personalized learning definition

Opening the definition dialog: Personalization, individualization and differentiation


Most of us struggle to clearly delineate differentiation, individualization, and personalization-so what does this mean for implementation?

A recent eSchool News contributed article, Differentiation, individualization and personalization: What they mean, and where they’re headed, which helped define personalized learning in relation to both differentiation and individualization, is a wonderful reminder that while there is broad agreement on many aspects of the definition of personalized learning, there remains an open dialog on other parts of this complex definition.

The piece cuts right to the heart of the issue by noting something I have often discussed—most of us struggle to clearly delineate differentiation, individualization, and personalization.

This struggle for a definition poses a larger question: If we cannot clearly and succinctly define our approaches, what chance do we have for successful implementation?

Much of the article squares with some of the most widely accepted and agreed upon definitions around personalization. I would, however, like to offer some additional points to consider in forming a definition around this complicated topic.

Exploring the Term “Student Agency”

The article does a great job of delineating personalized learning from individualized learning by offering that “in a personalized scenario, the teacher is no longer the sole driver of instruction—each learner now collaborates with the teacher to drive his or her learning, with the students taking a hands-on role in determining their own needs and informing the design of their lessons.”

In breaking down this definition a bit further, I’d recommend applying the term “student agency” to the outcome of students taking ownership of their learning needs. Student agency has become an increasingly popular term and discussion topic during recent education conferences.

Adding to the definition of personalized learning

To augment the discussion, I’d like to point to the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of personalized learning:

Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.

Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, expanded on this definition in his article What are you Talking About?! The Need for Common Language around Personalized Learning, explaining that individualized learning consists of “learning experiences in which the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘when’ of personalized learning,” while differentiated learning is “learning experiences in which the approach or method of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘how’ of personalized learning.”

Personalized learning, then, envelopes both differentiated and individualized learning, and goes ever further with the elements of student agency.

(Next page: Individualization and student pace)

Individualization and students moving at their own pace

“Individualized learning” is an admittedly hard term for which to find a broadly acceptable definition. Culatta asserts that “in individualized learning, all students go through the same experience, but they move on at their own pace.” I find that many others do not accept the “go through the same experience” aspect, but what is present here and what must be present somewhere within the overall dialog on personalized learning is discussion of students moving at their own pace.

In my view, the truly new element of personalized learning is individualization, which for our purposes here I will treat as synonymous with competency- or mastery-based learning. Conversations around differentiation have been ongoing for years and though the term “student agency” is relatively new, the overall concept is older and found within other approaches (e.g. formative assessment). But, in individualization, we see something truly new.

Prior to these discussions, course counts, Carnegie units, graduation requirements, hours of contact and seat time have been at the center of our consideration. These were all remnants of the factory model.  Now, conversations are shifting to “mastery,” “outcomes” and “competency-based learning.” School policies mandated seat time, but not mastery.

Adjusting the pace of learning to stress mastery, then, makes tremendous sense—focusing on mastery rather than seat time. But if we accept this, much of the structure of school as we know it unravels. The bell schedules and course counts go out the window and are replaced with mastery models, clear outcomes, flexible schedules and resources and redefined teacher roles.

This element, learning at a flexible pace that is driven by true mastery, must also be a part of our personalized learning conversations. When we get to this point, the depth of personalized learning becomes apparent. This is no minor or even moderate change to the status quo, this is a radical re-thinking of school as we know it.

That all said, despite the root word (“personal”) and references to/requirements of individual plans, we should acknowledge that many lauded examples of personalization also reference extensive group work on broad, multi-disciplinary projects and other cooperative activities. Given this, it is critical to understand that personalizing education certainly does not mean that things have to be completely personalized at every moment.

Additionally, in a school of any significant size, there would surely be groups of students all working on mastering similar skills. So, while the prevalence of lecture and other whole-class activities will decline under personalized learning, a teacher of 125 students would not truly be planning 125 different lessons.

Guided by additional clarity on the multiple elements included within personalized learning, we can begin to turn our attention to the real challenge–implementing at scale.

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