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How can we make sense of personalized learning?

By Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer

The challenge of a common definition

Though conversations about personalization and/or individualization abound, there remains shockingly little agreement on a definition. Many conversations take on a “kitchen sink” dynamic in which other approaches (e.g., mastery learning, universal design) are simultaneously discussed to the point of absolute confusion. With no clear definition and muddled conversations, substantive progress is severely limited.

Personalization vs. individualization vs. differentiation

Educators intuitively understand that personalization, individualization, and differentiation are related. They acknowledge differentiation as a broader term and see personalization and individualization as more extreme forms of differentiation, yet they may have trouble distinguishing between the two.

A workable definition

To reconcile these semantic challenges, perhaps the most workable definition of personalized learning comes from the U.S. Department of Education (2016):

“Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.” – U.S. Department of Education

This definition resolves the overlap of personalization, individualization, and differentiation in many conversations. Culatta (2016) extended this definition by suggesting that individualized learning refers to “learning experiences in which the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘when’ of personalized learning,” while differentiated learning refers to “learning experiences in which the approach or method of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘how’ of personalized learning.” Personalized learning, then, envelops both differentiated and individualized learning, and it goes even further with the elements of student involvement and choice as noted in the definition above.

The essential three elements become:

  • Differentiation—changing the instructional approach

  • Individualization—changing the pace

  • Student involvement—making students active participants in their own education


The result of this can be represented by the following continuum, where the traditional “factory model” is on one end, personalization is on the other, and in between are varying forms of differentiation or individualization:


How far does personalization go?

Both personalization and individualization imply looking at each student on a case-by-case basis, with some guidance around personalization referencing the crafting of “individual education plans for every student.” In such conversations, educators immediately become concerned about scale. How viable is it for a teacher who serves 150+ students to write, let alone follow, 150 different plans?

Generally, our profession has been far more comfortable with conversations of “differentiation,” and even in this arena, scale is a major concern. For example, Education Week posted a blog written by Jim Delisle titled “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.” This blog and a subsequent response from Carol Ann Tomlinson and rebuttal by Delisle were some of the most-clicked articles of 2015. If there’s angst about differentiation, imagine the undercurrents around personalization!

Ways to bring clarity

Working within this definition of personalization, some clarity may be achieved in the following ways:

1. View personalization as an end, not a means unto an end.

Discussions around and examples of personalization reference many other approaches, including competency-based learning, blended learning, inquiring learning, and others. Each of these instructional approaches could be undertaken by schools outside of any specific conversations about personalization. And personalization could be accomplished through all of these means and many more.

In all of this, if we view personalization as the ultimate goal—the end—we can view many others approaches as the means to achieve that end. Instead of focusing on personalization, which is ultimately too complex and varied overall to study directly, we need to look to the efficacy of the numerous approaches that might be used to personalize.

2. Acknowledge that personalization doesn’t completely mean what it means.

Despite the root word and references to/requirements of individual plans, many lauded examples of personalization also reference extensive group work on broad, multi-disciplinary projects and other cooperative activities. It is critical to understand that personalizing education certainly does not mean that everything is personalized at every moment.

3. Acknowledge scale and view personalization as a goal that will take years to achieve.

The scale of change that true personalization requires cannot be underestimated. Personalization is not merely a new pedagogical approach resulting in a slight or even moderate adaptation to daily practice; it is an attempt to fundamentally rework school as we know it.

As Rhode Island (2016) notes, “Attempts to personalize at a more granular level can quickly become burdensome—even for excellent teachers—in our industrial-age schooling model that was designed for efficiency not individuality.”

Personalization asks educators to envision operating in a world they cannot imagine because it is so very different from their reality. In seeking to lead personalization efforts, it is critical to position this goal as something that will take years to achieve. Taking steps to achieve personalization can then become a series of successive discussions on moving the needle. Based on where we now are, what strategy can we next implement to move the needle farther away from the factory model and closer to personalization?

4. Finally, is personalization really anything new?

It is, and it isn’t. Clearly, the scale personalization asks for is new. But, at the heart of it all, teachers’ efforts to respond to learners’ needs aren’t new at all.

Personalization can be viewed as the antithesis to the “factory model” of schooling; however, the factory model, in its purest sense, never existed. The moment a teacher first responded to a child’s question or needs, a dynamic unlike a factory was operationalized. Machines of mass production do not respond in any way to the irregularities or unique qualities of their raw materials, but teachers have always sought to humanize education. In this sense, personalization seeks to open up opportunities to humanize.

Keep conversations flowing smoothly. Stay up-to-date on the most important assessment terms in education today with our free guide.


Culatta, R. (2016, March 21). What Are You Talking About?! The Need for Common Language around Personalized Learning. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from

Rhode Island (2016). RI Personalized Learning Initiative: An initiative to support personalized learning across Rhode Island.

Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer
Gene Kerns, EdD, is a third-generation educator with teaching experience from elementary through the university level, in addition to his K–12 administrative experience. As Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance, Dr. Kerns advises educators in both the US and the UK about academic trends and opportunities. Previously, he served as the Supervisor of Academic Services for the Milford School District in Delaware. He is the co-author of three books: inFormative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade; Unlocking Student Talent: The New Science of Developing Expertise; and Literacy Reframed: How a Focus on Decoding, Vocabulary, and Background Knowledge Improves Reading Comprehension.


