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Reflection on Personalized Learning in Education

This post was originally submitted as an assignment for my teaching certification program.

Approaches to Personalized Learning

Special Education in Finland

I found the normalization of Special Education in the Finnish example to be comforting and visionary. Is it any wonder that the Finnish system leads the world? Well-educated, well-compensated teachers in a highly regarded profession produce winning results- there’s no surprise here that the combination works. What is difficult, however, is getting the public support necessary to replicate these results eslewhere.

While many students can benefit from mainstream education, there are still many (around 32%) that fall outside one sigma of variation from the mean (assuming a normal distribution). This wide range of student needs speaks to the need to normalize Special Education (maybe we should just call it “education”), with differentiation done for most students depending on their area of struggle.

School of One

So how to go about that? The School of One has an interesting approach: machine learning and algorhimic student allocation to classrooms, teachers, and various “learning modalities” (did anyone catch more than 3 given specifically?) with daily summative testing, reassessment, and reallocation for the next day. It looks like a combination of Standards Based Grading (the stoplight system the kids talked about with Green-Yellow-Red scores) and Competency Based Education tied to (presumably) the Common Core or New York’s standards.

Pros and Cons

What I liked most about this video was that students didn’t appear to be age-tracked, but rather competency-tracked, with students getting individualized programs based on where they were at and what their goal plans where.

I didn’t find the video was clear on how lesson planning works in this kind of setup, where you don’t know what students you’ll be seeing one day to the next, or what their learning needs are going to be until (presumably) the end of the previous work day. Egads! I also don’t like that all students seem to be taking the same kinds of assessment in the same ways each day. There isn’t the kind of hands-on, integrated display of knowledge cross-curricularly, as can be accomplished in say Project Based Learning. Each skill seems to be tightly encapsulated into a 5-question objective test at the end of the day. Where is the individualization in how students demonstrate knowledge and understanding?

I have two concerns after watching this (and another video on School of One). First, the guy pitching this is a salesman with a disdain for teachers’ unions. Okay, that’s a red flag for me. The other is concerns about the role of teachers as professionals in a system where we are no longer designing, implementing, and completing the assessments of our students. If machines are learning what each students’ individual skills and abilities are, will teachers be necessary? Will we just end up hiring part-time Subject Matter Experts (a la Instructional Design) to come work with students on an as-needed basis instead? If they’re experts, maybe they won’t need the depth of planning if their scope is narrow. Maybe they’ll just log in and do large-group instruction remotely. Who will set the curriculum? Who decides what the students should be learning and what they are learning for?

While the School of One setup is attractive for some reasons, in particular the ability to use big data to individualize a student learning path in ways that are phenomenal, there are a lot of questions I have for where this is going and what the end goals are for this company. The Pearsonification of education has been maybe bolstered by NCLB/IDEA and emphasis on standardized testing, but is that the direction we want to be going? Do we want to drive toward the cheapest option and further standardization under the guise of individualized programming?


There is at least a cultural shift to personalization, some of which is being accomplished with technology. This is true in education and elsewhere. Google’s search algorithm gives personalized results based on tracking of what you read. Amazon gives personalized suggestions of what you might want to buy next. News media has Balkanized into hyper-discreet sources that confirm our own biases and political positions. It is no surprise that personalization for education is following this thread. In our “one-size-fits-one” approach, “Special Education” becomes the mainstream.

The School of One approach is one model for this program. The Sudbury School model is yet another. While these are unique innovations, in combination with the legal and functional changes happening in public K-12 schools, there is a clear shift to greater individualization. What isn’t clear is how to make this function in large institutions with poor student-teacher ratios. Clearly, some re-evaluation of both funding and operations is going to be necessary. Additionally, more professional development in special education and gifted learners may help with the shift from a system with segregated classrooms and subject specialty to integrated, cross-curricular learning models.

Published inTeaching

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