By Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey

Personalized Learning is a controversial term that means different things to different people depending on where and how it is referenced. Some believe it is about promoting programs or tools that personalize learning for you where others emphasize that learning starts with the learner.


Technology is moving the idea of “personalized” forward everywhere we look. When you order a book, movie, or other product or service online, you get “personalized” recommendations for similar products based on your previous selections.

Technology is moving the idea of “personalized” forward everywhere we look. When you order a book, movie, or other product or service online, you get “personalized” recommendations for similar products based on your previous selections. You can even “personalize” your connections to new friends based on past connections. This approach of using algorithms to connect similar ideas, people, and products is being re-framed as “personalized” in the form of “adaptive learning systems” for education. Educators are confused when they walk through an educational conference and see the word “personalized” everywhere around all types of products and services.

Both of us are advocates for the use of technology to support instruction and to help learners gain independent learning skills. For years, as coaches consulting on technology integration, we observed classrooms where technology sat idle or to present lessons using new tools but the same way they teach: teacher-directed. The current system seems to encourage the use of technology for traditional teacher-directed methods. We want to be fair. Teachers only know what they know and when they were taught as learners themselves or in teacher education programs.

We created the Personalization vs. Differentiation vs. Individualization chart in response to the National Education Technology Plan that defined the terms focusing on “instruction.” We believed it was necessary to create a chart that compares these terms as they relate to “learning.”

Differentiation and individualization are teacher-centered.

Personalization is learner-centered.

Personalized learning requires the active participation from the learner; individualization lets the school tailor the curriculum for the individual learner. The difference between individualization, differentiation and personalization lies in control. When a teacher differentiates instruction, the teacher is in control and working harder than the learners. Most traditional instruction actually depersonalizes how learners learn rather than encouraging learners to take responsibility for their learning.

Chris Watkins, reader at the Institute of Education, University of London, wrote in his article “Research Matters: Learning, Performance and Improvement” about the relationship between learning in schools and performance in schools. Effective learners understand how they learn with strengths identified as meta-cognition, self-monitoring and self-regulation. Learners vary orientations between learning and performance where there is a concern for proving (Performance) or improving (Learning) orientation. We adapted and summarized key components in Watkins’ research in the table below.

In his research, Watkins defines the term “learning” with a range of meanings. Most of us only know what we know about learning from our own experiences as a student: “being taught.” Research in the 20th century highlighted learning as a change in knowledge through a process of knowledge construction. Watkins explains how the social context of learning as a shared phenomenon is important. Views of learning are present, yet he states about the long-standing culture of classrooms is...

“Teaching is telling, learning is listening, knowledge is subject matter taught by teachers and found in books.”

Watkins shared that in England and other countries including the United States, there has been a focus on performance tests for learners, performance ratings for schools, and performance management strategies for teachers. In most cases, teachers are held accountable and responsible for what learners learn. This is a concern from educators around the world “that managing teachers on the basis of such performance has lowered teacher morale” and led to some of our best and brightest to leave the profession. When a learner focuses on learning orientation, it means “the motivation to prove one’s competence is immaterial without the motivation to improve one’s competence.”

The evidence in Watkins’ research concludes that a focus on learning can enhance performance, where a focus on performance alone can depress performance. With traditional instruction, the climate in the classrooms becomes more performance oriented over years of schooling.

“A performance-oriented environment focuses on looking good rather than learning well.”

— Chris Watkins

The evidence in this research demonstrates that learning about learning is an educationally important strategy that improves performance. [Source: Proving vs. Improving post]

Technology in the form of adaptive learning systems and most test prep programs, the focus is on performance. Online adaptive learning services provide individualized learning experiences by applying mathematical modeling to learners’ studying. Their software is adaptive as the content it presents changes based on the learner’s performance — by their strengths and weaknesses. Algorithms dictate the most appropriate next question for learners. Adaptive learning systems often creates passive unmotivated learners who do not think deeply about learning

In a personalized learning environment, learners actively participate in their learning. They have a voice in what they are learning based on how they learn best. Learners have a choice in how they demonstrate what they know and provide evidence of their learning.

“Learners need to acquire the skills to choose and use the most appropriate resources and tools for the task.”

— Kathleen McClaskey

The teacher is their guide on their personal journey. When learners have choices to interact with the content and discuss what they watched, read and learned, they are actively participating as learners. Encouraging learner voice and choice is the key difference to the other terms: differentiation and individualization. When learners have a voice in how they learn and a choice in how they engage with content and express what they know, they are more motivated to want to learn and own their learning.

The system needs to change from focusing on problems to rethinking the design of teaching and learning around how learners learn best. Personalized learning starts with the learner, not the technology!

All Learning is Personal!

We wrote “Make Learning Personal” for anyone who wants to transform teaching and learning. It is about the What, Who, Wow, Where and Why of Personalized Learning to help change the culture of schools and to build a common language and understanding around the term: personalized learning.

Comments & Ratings

There is no comment.

Issue 18.2 | Fall 2016

Southeast Education Network

Our Mission: to reinvigorate the spirit of American education