  1. Lloyd says:

    The concepts are well intentioned based on the needs of the learners in our classrooms. However as was raised in the article is it feasible in the current educational structure to implement personalization and individualization on a wide scale with the additional demands placed on teachers? Do administrators simply provide enough time?

  2. D Maza says:

    I think we tend to do these things more when we see a student struggling than over all all the time.

  3. P R says:

    I remember when I was in school that my favorite teachers created engaging lessons that relied on students taking responsibility for their learning after the concept taught was mastered. The article’s ideas are truly needed for our students to achieve self confidence and progress in their education However with today’s emphasis on testing results, using time wisely, and RTI/MTSS paperwork, how will teachers be able to personalize, individualize, and differentiate in such a wide capacity? What items that teachers are required to complete will be removed so that teachers could be able to implement personalized, individualized, and differentiated education with fidelity and success?

  4. Renee Graham says:

    In a perfect world, these would be great strategies. I don’t see how I could possibly implement this in my classroom. If I had an aide, a secretary, a bookkeeper, a counselor, a data entry person, well you get the drift.

  5. Jennifer Slade says:

    A daunting task to say the least, with all of the demands placed on teachers. I do believe that even the best educators do what they can, but the personalization/individualizations/differentiation idea will never be perfected. It’s probably one of the biggest obstacles teachers face today.

  6. Rita Platt says:

    One thing I like to keep in mind is that “personalized learning” does not mean the same thing as online learning. Also, that is doesn’t mean personalization for every minute of every day. This post points that out. I greatly appreciate it.

  7. Kada says:

    It is very hard fit in all the programs we are required to use and all the testing that take place to do all the things mentioned in this article. Great ideas if the day was longer.

  8. Thomas B. Coleman says:

    Personalization vs individualization vs new point of view = another reformation. There is no limit to perfection. There always will be something to improve – to give more individualization, to make classroom smaller, to change the educator’s salary, to get more funding etc. Did you read this Huffingtonpost article ? All we need is to stop suggesting and to start listening our children.

  9. Carly Schwartz says:

    This really is a huge problem especially without teacher assistants in the lower grade levels. Expecting young children to have the intrinsic motivation and the stamina to stay on task, no matter the level of engagement the center has to offer, is not realistic. I do center work because it is the only way for me to assist my struggling learners. I take time to teach center expectations, which helps, but some students interrupt and ruin the centers for others. Therefore, I’m careful about those I allow to collaborate and those who take their center to do at their desks. Collaborative centers can get loud and intrusive. I spend a good deal of time organizing centers. AM helps. I only have 6 computers for a class of 22 students, so centers are the only way all students get time to do AM live. In conclusion, personalization is possible, but it is not easy.

  10. Chimere McRae says:

    I’ve never thought about it this way before. Great read!

  11. David Keech says:

    Our team at our middle school has incorporated some time for students to work on ‘Genius Hour’ projects, individualized projects that have no set due date, and students select the topic and format. Personalized learning for sur.e

  12. Narda Lugo says:

    Definitely needed in education, individualized vs. differentiation, but not in everything.

  13. Fatima Peters says:

    I think this was a great article and to comment on Lloyd’s post, I personally do not feel that enough administrators do not provide enough time or support to the teachers. I am on the local school council at my sons school and often during our meetings the subject of not enough support is shown in regards to individualized learning instruction and the teachers are frustrated! My principal, I work for completely supports personalized and individualized classroom instruction only when it comes to reading. The reading teachers at my school are happy but the math teachers are not, they would love to see the same support.

  14. Belinda says:

    unfortunately there isn’t enough time to be able to individualize education for all students.

  15. Andi P. says:

    Insightful article, I will share with teachers in my building during our collaborative data meetings.

  16. Jeanie Walker says:

    I love the idea of making learning personal; however, the challenge is finding time to fit all of the progress monitoring, assessments, and other requirements into the day.

  17. Virginia T. says:

    Great article! We all individualize with our struggling students but these were some great tips to make it work for the whole classroom.

  18. Donna Nichols says:

    I agree completely with personalized learning. I do believe our school system structure would need to change in order for this to be possible. But I think this is the future.

  19. Jamye Jaco says:

    I totally agree with personalized learning, but there is not enough time in the day to do this. It would be a perfect world if we could make this happen!

  20. Kelley Adcock says:

    I teach reading and language arts intervention classes at the high school level in a co-teach setting. Our classes are roughly 45% students with IEPs and 55% students without IEPS – all of whom will receive the same diploma at the end of the road, and all of whom will be competing for many of the same jobs and training programs after them. My co-teacher and I firmly believe in individualizing the key skills, but also making sure that our students understand that there are common requirements in life after high school. It is critically important to keep the end goal in sight when individualizing instruction and assignments for students!

  21. Carly says:

    Personalized learning is a challenge, especially as class sizes grow and student assistants are being eliminated. We are constantly being told to do more with less. That said, I have found several ways to keep intervention personal. First, I rely on programs like AM/AR to provide daily data about those who are on and off target. Without that I’d be lost. Centers are critical. Teaching center expectations is critical. Of course, some students will always take advantage and/or not do their best work if given independence. I use the carrot and stick approach. I recognize and reward those students who do well. Those who have issues of concern are dealt with individually. Some get the privilege of sitting with me at lunch so we can discuss strategies for better outcomes. Whatever it takes. One thing I’ve learned is to not have too many centers. I only implement a few centers that may take students several days to complete, while I pull groups to work with me.

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