Michael Horn on Personalized Learning

Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute wrote a piece in Forbes on the purpose and value of personalized learning that is worth a read. He offers a strong rebuttal of a paper by Tom Loveless in the Hoover Institute journal from March 2014 that claimed:

… individualized instructional programs, whether delivered exclusively online or through “blended” regimes, are antithetical to the goal that all students learn a common body of knowledge and skills at approximately the same time.

Michael’s response:

Today’s factory-model education system, which was built to standardize the way we teach, falls short in educating successfully each child for the simple reason that just because two children are the same age, it does not mean they learn at the same pace or should follow the same pathway. Each child has different learning needs at different times.


Although academics, including cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, and education researchers, have waged fierce debates about what these different needs are—some talk about multiple intelligences and learning styles whereas others point to research that undermines these notions—what no one disputes is that each student learns at a different pace.


I obviously side with Michael on this one. While I strongly support Loveless’ idea that students should “learn a common body of knowledge and skills” (including but not limited to college and career standards in literacy and math) in our primary and secondary education system, by no means do they all need to march through the same standardized curriculum at the same pace simply because they were born in a certain year. Doing so does a disservice to all students, but in particular students who are most behind and most ahead of their peers.

If you want to understand how nonsensical it is to require all students to march in lock step through the same curriculum at the same time based largely on the year that they were born, ask a class of 25 students in Algebra I to spend two hours completing as many exercises on Khan Academy as possible. Then take a look at their results. What you will invariably discover is that every student is at a different place in his/her mastery of the standards. Some may not have yet mastered prerequisite computational skills, whereas others may be doing Calculus problems with ease. Ask yourself, “Why on earth would we design an education system that required this math teacher to ‘teach’ every student the same topic, every day?”

As Michael later suggests in his article, we do need to be careful to avoid exacerbating achievement gaps in new personalized learning models. By designing new models that appropriately address the needs of all students, but provide more intense support and resources to students who are furthest behind, I have confidence that we can simultaneously lift all boats and close achievement gaps. We do not have to create a false dichotomy between the two.

Scale What?

Student impact at scale is the panacea for those of us who have devoted our careers to improving K-12 education. We desperately want to make a difference in the lives of all students, and although it’s always heartening to see small pockets of success in individual schools and classrooms, we are always seeking ways to catalyze a massive, nationwide improvement in student learning. Scale must be the solution.

As it relates to the emerging area of Personalized Learning (PL), I am often asked how to achieve massive scale, to which I respond, “Scale what?” The reality is that this work is nascent, and while there are promising approaches emerging that combine blended instruction with competency-based progressions, none of the models are yet ready to scale across thousands of schools and millions of students. The reason is that our bar for massive scale must be sustained, replicated results across a diverse array of schools over a period of several years, which we do not (yet) have.  

Even though no single PL model, aside from 1:1 mastery-based tutoring which is prohibitively expensive, is ready to be scaled, we should not just sit on our hands and wait for magic to happen. Instead, states, districts and charter networks should consider a framework for approaching scale. I suggest a three-tiered approach:

  1. Start by scaling only foundational elements (a.k.a. building blocks) that allow all schools to pursue innovations if they so choose, while at the same time piloting bold PL designs in a limited number of early adopting schools,
  2. As data emerges from the early pilots AND those schools that experimented on their own, begin to spread/replicate the most promising approaches (defined by impact on student learning) to more schools (note: how to do this effectively is worthy of another blog post, if not a book), and
  3. Scale only the instructional practices or school models that produce sustained results over a period of multiple years.

