Sean Slade

Improving Schools: The Prerequisites for Personalizing Learning

Personalizing learning* will not truly take place in our schools unless we understand and act on three key things. Until then we will continue to tinker, adjust, and tweak a fundamentally non-personalized system to suit each person. We will continue to mean well but ultimately underserve most of our students.

1. It's About Equity

Personalizing learning is about equity. It's about providing the best, most functional learning process to all as opposed to the few. Howard Gardner outlined this point in 2009 in The "Next Big Thing: Personalized Learning":

Throughout most of history, only the wealthy have been able to afford an education geared to the individual learner. For the rest of us, education has remained a mass affair, with standard curricula, pedagogy, and assessments.

A "monoticized" (new word: monotonous + standardized) widget-driven system will ultimately produce monoticized, widget-driven learning. It will produce students who have been taught to think a certain way—that there are right answers and wrong answers; that learning means memorizing what I tell you; and that what is important has already been discovered.

Doesn't this fly in the face of what we are trying to do?

Yvette Jackson, CEO of the nonprofit National Urban Alliance for Effective Education has long exalted the benefits of what has been called "gifted and talented learning" and echoes Gardiner's point. At last year's ASCD Annual Conference in Chicago she posed the question to the audience: "What do we do once we recognize students as gifted and talented?"

The answer? Individualize their learning. Work to their strengths. Allow them more control over their progress. Stretch their thinking. Expect (and allow) more of them.

In "Seeing All Students as Gifted and Talented", Jackson wrote,

[W]e must we see all students as gifted and talented….the sooner we share the gifted and talented strategies that embrace student experience, elicit strengths and interests, and engage challenging investigations of real-life issues, the sooner we will cultivate and see the accelerated learning that is both needed and possible.

Yet we do the opposite. We restrain true learning until that individual has convinced us that she can tackle the mundane. We shake our heads in dismay as students are bored by standardized content and delivery and hold this carrot of meaningful learning out to a few who have convinced us they deserve it or who have paid enough money to experience a more autonomous education.

2. Knowledge Is Not a Prescribed Set of Information

Facts: There are important facts—the basics—and then there are non-important facts—trivia or, worse still, personal interests.

One barrier that's been stopping the move to personalizing learning has been the now antiquated notion that learning consists of a prescribed set of facts or pieces of information. This vestige of our 19th and 20th century education systems established what needed to be learned in order for one to be deemed "educated" or, as was the case from the mid to late 20th century, "trained" to enter the workforce. And even while the case could be made in the 19th or 20th centuries for the need of such categorization or stratification, it is not needed nor required today. Besides the explosion of information over the past decade which makes the task of acquisition of information a more and more impossible task everyday, there is also the question of what information or knowledge, if we even did want to define it, would be needed today?

Knowledge is not the acquisition of facts. A knowledgeable person is one who is able to source and use information and to give it new meaning or function. It is rather the skills of sourcing, understanding, utilizing, and transforming rather than the skills of acquisition or memorization.

A prescribed set of facts or information by its very description restricts personalization.

But what we do is ask teachers to continue to teach to these preordained necessities, but change the methodology (read: personalize) to suit their students. While admirable from the aspect of the teacher it still plays the game that there are requirements that everyone must know in order to be knowledgeable.

If we truly want to personalize education we must cast away the idea that there is an unquestionable set of facts that are needed to be learned or mastered.

3. Learning Crosses All Boundaries

The basics of education are not any group of subjects or disciplines. The basics of education are the purposes for why we do this.

—Sir Ken Robinson in "How to Change Education from the Ground Up"

And in order to move away from a prescribed set of information, we must also relook at our need—as a system—to teach in a way that maintains their influence. School days that revolve around a core half dozen subjects restrict learning obviously to those arenas or topics. Even worse, when schools or systems scale back subjects taught to the "basics" (meaning language arts and math), it further restricts not only what can be learned but severely restricts the potential for personalization.

Yet schools are currently based around subjects and to do away with such a structure immediately would not be feasible nor practical. However we can reduce the boundaries or barriers between subjects. Greater emphasis on project-based learning that requires the utilization of knowledge from subjects is a first step. More cross-curricular collaboration between teachers and departments is another: student-driven initiatives, allowing greater autonomy for students, utilizing the potential of technology, and taking learning and projects outside the school and into the community.

We are currently tinkering with the idea of personalizing learning—meaning well, but not yet taking it seriously—at least not at the systems level. Maybe we just need to ease ourselves into the idea. It could theoretically do away with the sage on the stage, the definitive definition of knowledge, the perennial battle between subjects for funding and time allocation, and the annual systems of academic testing. All things which criticize, but things all the same we don't jettison. But every year we tinker, it's another year that we ignore its potential.

* We are using David Hargreaves term "personalizing learning" as opposed to "personalized learning" as to emphasize the ongoing process nature.

Sean Slade is director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student's social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.

During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

ASCD's Whole Child Initiative has a new Twitter handle! Follow @WholeChildASCD for updates, news, articles, connections, and more.

Comments (7)

shane pill

January 28, 2014

Nice blog, Sean. I particularly like the paragraph on “monoticized’ learning


January 28, 2014

Looking at a whole child approach as a possible focus for my doctoral thesis.  Any suggestions welcomed

Howard Adelman & Linda Taylor

January 29, 2014

Such an important topic – differentiated instruction still get’s discussed mostly as individualized instruction which focused mainly on differences in learner capability. Personalization must account for differences in motivation as well as capability and address barriers to learning and teaching. See “Personalizing Learning and Addressing Barriers to Learning: Two Continuing Education Units”

Sean Slade

January 29, 2014

Thanks Howard, Linda, Shane and Helene. Please read Howard and Linda’s work that takes a true Whole Child/Mental Health look at education in the US and steps we can take to reduce barriers to learning. Helene please review our themes and topic sections for ideas, and Shane keep in the good work Down Under!

Mike Rulon

January 29, 2014

These ideas always need “tipping points” where enough people are ready to make it main-stream learning. There are several processes or strategies that can bring this about, but a process or strategy that has multiple entry point (to meet educators and students where they are) is preferable.
One of those processes / strategies could be digital portfolio. Letting students have different “bodies of evidence” to demonstrate knowledge and skill can be powerful and very personalized. Letting students tell us how they prefer to demonstrate proficiency is personalization.
Portfolio has so many entry points for students and teachers to access this ideal, this assessment process is so simple in principal, and yet so elaborate in possibility.

Charles Schwahn

February 3, 2014

Well done Sean.  I have coauthored a self-published book titled Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning that is most consistent with your thinking.  The book has created a buzz, selling better than could have been expected.  Send a mailing address and I will send a copy.  Our website is and it includes a 10 minute Youtube video titled Lori Does her Learning Plan.  Watch that . . . we may want to be in contact.  Thanks for your interesting piece.

Heidi Williams

February 10, 2014

Yes! Yes! and Yes again!

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