Educators around the country are excited about the potential of personalized learning, but before we can make it an everyday reality, we first need to agree on what exactly “personalized learning” means. There are a number of definitions out there. After a thorough review of the literature, I’ve settled on the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) definition of personalized learning, which asks educators to do three things in order to optimize education for each learner:

  1. Be willing to change the instructional approach
  2. Be willing to change the pace of learning
  3. Work to involve students in the process

This definition serves as a strong foundation for a discussion of the past, present, and future of personalized learning.

Where we were
The first initiative that contains at least an element of the DOE’s definition of personalized learning was in 1898, when the schools in Pueblo, Colorado attempted to allow kids to move ahead at their own pace. Then, in the early 20th century, John Dewey’s Democracy in Education program worked to shift the focus from the “system-first” perspectives of the “factory model” to more child-centered learning.

How can we make #personalizedlearning work? #edtech #k12

So we’ve been asking the question, “How do we make learning more personalized?” for 120 years. If you look at those early efforts, they were often abandoned because they were so labor-intensive. Districts couldn’t figure out how to sustain them. With today’s technology, educators have a chance to build and maintain personalized learning initiatives that not only improve the educational experience for students but that are actually sustainable.

About the Author:

Dr. Gene Kerns is the vice president and chief academic officer of Renaissance. A former classroom teacher, administrator, and professor, he is the co-author of the book Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise. Follow him on Twitter @GeneKerns or @RenLearnUS.


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