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.


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