Naomi Chung/Flickr
Naomi Chung/Flickr

The idea of personalized learning is seductive – it implies moving away from the industrialized form of education that pumps out cookie-cutter students with the same knowledge and skills. After decades of this approach, it is clear that all children don’t learn the same way and personalization seems to honor those differences. However, that term has taken on several different meanings.

“When you say personalization, what do you mean by that?” asked Diana Laufenberg, director of Inquiry Schools and a former teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. “It’s not a word that always means the same thing.”

Personalization is often used in the ed-tech community to describe a student moving through a prescribed set of activities at his own pace. The only choice a student gets is what box to check on the screen and how quickly to move through the exercises. For many educators that’s not the true meaning of “personalized learning.”

“That has nothing to do with the person sitting in front of you,” Laufenberg said. “It meets the needs of an individual in a very standardized way, but it doesn’t take into account who that kid is.” For Laufenberg, personalization only comes when students have authentic choice over how to tackle a problem. A personalized environment gives students the freedom to follow a meaningful line of inquiry, while building the skills to connect, synthesize and analyze information into original productions.

Educators at the EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy eagerly discussed the merits and challenges of personalizing learning. Dozens of teachers agreed that a truly personalized learning experience requires student choice, is individualized, meaningful and resource rich. This kind of learning allows students to work at their own pace and level, meets the individual needs of students, and perhaps most importantly, is not a one-size fits all model. Technology was strikingly absent from these conversations. Instead, the common view of personalization focused on giving agency for learning to the student and valuing each individual in a classroom.

However, in order to navigate the system of accountability in the U.S. educational system, many school district leaders require public school educators to teach a specific curriculum that will be evaluated on standardized tests, while at the same time telling teachers to be innovative and creative within their classrooms. When that happens, the structures around the classroom leave little room for the kind of authentic, whole-child personalization many teachers dream of offering. The demands of the system — and education leaders’ desire to excel within it — lend themselves well to the computerized, modular and often very standardized system of “personalization” many ed-tech companies are offering. Those are the tools with a market in the current system.

“We often say we want creativity and innovation – personalization – but every mechanism we use to measure it is through control and compliance,” Laufenberg said. “Those things never come together as long as that is the overriding moment.” She cautions educators who may be excited about the progressive educational implications for “personalized learning” to make sure everyone they work with is on the same page about what that phrase means.

What Do We Really Mean When We Say ‘Personalized Learning’? 2 February,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • Jeremy Schaar

    I think about personalization in two ways: objectives and pace. Thinking about objectives, I teach Business English. The objectives of an accountant in Korea are different from a marketer in Brazil, so I design the lessons accordingly. Very often in schools, the objectives are the same. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone should learn basic algebra, how to introduce yourself in English, etc. Personalizing pace is a place where technology can really make a difference. The stuff Khan Academy is doing is just amazing. Basically, the program feeds students see the same kinds of problems until they demonstrate mastery.


  • Brian Silberberg

    At Books that Grow the ability to personalize reading is one of our top priorities; our app provides hundreds of titles, each of which can be read across a span of reading levels, helping all students have the ability to follow along with class regardless of their abilities. See more at

  • Karen Vaites

    Personalized learning is best done personally, with teachers taking the lead in differentiating instruction. But there are two realities that ed tech can help address: 1 teachers can differentiate most effectively when they know precisely where a student needs help, and 2. progress-monitoring for every student is hard, and takes a lot of time. Good ed tech tools can help teachers monitor student performance, and that can revolutionize instruction.
    At Lightsail – – we build daily formative assessment into the very best books, and give instant data to teachers, in order to foster data-driven instruction and differentiation by teachers. LightSail also personalizes the library for each student, and updates student Lexile measure in each reading session based on assessment performance – so that students are always reading at a just-right level. However, we don’t think of LightSail as a “prescribed set of activities” for students, or anything so rigid. We see LightSail as a tool designed to make it easier to fine-tune instruction.

