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The personalization of education

5 min read


I’ve been wrestling with what would work as an American collective narrative, what could unite us in investing and supporting public education the way we should. The Finnish people appear to agree collectively on a narrative of equity, for example.

Turning the mirror back on the United States, we’d like to believe that Americans could gather around this same call of equity. In reality though, Americans prefer a narrative of meritocracy. We tell rags-to-rich stories of folks, such as Bill Gates, for example. This so-called poor man who came from nothing and built an empire attended one of the most privileged boarding schools in the nation; the college he dropped out of was a small university — Harvard. Gates had access to a computer when few people even really knew what computers were. The reality of his narrative is really one of privilege, connections, and access.

So, what might be a narrative Americans could rally around? I’ve come to believe that perhaps personalization is the answer. Somewhat tied to the American focus on meritocracy is our country’s rich history of “rugged individualism,” which includes a sense that we’re all unique. Current parents certainly want to see each of their children as “special,” so parents often support efforts to a tailored approach to education. In stark contrast to Finland’s largely homogenous society, America must educate a wide range of students, making it even more important to find ways to personalize learning pathways.

As teachers and administrators, we seem to be moving on a trajectory toward personalization: differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, emerging technologies, competency-based education, and advances in education technology make personalization of learning more possible.

  • Differentiation: In many ways, the shift toward differentiation was a first step towards personalized learning. Though differentiation clearly doesn’t always happen in every classroom, at least there’s more consensus that this is how we should be teaching, if we’re to reach students who have a wide range of readiness, backgrounds, interests and skills.
  • Universal Design for Learning: UDL takes differentiation even further and is becoming increasingly more recognized as the ideal approach. In Maryland, for example, all curriculum and implementation must follow UDL principles, as mandated by recently passed state law. When we design and implement curriculum that meets the needs of students who have historically been on the margins, we’re also better meeting needs of those students who fall in the center.  Adding features such as larger print, audio, embedded vocabulary, etc. allows teachers and students to personalize the learning experience further to meet individual needs.
  • Cultural Responsiveness: As our curriculum and instructional practices become more culturally responsive, we’re adding another layer of personalization. Students connect to material when it feels relevant to them and is presented in formats that are engaging and reflect their own realities. It feels more personal.
  • Competency-Based or Standards-Based Education: The shift from seat time to competency-based education allows us to embrace personalization more deeply. With mastery as the goal, we can personalize student pathways, recognizing that some students need more time to master material and that some students need gaps filled or are able to accelerate through material.
  • Emerging Technologies: Advances in educational technology are making personalization more possible on a larger scale. For example, formative assessment engines are getting better at identifying student gaps and strengths, including attitudinal information. Teachers and students can learn more about the students as learners and what works best for them.

More publishers are also developing digital curricular resources that have different reading levels, including resources for ELL. When Amplify launched its new product at SXSW EDU, everyone was excited about the platform’s capabilities of allowing teachers to identify student needs quickly through digital formative assessments that recommended personalized assignments for different groups of students. Other competing products will continue to enter the market.

  • Blending Learning: With more blended learning options available, we’re able to offer students additional course options, allowing us to personalize student courses of study. Each student can pursue an individual personalized set of courses, despite the capacity of teachers in a building. World languages, AP courses and other electives are excellent examples: students can pursue Chinese, for example, even if there is no Chinese language teacher at a building. Schools can offer upper-level courses, even if there are only a handful of students who need those courses. If a student is passionate about a subject not offered, schools can arrange to find a course that meets that student’s needs.

In the end, it’s most often the relationship between a teacher and student that impacts student achievement. One of the most powerful elements of a move towards personalization is that students will feel increasingly more that their teachers really understand and are meeting their needs. When students feel that someone cares about them, they begin to care more about what they’re learning. All of these approaches and tools support teachers in personalizing learning experiences for their students.

Katrina Stevens (@KatrinaStevens1)  has over 20 years experience as a district leader, professional developer, principal, adjunct professor, consultant, academic dean, department chair — and throughout all of these roles — a teacher. She has worked in public and independent schools, from elementary through higher education. Stevens publishes via her blog where she writes extensively about professional learning, educational technology and lean thinking.