With this framework in mind, below is a way that states, districts and charter leaders might divide those activities that are ready for scale versus those that are not:

Scale Now

  • Design principles that provide some direction and guardrails around the innovations that you are seeking from early adopting schools and educators.
  • A comprehensive, trusted system-wide assessment and performance measurement system for schools with two key components: (1) a precise, multi-faceted definition of college and career readiness for each student that includes, but is not limited to, academic knowledge and skills and (2) the ability to accurately and adequately measure each student’s individual growth/progress toward that definition of college and career readiness on an annual basis, if not much more frequently.
  • Research and evaluation focused acutely on understanding the degree to which schools and the instructional approaches they adopt are having an impact on each student’s progress toward college and career readiness.
  • Technology infrastructure (e.g. broadband, Wi-Fi) that can adequately support a range of technology-mediated instructional models.
  • IT capacity to manage multiple types of devices (e.g. tablets, laptops).
  • Reasonable policy changes to allow innovative schools to pursue different types of models (e.g. proficiency-based graduation, seat time waivers, lifting onerous human capital rules).
  • Reasonable changes to procurement rules and adoption processes to give schools, teachers and perhaps families more agency in selecting digital and non-digital instructional materials.
  • Clear guidelines for schools that define the autonomies (e.g. budget, materials, assessment, staffing) they have and the outcomes they are being held to.
  • Software infrastructure (e.g. LMS, middleware) that creates the enabling conditions necessary for schools to adopt PL without forcing them into a specific instructional approach. Note: this one is particularly tricky because too often software locks schools into a particular instructional model.

Not Ready for Massive Scale Now (If Ever?)

  • Unproven instructional models: as I suggest above, few if any of the PL models that have emerged thus far are ready for widespread scale, particularly in the context of existing schools that have legacy systems and structures that often make change difficult. For that reason, I would caution any district or charter network against picking a single instructional approach and attempting to scale it across many schools.
  • Specific devices (e.g. laptops, tablets): the classic mistake districts and networks make is to scale a single type of device to all schools before they have designed the instructional model(s) that those devices will support. See Hardware is Not a Strategy for more of my perspective on this.
  • Specific digital content (e.g. adaptive learning programs): as with devices above, requiring all schools to implement content from a specific set of providers will inevitably stifle school-level innovation. That said, some districts (e.g. NYC) have centrally procured content from multiple providers and made it available to a group of schools, which is an interesting approach that retains school-level autonomy without sacrificing centralized purchasing power.

Seed Now, Spread with Results, Scale Only When Proven 

  • A limited number of whole-school designs: offer incentives for a coalition of the most visionary and eager among your school leaders – either new or existing schools – to pursue bold new approaches to PL. The expectation must be that these schools will pursue breakthrough results in learning growth and ultimately college readiness rates, but be realistic about the time required to iterate to achieve those results. Consider using the Next Generation Learning Challenges model for inspiration on how to structure a competitive school selection process.
  • Partnerships with promising 3rd party providers that have had success elsewhere.
  • Educator fellowships that allow a coalition of the willing to implement new instructional approaches in their classrooms. The expectation is that successful pilots in this initiative will ultimately lead to school-wide implementations in future years. CityBridge Foundation in D.C. and Chicago Public Education have sponsored these types of fellowships for teachers. 
  • Permission for school leaders and educators to test new approaches without being part of a formal system-wide program.

In sum, states, districts and charter networks can take critical steps today to encourage PL by setting the stage for schools and educators to innovate without jumping too quickly to scaling unproven instructional practices. Challenging as it may be to proceed cautiously, waiting to scale based on proven results is the wise approach for this movement and the students we aim to serve through it.

CityBridge Foundation is Catalyzing Local Innovation in D.C.

Margaret Angell and her colleagues at the CityBridge Foundation are leading some really great work in support of personalized learning in D.C. Their dual focus on teachers and more recently on school design (with support from NGLC’s Breakthrough Models Regional Fund) is a really useful one-two combination that I believe will yield tremendous innovation at multiple levels in the coming years. They also deserve kudos for working across the district and charter sectors, and creating opportunities to bring educators from both together.

Learn more in Angell’s blog post – Promising Practices in Blended Learning and Innovation in School Design

“When Computers Are Co-Teachers” – The Atlantic on Aspire Public Schools

Aspire Public Schools, a 37-school charter network with schools in California and Tennessee, has been progressively expanding its blended learning implementations for several years with rockstar leadership from Liz Arney, Director of Innovative Learning.

