• Cynthia Roy

Six Questions We Are Not Asking Ourselves About Personalized Learning

The big promise of personalized learning and the six crucial questions educators aren’t asking, but need to be.

Considering what we know about human cognition and considering that personalized learning is pitched to us by the private, business sector and lacks credible data to support its merit, we may want to dig deeper and ask ourselves the following questions.


Progressive educators may all agree that differentiated instruction is important to meet the needs of diverse learners. Each student has unique interests and varying needs. Certainly, there are problems with a one-size-fits-all educational model and reasons to get excited about learning experiences that honor individual wants and needs. Although there is no single definition of personalized learning, it generally involves the use of computer applications to assess student ability (and sometimes interest) to customize lessons (Herold, 2017). Certain personalized learning applications give students more control over topics of study and pace of learning (Riley, 2018). A familiar example of a hybrid model of personalized learning would be the flipped classroom.

One form of personalized learning is getting much attention as of late, thanks to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Adaptive learning is more narrowly defined compared to the umbrella term “personalized learning.” Adaptive learning uses a data driven approach to tailor instruction and optimize student achievement. It aims to help students reach mastery by engaging students in frequent assessments and focusing on the gaps in their content knowledge. Adaptive learning programs are often “pre packaged,” but there exists an option for algorithm adjustment, so that teachers may modify content and assessments (Educause, 2017). In 2016, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) partnered with the LearnLaunch Institute to lead a public-private initiative: Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech Consortium (MAPLE) (Personalized Learning, 2018). MAPLE has focused on offering support to 30 district-level leaders in the state. The DESE and LearnLaunch partnership is leading the way in the systemic transition to personalized learning (Mathewson, 2017).

We are eager to try new models of learning to better engage our students and instill a genuine love of learning, which is why we have high hopes for personalized learning. What are the key elements for optimal student engagement? According to researchers, four elements or a combination of the elements are essential for student engagement, the first being the amount of choice students have in what they are studying and how they are studying it. The level of autonomy is correlated with the level of intrinsic motivation. Second, is student belief in their abilities to achieve goals; otherwise known as self-efficacy. Students must have the skills necessary to feel competent enough to complete the task. Third, students must feel connected to others -- both teachers and classmates. Not surprisingly, connection with other is correlated with engagement. Fourth, students are more engaged if they are studying things of genuine interest or believe the topics of study are relevant to their lives and/or aligned with their goals (Ferlazzo, 2017).

While personalized learning as we know it may capitalize on some of these elements of engagement, does it undermine or conflict with others? Do adaptive learning programs empower students to assess their abilities in a way that inspires growth and possibility and connect in meaningful ways with others? Considering what we know about human cognition and considering that personalized learning is pitched to us by the private, business sector and lacks credible data to support its merit, we may want to dig deeper and ask ourselves the following questions. Otherwise, personalized learning may continue to grow unchecked.

  1. Does technology do more harm than good regarding social emotional development? Emotional intelligence is measured by dimensions of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills (Ramasubbu, 2015). Digital tools can be used for self expression or exploration or to connect with a larger audience, for instance; however, research shows that technology negatively affects a young person’s social and emotional development and learning, too. MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, is an expert on the subject. Turkle asserts that technology is actually making us feel more isolated, more alone and is correlated with a decline in empathy. The reason being that technology deprives us of conversation -- the kind that involves looking into each other's eyes, the kind you can’t shut off when things get uncomfortable or uninspiring. Turkle reminds us that moments of discomfort and boredom are crucial for healthy social-emotional development (Suttie, 2015). In the classroom, students struggle working cooperatively. To share authentically and engage vulnerably, like in a debate, for instance, a sense of intimacy and safety needs to be developed. Unfortunately, the virtual environments we have become accustomed to, undermines this (Turkle, 2018).

  2. Does personalized learning better help students acquire knowledge than traditional methods? With little research based evidence to support personalized learning, it is hard to say whether or not personalized learning or adaptive learning programs/tools better help students learn. With the fast paced nature of digital learning, one wonders whether or not we truly hold onto the information we are exposed to. Without effortful thinking, we can easily lose information (Riley, 2018). There are well known strategies to move information to long term memory. To optimize retention and recall of concepts and ideas, information should be repeated over a period of time. This is doable with adaptive learning, but what about other important learning strategies to help students hold onto information? To store information in our long term memory so that we may may recall it, the concepts and ideas should be learned through diverse mediums/ learned in different ways. What's more, learners should make meaningful and emotional connections to the ideas and concepts and ideally apply their understanding of the subject matter learned (Pappas, 2015). Adaptive learning tends to be better suited for factual and procedural knowledge and applicable to entry level courses (Educause, 2017). As discussed previously, emotional experiences and intimacy are hard to cultivate in virtual spaces. If young people aren’t accustomed to engaging in learning that is mentally fatiguing and emotionally stimulating, we are depriving them of opportunities to acquire knowledge.

