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.


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.


Running List of Blended Learning Resources: Nov 2012 Edition

General Articles, White Papers, Thought Pieces …

General Videos

School-Specific Articles, Cases and Videos

Alliance for College Ready Schools: BLAST
Carpe Diem
FirstLine Schools
Flex Academy
Khan Academy
New Classrooms  & School of One
Seton Partners
Summit Public Schools

Blogs | Social


Mind/Shift Article on NMC Horizon Report: 2012 K-12 Edition

Mind/Shift has a good synopsis of challenges to ed tech adoption described in the 2012 edition of the NMC Horizon Report (which requires registration).

Below are the six so-called “common” challenges that span across K-12:

  1. Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession, especially teaching.
  2. K-12 must address the increased blending of formal and informal learning. 
  3. The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.
  4. Institutional barriers present formidable challenges to moving forward in a constructive way with emerging technologies. 
  5. Learning that incorporates real life experiences is not occurring enough and is undervalued when it does take place.
  6. Many activities related to learning and education take place outside the walls of the classroom and thus are not part of traditional learning metrics.

A few reactions:

  • I believe that #2, #3 and #4 (in red) are the biggest barriers with #3 being the biggest constraint to massive scale.
  • I am not convinced that #2, #5 and #6 are all that different. In my opinion, all of these focus on the blurring of the lines between “formal” and “informal” learning, and what actually should constitute “formal” learning. I agree that these are important but perhaps can be collapsed into one.
  • I would add “limited evidence base” and “common success metrics” to this list.
  • This list leaves off what the authors describe as “local” barriers such as bandwidth and procurement challenges. Despite the fact that these barriers are not included in this list, they are no doubt important and will impede innovation.

Terry Ryan (Fordham) Reflects on a Bay Area Blended Learning Tour

I recently spent two days in the Bay Area touring blended schools and meeting with providers along with a group of organizations focused on city-based innovation that CEE-Trust sponsored. Since Terry Ryan of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute penned this nice write up on the visit, I will just refer to it. A few of his many insightful takeaways are below:

  • The blended learning sector is still very much in its infancy
  • The Common Core offers the hope of scaling out rapidly and across many jurisdictions new products and blended learning models
  • Blended learning changes the nature of teaching
  • “Teaching is moving towards tutoring here”
  • School leaders and teachers worry most about “tech dramas and nightmares.”
  • The kids like the freedom and flexibility of blended learning.
  • Blended learning can be a teacher-driven reform.

Check out Terry’s post – Peering into the future of blended learning – for more.

Joel Rose (New Classrooms) on Breaking Free of the 19th-Century Factory Model

Joel Rose, co-founder of New Classrooms Innovation Partners (one of my grantees) and formerly of School of One fame, published a pithy article titled How to Break Free of  Our19th-Century Factory-Model Education System in The Atlantic this month. I’ll play spoiler and include the final paragraph, which I think summarizes his view (and mine) well.

The Information Age has facilitated a reinvention of nearly every industry except for education. It’s time to unhinge ourselves from many of the assumptions that undergird how we deliver instruction and begin to design new models that are better able to leverage talent, time, and technology to best meet the unique needs of each student. In doing so, we can put [Horace] Mann’s innovation in its proper context: as the foundation for our commitment to a public education but not as the blueprint for how to deliver it.

For more information on New Classrooms’ approach, consider watching these two videos:

Running List of Blended Learning Resources: June 2012 Edition

General Articles, White Papers, Thought Pieces …

General Videos

School-Specific Articles and Videos

Carpe Diem
FirstLine Schools
Flex Academy
Khan Academy
L.A. Alliance BLAST
New Classrooms  & School of One



New Book: Education Reform for the Digital Era by the Fordham Institute

The Fordham Institute recently compiled a series of previously released papers by thought leaders into a free book titled “Education Reform for the Digital Era.” In keeping with the digital theme, they make it available in a variety of digital formats for e-readers like the Kindle, Nook and iPad.

The book includes the following chapters:

Introduction, by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Daniela Fairchild

Chapter One: “Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction,” by Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

Chapter Two: “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) Solutions,” by Frederick M. Hess

Chapter Three: “The Costs of Online Learning,” Tamara Butler Battaglino, Matt Haldeman, and Eleanor Laurans

Chapter Four: “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era,” by Paul T. Hill

Chapter Five: “Overcoming the Governance Challenge in K-12 Online Learning,” by John E. Chubb

2Revolutions Video on the “Future Of Learning”

2Revolutions, an “education design lab,” just released a new video and website that describes their vision for the “Future of Learning.”


In addition, the 2Revolutions team released a paper titled “Innovating Toward New Learning Models” that reflects on a convening of personalized/blended learning models they helped plan for the Gates Foundation last year. The paper offers quite a few insights that are applicable to school operators, administrators and funders alike.