Differentiation, individualization and personalization: What they mean, and where they’re headed

How do differentiation, individualization and personalization differ? And how do they scale in terms of complexity?

Throughout the education sector, we hear a lot about “differentiation,” “individualization” and “personalization.” But what do these terms really mean, and how are they different?

At their core, they all deal with a similar overarching concept: customizing students’ learning experiences to address their particular learning needs.

Customization is incredibly powerful, and educators have long understood that custom-tailored lessons can drive student success more effectively than virtually anything else. But as the degree of customization increases, so too does the complexity of implementation – it’s no small feat for a single teacher to deliver perfectly customized lessons for a class of 30 students.

In response to this challenge, educators have been using a variety of approaches, including: differentiation, individualization and personalization, all of which can scale in terms of complexity.

These are not new concepts; in fact, various forms of differentiation in the classroom have been around since  the 1960s, and individualization and personalization also have been used for some time. Today, with technology, educators now have new opportunities to broaden their use of these methods to reach more students than ever before.

I’ll elaborate on the power of personalization and the role of technology in a moment, but first, let’s define these three distinct terms.

Differentiation, Individualization and – Most Importantly – Personalization

Differentiation: Differentiation has been a common fixture in classrooms for decades and is designed to address the needs of all students, who may be at varying levels, within a single classroom. In a differentiated learning environment, students are organized into groups based on proficiency on a particular topic – for example, an elementary school classroom might be divided into an advanced reading group, an intermediate reading group and a developmental reading group.

The teacher drives instruction and adjusts lessons that are best suited for each particular group.

Differentiation doesn’t customize the learning experience for each student, but it does help ensure that groups of students, at different levels, receive lessons that are  geared toward their particular abilities.

Individualization: In an individualized learning scenario, the teacher still drives instruction – but, unlike differentiation, an individualized lesson is designed to accommodate the particular needs for an individual learner, rather than a group.

Perhaps the best-known examples of individualization are the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that many schools use to address the needs of special education students. The fact that most schools implement IEPs for only a relatively small portion of their students reflects both the advantages and the shortcomings of the individualization format – while it’s highly effective, it’s also relatively resource-intensive.

(Next page: Personalization and technology)

Personalization: A personalized learning environment is much like an individualized learning environment where each learner receives a custom-tailored learning experience. However, 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.

Personalization is an incredibly powerful model because it creates a continual feedback loop between the teacher and student and empowers students to take charge of their education. And once students have the ability to take control of their own academic journey, they begin to adopt a “growth mindset,” as they continue to practice, make mistakes and learn from their mistakes – with the added benefit of strengthening 21st century skills, empowering student voice and choice and preparing them to embrace what it means to own their learning outside of the school environment.

Drawing on Technology to Empower Personalization

Now, as you may have noticed, none of these three approaches necessarily requires technology to execute. However, recent advances in ed-tech have made these approaches significantly more scalable, especially when it comes to personalization.

Personalized learning in particular allows for a greater degree of student-centered personalization. By leveraging ongoing formative assessment, documenting progress through student-learning portfolios and facilitating meaningful conferences between the student and teacher, adaptive learning technology provides the pathway for personalization, giving students more opportunity to truly shape their learning journey.

That’s not to say that technology is a silver bullet. There’s no program that will suddenly empower teachers and students alike to succeed at scale without any adjustments to classroom setup and workflow.

Ultimately, schools and districts implementing new technology initiatives need to be proactive not only about driving change for their students, but they also have to be focused on supporting their teachers. To ensure success for teachers and their students, teachers need robust professional development opportunities to learn the most effective ways to use technology and personalization in the classroom.

Successful implementation will always depend on teacher understanding and buy-in, and implementation models will vary vastly.

But the power of personalized learning cannot be denied; and ultimately, it offers an incredible opportunity to achieve the meaningfully customized classrooms that excellent teachers have always imagined and that students deserve.

Differentiation and individualization have both proven their merit, but true personalization for every student, powered by adaptive learning technology now allows us to deliver it at scale.

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