  3. Do we want the emphasis placed on mastery of content knowledge and skill? The primary goal of adaptive learning is to raise achievement and get students to do their best work (Lemke and Meitri, 2013). But, if the emphasis is placed on mastery, are we sending students the wrong message? Educators strive to instill a love of learning, foremost. Many teachers would argue the acquisition of content knowledge is secondary to establishing a growth mindset. As opposed to a fast track to perfection, we want our students to acknowledge imperfection without judgement, view challenges as opportunities, and ultimately value the process over the end result.

  4. Do we want the emphasis placed on neatness as opposed to messiness? Standardized tools and processes common to personalized learning make for a neat, “sterile” learning experience. As The Magic School Bus’ Miss Frizzle says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” When we engage authentically, we struggle. Frustration leads to insight and creativity. “The early design and drafting days of projects are filled with random ideas, questions, changing minds, and students who feel lost,” says Edutopia guest blogger, Joshua Block. Messiness is part of learning and creating (Block, 2014).

  5. Can personalized learning lead to the deprofessionalization of teaching? Teaching is an art which requires one to have both pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge. Prescribed curriculum (lessons and content) sends a message to the public that decisions regarding teaching shouldn’t be left to teachers. Considering their level of education, especially in Massachusetts, educators should have autonomy, or the ability to make decisions regarding content and instruction. Personalized learning undermines the art of teaching. As Turkle would say, “We are the app.” Humans are the ones to best merge knowledge domains and build relationships with children in order to differentiate instruction according to interest and need, not tech. Teachers should determine student need and decide how to best integrate technology into lessons.

  6. Might the widespread adoption of personalized learning lead to the hijacking of our public schools by powerful, white businessmen? Some believe schools should be run like businesses. Attempts have been made to shift education from a public good to a private one, first with vouchers, then with charters, and now with personalized learning. The “education industry” is a potential cash cow for the private sector. So, bright and shiny initiatives, like MAPLE, are pitched to seductively draw us away from education as we know it. Change isn’t a bad thing, but if Gates, Zuckerberg, and any other powerful pro-market ed reformer have their way, might we find ourselves even more reliant on and attached to expensive tech.

Asking these questions doesn’t make us anti-technology. We can respect teachers as intellectuals and support public education while integrating tech. The problem lies in our eagerness to buy what they are selling. As mentioned, personalized learning is an unproven approach to teaching. The RAND Corporation study of 62 public schools, 90 percent charter, of personalized learning models funded by the Gates Foundation, concluded that personalized learning schools led to small test score gains that were statistically significant in reading, but not math. Interestingly, the study also found that while the charter schools improved in test scores with personalized learning, they saw drops in student achievement with personalized learning in the district managed public schools (Herold, 2017). These findings along with #moveshakeeducate(s) six questions, make me wonder why anyone would jump on the personalized learning bandwagon. We don't need LearnLaunch's applications to differentiate instruction -- competent, creative teachers do it every day regardless of whether or not they have fancy materials.

I would love to hear your response to my six questions. Please share in the comments below!



Block, J. (2014). Embracing Messy Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/embracing-messy-learning-joshua-block

Educase (2017). Adaptive Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2017/1/eli7140.pdf

Educase (2015). Personalized Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2015/9/eli7124-pdf.pdf

Ferlazzo, L. (2017). Student Engagement: Key to Personalized Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar17/vol74/num06/Student-Engagement@-Key-to-Personalized-Learning.aspx

Herold, B. (2018, June 20). Personalized Learning: 'A Cautionary Tale'. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/07/19/personalized-learning-a-cautionary-tale.html

Lemke and Metiri (2013). Intelligent Adaptive Learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from http://www-static.dreambox.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/white-paper-intelligent-adaptive-learning-21st-century-teaching-and-learning.pdf

Mathewson, T. (2017, September 12). Massachusetts districts now trade notes on best paths to personalized learning. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://hechingerreport.org/massachusetts-districts-now-trade-notes-best-paths-personalized-learning/

Pappas, C. (2017, July 20). Enhancing Long-Term Memory: 7 Strategies For eLearning Professionals. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://elearningindustry.com/enhancing-long-term-memory-7-strategies-elearning-professionals

Personalized Learning. (2018). Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://massteacher.org/current-initiatives/personalized-learning

Ramasubbu, S. (2015, June 20). Does Technology Impact a Child's Emotional Intelligence? Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/suren-ramasubbu/does-technology-impact-a-childs-emotional-intelligence_b_7090968.html

Riley, B. (2018) https://my.lesley.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-2044564-dt-content-rid-7009127_2/courses/18-FA1.EAGSR.7121.EL01.106482/Personalization%20vs%20How%20People%20Learn.pdf

Suttie, J. (2015). How Smartphones Are Killing Conversation. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_smartphones_are_killing_conversation

Turkle, S. (2018, January 01). The Assault on Empathy. Retrieved October 16, 2018, from http://behavioralscientist.org/the-assault-on-empathy/

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