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What Is Personalized Learning, Really?

  • 4 MIN READ

The research surrounding personalized learning is lacking, so how do we know if we’re doing the right thing?

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The research surrounding personalized learning is lacking, so how do we know if we’re doing the right thing?

There is a strong possibility that if you work in K-12 education, you’ve heard the term personalized learning. And there is an equally strong possibility that how you define personalized learning is different from how other educators define the term.

Generally, personalized learning refers to a collection of teaching strategies and learning models that are responsive to an individual’s needs and goals. Depending on who you are talking to, personalized learning could mean:

  • a differentiated approach to content or instruction
  • the use of student groupings
  • a mastery- or competency-based assessment
  • a digital learning platform that supports individualized learning pathways
  • a whole-child or holistic learning mentality
  • all or some of the above

How can a teaching strategy that is so prevalent in K-12 schools have so many different meanings?

The reason is pretty simple. Even though the foundations of personalized learning have been around for a very long time, the research surrounding its definitions, components and efficacy is far more recent. A 2020 review of the academic literature found that personalized learning publications didn’t become a big area of focus until 2008, and it wasn’t until 2012 that we saw a steady annual increase in scholarly articles. In 2014, the RAND Corporation identified this gap in research and partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to undertake a massive project focused on personalized learning, but this work is still ongoing. As a result, we’re continuing to evolve and refine our collective vision of personalized learning on a daily basis.

What does this mean for educators? One outcome from this lack of clarity is confusion on the part of teachers and districts looking to employ personalized learning. This has become particularly apparent in recent months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has created a huge impetus for schools to leverage personalized learning to support the different student experiences and needs emerging from the pandemic.

Another impact is the prevalence of debates over what personalized learning is and is not. A teacher doing their own research around personalized learning will find numerous blogs, articles and opinion pieces that can conflict with each other, creating a space that is difficult to navigate. Some common debates surrounding personalized learning include:

Whether or not technology is a mandatory component of personalized learning.

Some definitions of personalized learning require digital learning environments, and there is consensus that adaptive technologies are a useful tool to support teachers in implementing personalized learning. The U.S. Department of Education stated in its 2017 National Education Technology Plan that students with increased access to technology are more likely to experience personalized learning because these tools increase teacher capacity. But other educators disagree, stating that although occasionally helpful, technology should not be used as a gatekeeper to personalized learning.

What the most effective personalized learning teaching strategies are.

Go to your internet search bar and type in the phrase “strategies for personalized learning.” You will come across a buffet of listicles with various suggestions for how best to support personalized learning in your classroom or school. A lot of these are wonderful ideas, based on real-life experience and pulling from the educational models that bolster personalized learning. But real research is still lacking. Although a bit lengthy, this RAND Corporation article is a great start for educators looking for the best personalized learning strategies while we wait for more evidence.

What the actual impacts and expected outcomes of personalized learning are.

For educators, the benefits of personalized learning seem self-evident. Increased student engagement, motivation to learn and successful assessment outcomes have all been linked to personalized learning. Although the evidence validating these assumed results is still in development, many of us can see the benefits of personalized learning every day in our classrooms.

So what is personalized learning, really? And where should you get started? Consistent with what you do with any teaching framework, I recommend reading the research available, listening to other educators’ experiences and opinions, and validating them against your own professional practice. A more personalized, student-centered approach to learning is the underpinning of many popular teaching models, so we can feel confident based on that approach—and from our experiences—that personalized learning is a good teaching strategy. However, knowing, especially post-pandemic, will require continued research.