Margaret Ramirez recently published a piece in The Atlantic – When Computers are Co-Teachers – that features Aspire Titan Academy (whose building was once home to a sock factory, we learn). It’s a balanced look at Aspire’s approach to integrating technology its instructional model, with some references to other models across the country. 

If you’re interested in taking a closer look at Aspire’s approach to implementing blended learning, it’s worth taking a look at Aspire’s Blended Learning Handbook which is full of practical guidance from Arney and practitioners.

New Year, New Blog Name

I decided with the New Year should come a new name and a cleaner interface for the blog formerly known as “Maximize Potential.” Henceforth this blog will be known as iPersonalize(.org).

Hopefully with the new year will come more frequent postings. I’ve clearly been delinquent over the past several months despite the fact that this field continues to race forward at breakneck pace.

Happy 2014,

Promoting Civil Debate in Education

Much has been made about the lack of civil debate in our society today, particularly in politics. In K-12 education specifically, I listen to speeches and read blog posts and opinion pieces that criticize ideas and/or the individuals that hold them in a way that feels less civil than necessary. Accepting that there will always be fundamental differences of opinion, it still seems there are simple ways to promote civil, rational debate.

One of my favorite podcast series, Intelligence Squared U.S., follows a standard procedure – the Oxford Style Debate – to balance opposing viewpoints to thoroughly examine a topic. While I would love to see actual debates on K-12 education topics follow that protocol, I also think the general philosophy could be applied to writing as well. Here are a few ideas on steps we could all take when writing about an idea with disagree with:

Step 1: Clearly Identify Your Disagreement
Start with, “I disagree with <insert detailed description of the idea without using loaded terminology, strawman arguments and/or criticizing individual(s) who espouse that idea>.”

Step 2: Explain Why You Disagree
Provide the rationale for why you disagree with the idea, using objective evidence where possible. Also, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. If there are elements of the idea that you do agree with, be sure to mention those as well.

Step 3: Offer an Alternative Idea
Avoid criticizing without offering solutions. Offer an alternative idea that you feel is superior to the idea you disagree with. As with Step 1, provide a detailed description of your idea.

Step 4: Explain the Merits of Your Idea
Similar to Step 2, provide the primary reasons why you support your idea, using objective evidence where possible.

Step 5: Admit the Limitations of Your Idea
Rather than ignoring the limitations of your idea, be straightforward about them. If you have ideas on how to mitigate these limitations, list them.

Step 6: Be Open Minded
As new information emerges that refutes your idea, be open to changing your mind. 

Starting today, I am making a commitment to follow my own guidance. I hope others will join me. After all, if we cannot engage in civil debate as K-12 education leaders, how can we possibly expect our students to act any different?

What is Personalized Learning? A Working Draft.

A little over three years ago when I started as a Program Officer on the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Models (now called Next Generation Learning) team, we were debating whether we should use the terms hybrid or blended to describe the kinds of school models we believed would reshape our educational system. I still remember someone at a conference commenting in defiance of both terms:

“Hybrid sounds like a car and blended sounds like a smoothie.”

It wasn’t that this person disagreed with the idea that combining face-to-face instruction with online learning was a powerful concept; she just was not convinced these were the right terms to describe the innovation that she wanted to ignite.

Evolving Terminology

Over the course of the last three years, we have thought deeply about the terminology we use to describe this nascent field. We reflected on our theory of change, which is rooted in an evidence base that indicates that student-centered, mastery-based learning is an optimal instructional approach. Implicit in our support of blended/hybrid schools was a hypothesis that this approach would lead to more personalized (a.k.a. individualized, customized, differentiated) learning for every student. Unfortunately, we noticed that underlying hypothesis was frequently lost in translation. We found that too often people focused on the technology instead of students’ learning experiences, which missed the point. In response, we reasoned that using a phrase that connoted our student-centered theory of change might mitigate that. And so, after a lot of deliberation, we began to lead with the phrase Personalized Learning earlier this year. In making that choice, we were cognizant of the fact that we might signal a move away from supporting Blended Instruction (as we now call it), which was not our intent. In fact, we are not convinced that Personalized Learning is possible at scale without Blended Instruction, at least not with the level of per pupil spending we currently allocate to public K-12 education.