  • jeffmason

    I agree with Ms Laufenberg that the distinction is to be made between personalized learning – learning that is student centered and inquiry driven toward an intrinsically determined goal as separate from personalized instruction – instruction individualized by (computer) algorithm or learning path designed (forward or backward) toward an extrinsically identified goal. As such, personalized instruction may be used in personalized learning.

  • Jeff

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  • Tessa Ziser

    They are two polar extremes; educational compliance vs creativity/innovation, but they do have the potential to keep the educational world turning in a delicate balance. After spending the day working with people from classroom and system level, I see that the two are important and can compliment each other, if used correctly. But there is a journey to discovering this, a long and dedicated learning journey.

  • Sarah Collins

    I find it frustrating and bemusing that in a world where a wealth of information can be found on the internet form photosynthesis to music awards that any teacher can think that content really matters anymore. Its the skills and techniques of learning that are vital for our students to learn, what content material they use to do so is irrelevant. If, as a teacher, you develop in students a love of learning, by helping them to learn what they want, then in the future as the want, need or are required to then they will have the tools to learn anything.
    We need to give our children credit and start trusting them and there nature as developing humans. Curiousity is inate in us as a species, spend time with them, listen to their questions. 9 times out of 10 at some point they will ask about something typically found in any curriculum. Just because they don’t ask in the right order and at the right time doesn’t mean they will miss out on some ‘vital’ piece of information. (If they don’t need to know it right then and there its not vital)

    • Iain

      Let’e be careful not to throw out content completely, please. Of course, skills are vital and at the core of modern education but students must have some content upon which to apply their skills. I also see there being the need for at least some core knowledge so that our young people can function effectively in a world without having to constantly refer to google for every single piece of information. For instance, having a a core knowledge of comparative religions, geography and history enables student to properly contextualise their new reading. Without context, they are operating in a vacuum.

  • Paul loranger

    You cannot personalized education unless you begin to listen to your students. Teacher presentations, learning exercises, homework and tests are about conveying knowledge to your students through various forms of instruction. Student initiated inquiry, global discussions on such inquiries, group project on realistic solutions and student portfolio assessment on such learning activities are ways to listen our students so as to develop their own wisdom in the way they act.
    The former is subject focused and is based on passive research. The latter is multiple disciplined in a study of the student’s reaction to his environment and it requires active research. A child cannot know who he is without taking some initiative to interact with the world around him. Without the latter learning activities, a child is dividing by zero and is incapable of knowing himself.
    This is why we as teachers need to teach beyond the test by also having activities within our classrooms that give the child the opportunity to develop his own identity.

    • All these require research and technology .
      1.- To listen to your students ?
      Thousands of points require research
      Research cannot be done without technology .
      We expect great researches from best education universities .

  • Personalized learning :
    Takes into account the LEARNING HABITS of the students .
    1.- Is he a slow or fast learner
    2.- Does he understand pictures or videoes or just texts better
    3.- Is he a fast thinker or slow
    4.- Does he have analytical abilities
    5.- Is he a good writer or not ?
    6.- Many question like that . Hot temperedn or not .
    Within first half an hour of the online course software asks all these questions + software just understands from the behavours of the students what kind of person he is .
    Then learning programs adapts itself to the learner . Software just understands like a f2f teacher what kind of man is in front of him .
    It is hard to do it but not impossible .
    First teachers should understand how a student learns then she can teach that to software engineer how to do it .

  • Angela Swan

    personalized can also mean WORKING WITH others. The above article doesn’t take into account such delivery then, but instead supports learning for individual good not collective? Inquiring with others is more powerful surely….

  • I was in grade school in the 90s and 2000s, a time when differentiation was being used. I was put into a reading group in second or third grade based on a reading test I completed. I didn’t do well with reading comprehension, but the focus in the group was on a variety of things. What frustrated me more was the fact that I was not allowed to check out chapter books from the library because I didn’t do well on this test, while at home I was devouring The Boxcar Children. At this age, I didn’t know to tell my parents, I didn’t know to do more than look at the picture books during our hour in the library. At a certain age students should be expected to advocate for themselves, but especially those who are shy should be taught to do so. Teachers should be able to look at a student and recognize the problem a child is having. This would require more time on the teacher’s part and more assessments, both traditional and observation. But there is no one size fits all solution to any problem. Teachers should reach out to students and students should learn to reach out to teachers.

