped by students. The overall goals of schooling at this end of the continuum are similar to ones at the teacher-directed end: help children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, engage with their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults.

For example, there are over 60 Big Picture Learning schools across the nation where students create their own “personalized learning plans” and work weekly as interns on projects that capture their passions. Or High Tech High in San Diego that centers its instruction around project-based learning. The Mission Hill School in Boston (MA), The Open Classroom at Lagunitas Elementary in San Geronimo (CA), the Continuous Progress Program at Highlands Elementary in Edina (MN)–all have multi-age groupings, project-based instruction, and focus on the “whole child.” And there are private schools such as San Francisco-based AltSchool, a covey of micro-schools located in big cities, and the Khan Lab School (Mountain View, California) that fit here as well.

Lesson formats in schools at this end of the continuum commonly call for a blend of whole group instruction, small group work, and activities where individual students work independently–with alignment to Common Core standards. At this end of the continuum, these lessons–the “how”–bend noticeably toward small group and individual activities with occasional whole group instruction.

Many of these schools claim that they “personalize learning” in their daily work to create graduates who are independent thinkers, can work in any environment, and help to make their communities better places to live. There are many such schools scattered across the nation (but I found no public school in Silicon Valley that would fit here). Like the clusters of programs at the other end of the continuum, much variation exists among these schools harbored at this end of the continuum.

And, of course, on this spectrum hugging the middle are hybrid programs and schools mixing teacher-directed and student-directed lessons. In this diverse middle are teachers, schools and programs that provide blends of whole group, small group, and independent activities in lessons. Some teachers and schools, in their quest to “personalize learning” tilt toward the teacher-directed end while others lean toward the student-centered pole. But they occupy slots in the middle of the continuum.

These classrooms, schools, and programs combine online and offline lessons for individual students and teacher-directed whole group discussions, and small group work such as ones taught by Mountain View High School English teacher, Kristen Krauss, Aragon High School Spanish teacher, Nicole Elenz-Martin, and second-grade teacher Jennifer Auten at Montclaire Elementary School in Cupertino (CA) into blends of teacher- and student-centered lessons. In short, the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning are complex amalgams.

The middle school math program I observed called Teach To One located in an Oakland (CA) K-8 charter school has different “modalities” that place it also in the center of the spectrum as well, tilting toward the teacher-directed end with its numbered math skills that have to be mastered before a student moves on.

I would also include the nine teachers in the two Summit Charter schools I observed who combined project-based teaching, online readings and self-assessments, individual coaching and collaborative work within 90-minute lessons. While the two Summit schools in which I observed teachers had explicitly committed itself to “project-based learning” and choices were, indeed, given to students within these projects for presentations, reading materials, and other assignments, major decisions on projects–the “what”–were in teachers’ hands. That is why I placed these teachers, programs, and schools in the center of the continuum, rather than the student-centered end.

Such schools and teachers mix competency-based, individual lessons for children with lessons that are teacher-directed and pursuing project-based activities. The format of lessons continue the inevitable mix of whole, group, small group, and independent learning with inclinations to more of one than the other, depending on lesson objectives and teacher expertise. In no instance, however, does whole-group activities dominate lesson after lesson. Like those at the teacher- and student-centered ends, these programs lodged in the middle of the spectrum contain obvious differences among them.

Implementation today, as before, of the popular policy innovation called “personalized learning” in all of its ambiguous incarnations in schools and classrooms depends upon teachers adapting lessons to the contexts in which they find themselves and modifying what designers have created. Classroom adaptations mean that the “what” and the “how” of teaching and learning will vary adding further diversity to both definition and practice of PL. And putting “personalized learning” into classroom practice means that there will continue to be hand-to-hand wrestling with issues of testing and accountability.

Yet, and this is a basic point, wherever these classrooms, programs, schools, and districts fall on the continuum of “personalized learning” with their playlists, self-assessment software, and tailored lessons all of them work within the traditional age-graded school structure. No public school in Silicon Valley that I visited departed from that century-old school organization. And that fact is crucial to any “next big thing” for innovations aimed at altering the “what” and “how” of teaching and learning.

DMU Timestamp: September 17, 2018 17:21

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