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.


6 thoughts on “What is Personalized Learning? A Working Draft.

  1. The thoughtful consideration and crafting of the language is important to the reception of the message, or vision. Personalized learning captures the aspirations that we as educators should hope to provide for all students. Personalized also connotes the attention that each student deserves in the development of his/her own understandings. It’s also more powerful and poignant that “individualized” because the perception of this word has been burdened with another meaning for most educators.

  2. The watering down is likely inevitable, but for some of us it would certainly be great to know what at least the experts associate with a phrase!

    The Wikipedia entry for this is quite short: “the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum and learning environments to meet the needs and aspirations of individual learners. Typically technology is used to facilitate personalized learning environments.” Which covers your above caveat.

    The draft here seems like it could be shortened to help it stick. Final should include:

    Learner Profiles: Captures (gaps, strengths, weaknesses, interests & aspirations)
    Personal Learning Paths: (goals & objectives matched to the individual needs of students).
    Individual Mastery: Continually assessed progress against clearly defined standards & goals.
    Flexible Learning Environment: (Multiple instructional delivery approaches)


  3. Pingback: What is Personalized Learning? A Working Draft | STEM Readings

  4. Pingback: Scale What? | iPersonalize

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s