    Ryann Warlick

  • Eric Philips

    Thanks for the really valuable post about what do we really mean when we say personalized learning for students. The topic is so informative to share with others.
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  • Isaiah Sixty One

    What happens to the child that does not value education? They do exist because they grow up in a household of people who have not seen the benefits of education, whether they exist or not. The intrinsic desire to know is present in most every child, but the intrinsic desire to do the work to know more is not necessarily prevalent. To encourage a basic standard at a very early stage in a learner’s life might allow America to truly be successful in ‘public education.’ The ‘above and beyonds’ may very well have to come at a very costly shift in the current education that we see in children from 9 years and on. My grandmother had a 3rd grade education, and seemed quite capable of navigating society. A house must be built on a solid foundation. Foundations don’t look very exciting, but you sure don’t want to walk around in a house without one.

    • Good point to be elaborated .
      ” How we can have the children know the value of education ”
      That is most needed at high schools .

  • bnfuller

    This was an interesting read! I think, as teachers, we feel that we do not have time to “personalize learning.” If we personalize learning, that means we must get more materials together and find more ways to teach a concept. I feel that teachers would rather just teach a topic one way and not worry about the other ways to teach it.

    The most important thing is to get to know the student. We should figure out how each student learns as an individual and not as a whole class. Personalized learning should have choices, but still be meaningful.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • You say very good. You have to get to know students, how each student learns as an individuels. Then I say your findings and knowhow can be thought to computer software , anhd computer comprehend the students when he sits down in front of the computer .
      That is possible one day .

  • ryan0033

    The mainly imperative thing is to get to know the students.
    Each student as an individual and as a whole class learns how should know.
    There are options to personalize learning, but should still be meaningful.custom
    assignment writing
    Thanks for giving out your opinion!

    • Good point to be elaborated .
      ” To get to know students ”
      There are many many kinds of students .
      We need research ” to know the students ”
      ” to know how students learn ? “

  • Preston


    As a current high school student, I found your post incredibly interesting and very truthful. Throughout my school life, I have not had much of any problem keeping up my grades or learning the material. However, I noticed that for some reason, I excelled more easily in some grades than other grades, even in classes of the same subjects. This is not because the teacher was an easier grader in one of the classes, but because they taught in different ways. I learn best when listening to someone explain concepts to me. So, when I had a teacher who did this, I retained the information more easily. However, I did have a few classes were the teachers had a “just read the book and you’ll be fine” attitude. These were not as easy for me. This truly proves that teachers need strive towards individualized learning. Every student is different and so, every student needs to be taught in different ways.



  • Jordyn Rietveld

    How can teachers be innovated and creative while teaching students a specific curriculum that will be evaluated on standardized tests? In other words, how can a teacher teach math (a specific curriculum that will be evaluated on standardized tests) and still make it creative for the students to actually want to learn it?

  • A Nhouyvanisvong PhD

    Personalization has to be a student centered approach. Teachers must help students take ownership of their learning. See more of my thoughts on personalization, differentiation, and individualization here:

  • Howard Abraham

    Personalized learning doesn’t mean much when gifted students aren’t allowed to push beyond the standard curriculum.

  • Kathy

    I think that everyone needs and wants to receive good education. Excellent blog 🙂 Order original custom assignment writing online.

  • Cap Lee

    Every child is different. Different dreams, different skills at different rates.. I say more in my blog.

  • Gabriel’s Seeds

    If learning content is customized in a way that images child likes (favorite toys, superheroes and similar) are used in lesson plans. For example, stuffing counting strategy (per 5 or per 10 ten) with the pet and not some boring shapes that are currently used… aren’t we talking than about personalized learning?
    Furthermore, if such enriched learning content is stuffed in addition with online media as a factor of positive surprise… aren’t we also talking about personalized learning?
    The catch is to have technology that provides personalized learning based on content, not on classroom management resources.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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