Phrases De Jure

Reflecting on past movements in education, the issue with the latest phrases De jure is that they start off strong, typically backed by early evidence of success, yet they quickly become overused to the point that they lack real meaning (i.e. data-driven instruction, professional learning communities). The consequence is that the once-powerful idea becomes watered down, and it becomes too easy for everyone to claim that they are implementing it. Inevitably, positive results do not follow, and we then move on to the next big thing. 

To counteract that, we decided to take on two important pieces of work. First, we are working to articulate more clearly the student outcomes we hope these models will achieve, grounded in college readiness and the concept of learning growth (** stay tuned for a forthcoming blog post on that topic). Second, we are seeking to define “Personalized Learning” using nuanced, yet accessible language. With a lot of help from our friends, we developed a working definition and a set of essential attributes. In the spirit of transparency and continuous improvement, we are seeking feedback from you today. Please take a look at the draft language below and let us know what you’d add, delete or change.

What is Personalized Learning? A working draft. 

In a Personalized Learning environment, students’ learning experiences – what they learn, and how, when, and where they learn it – are tailored to their individual developmental needs, skills, and interests. Although where, how, and when they learn might vary according to their needs, students also develop deep connections to each other and their teachers and other adults.

Furthermore, each of the following are essential attributes of a personalized learning model:

  • Learner Profiles: Captures individual skills, gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests & aspirations of each student.
  • Personal Learning Paths: Each student has learning goals & objectives. Learning experiences are diverse and matched to the individual needs of students.
  • Individual Mastery: Continually assesses student progress against clearly defined standards & goals. Students advance based on demonstrated mastery.
  • Flexible Learning Environment: Multiple instructional delivery approaches that continuously optimize available resources in support of student learning.

Again, we are very interested in your feedback on the language above, as well as other ideas for moving this nascent field forward. Please share thoughts in the comment section below.

New Resource: RETHINK – A Planning & Design Toolkit for Next Gen Learning

Apparently today is the day for sharing resources to help schools and systems stand on the shoulders of giants who are paving the way forward for next gen learning. iNACOL and Next Gen Learning Challenges (NGLC) paired up to produce a toolkit called RETHINK: Planning and Design for K-12 Next Gen Learning. This detailed resource was informed by the on-the-ground experiences of the most thoughtful school operators around today. For additional context, NGLC’s Knowledge Management Officer, Kristen Vogt, published a blog post on BlendMyLearning.com introducing the tool.

Between RETHINK and Aspire’s Blended Learning Toolkit that I posted earlier today, people interested in implementing personalized/blended learning in a K-12 setting should have enough reading material to keep them busy for a few days.

For a compilation of more resources like these, visit the Lots of Resources section of this blog.

Christensen Institute on Disruptive Innovation in K-12 Education

Fresh off renaming itself the Clayton Christensen Institute for DISRUPTIVE Innovation, the think tank formerly known as Innosight appropriately released a very important paper titled “Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction to theory of hybrids.”

Here’s my beef: when I hear people use the term “disruption” without a firm understanding of innovation theory. For instance, I have heard many people claim that Khan Academy is “disruptive” without clarifying which incumbent it will disrupt. This is at best imprecise and at worst dangerous to the entire personalized/blended learning movement. Do they mean that all math teachers will be replaced by computers in the next two years? Or perhaps they mean that Khan and similar tools will gradually replace lectures and paper-based worksheets, thus freeing up teachers’ time so they can devote more energy to mentoring, tutoring and/or organizing group projects. In both scenarios, disruption is occurring as a result of an innovative technology, yet the nature of that disruption leads to dramatically different education models. Clarity is important.

For that reason, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Heather Staker do the field a favor by clarifying how they believe innovation theories apply in the K-12 sector. Important aspects of this include the notion of “hybrid innovations” that develop within existing systems and distinguishing between what might happen in elementary versus secondary grades.

This should be required reading for anyone working in this sector.