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Is there really anything new about personalized learning?

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

A definition

As I have previously discussed, one of the most useful definitions of personalized learning comes from the U.S. Department of Education. It reads as follows:

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.

Personalized learning, then, is made up of three core elements:

  • Differentiation

  • Individualization (which involves competency or mastery-based learning)

  • Student agency


A new approach?

Personalization is presented as a rather new approach for us, but is it truly? It is hailed as the antithesis to the “factory model” of education, but I assert that the factory model never truly existed. Certainly, much of a typical school day—students assigned to grades based on ages and a regimented schedule—is adapted from factories, but the moment a teacher responds to a student’s need or question or reviews content in a different way, the factory model is shattered.

The machines at work in a factory neither respond to nor adapt for irregularities in their raw materials. On the other hand, teachers have always engaged in efforts to respond to students’ needs; however, they could only go so far. Required courses had to be completed in the allotted days, and there was only so much adaption possible as the machines marched on.

So, what is truly new about personalized learning? Differentiation? No, we’ve been dealing with those efforts for nearly two decades. Student agency? Well, the term is certainly new, but when you probe deeper you will find many connections to formative assessment, meta-cognitive strategies, and goal-setting, though that’s a topic for another blog post.


At the end of the day, I contend that the truly new element of personalized learning is individualization, which for our purposes here I will treat as synonymous with competency- or mastery-based learning.

Culatta (2016) describes individualization as “learning experiences in which the pace of learning is adjusted to meet the needs of individual students, focusing on the ‘when’ of personalized learning.” He notes that “in individualized learning, all students go through the same experience, but they move on at their own pace.”

In individualization, we see something truly new. Prior to these discussions, course counts, Carnegie units, graduation requirements, hours of contact, and seat time have been at the center of our consideration. Now conversations are shifting to “mastery,” “outcomes,” and “competency-based learning.”

In a widely viewed TED talk (shown below), Sal Khan elaborates on this significant shift, noting that “when you artificially constrain how long and when you have to do something,” as we have with allotted days for any given class or course, you “pretty much ensure a variable outcome” that manifest as grades. Under these dynamics, a student can barely pass a course (master very little) and yet receive full credit. The emphasis is far more on time than it is on mastery.

Individualization, then, makes tremendous sense—focusing on mastery rather than seat time. But if we accept this, much of the structure of school as we know it unravels. The bell schedules and course counts go out the window and are replaced with mastery models, clear outcomes, flexible schedules and resources, and redefined teacher roles.

A fundamental shift

Are you ready for this brave new world? What do you think about this fundamental shift? If you’ve already started work in this area, please share what you have accomplished and the challenges you have faced.


Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education (2016). “Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education.” National Education Technology Plan.
Culatta, R. (2016, March 21). What Are You Talking About?! The Need for Common Language Around Personalized Learning. [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Khan, S. (2016, September 26). Let’s teach for mastery – not test scores. [Video file] Retrieved from

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. Belinda says:

    Great article

  2. P R says:

    I believe that we should create our instruction on the needs of our students where they are in their academic progress. If they are working at their level, then they would see success in grasping concepts. Putting students into an “assembly line” in which every student is to be “on grade level” based upon the curriculum causes stress on the student and causes each student to be compared to their classmates. Students are individuals and we should accept individual educational progress of each student. We should focus on the mastery of needed skills which will build upon the ones before and lead to the ones afterwards. Students have varying learning styles and abilities. We need to maintain their proven skill strengths as well as build skills in weak areas and new areas. Students need assurance that what they are doing in their work is valuable and helpful to them. Teachers become creators of curriculum for each student, guides/faciliators during lessons, and cheerleaders for their students as they progress.

  3. Thanks a ton for the Webinar and for this piece. Our school Reading Teacher joined me in listening to the webinar. We shared info at Faculty In-service Meeting with our visiting instructors!

    Sally Mundell 12090……..Kurn Hattin Homes for Children…est 1894 (see and still needed!……

    …this is our 18th year introducing Renaissance products: AR 360, STAR , STAR EL and AR Bookfinder!

  4. Ami K. Edwards says:

    Very interesting topic.

  5. Jason says:

    But who is the first one to take a major shift in thinking/teaching/learning like this? Traditional schools are afraid of change and I’m afraid this type of structure would terrify the education system that seemingly centered around a bell schedule.

  6. Jody Steinhaus says:

    If we truly want what is best for student learning our focus should be, , as the author says, on mastery models, clear outcomes, flexible schedules and resources, and redefined teacher roles.

  7. Laura says:

    Good article

  8. Alecia Walkuski says:

    I think that more individualized, mastery-based learning is beginning to happen as assessment models change. In working in a secondary (high) school, I embrace more individualized planning, but I also recognize the realities of asking one teacher to provide this type of learning experience to 200+ students. In addition to focusing on teacher-student interactions, more needs to happen at the administrative and legislative levels to support manageable teaching loads, flexible scheduling, and the overall perception of education in this country.

  9. LeeAnn says:

    Great read and truly great video. I will use this in my class. I teach GT kids and they often fell that as long as they get an A, they’re good.

  10. Rita Platt says:

    Dan Pink’s research on motivation says it all!

  11. Carol Roberts says:

    Very interesting!

  12. Donna Nichols says:

    Very interesting article.

  13. S.Bellomo says:

    I agree with teaching mastery!!! A solid foundation of reading and math will take a student through school and beyond!

  14. Kimbra says:

    Definitely starting to see a shift towards this is classrooms. However, this kind of change will require a major shift in higher levels as well.

  15. Lisa Capon says:

    Great piece.

  16. Marianne Gaskins says:

    It would be wonderful if we could slow down or speed up instruction for students based on their individual needs. No one learns quite the same way so why do they think every student will be able to master a concept in x number of days according to a pacing guide?

  17. Lloyd Goldberg says:

    Very interesting. The problem with such individual education becomes the scheduling. Kids aren’t allowed to make a new schedule for state tests based on their progress.

  18. carly says:

    I thought the comment about the “factory model” of learning as never existing to be thought-proviking. I was a student of the 60’s, when desks were all lined up in neat rows, the teacher taught, and we took notes. Still there was a modicum of teacher/student interaction, and as the author points out that engagement could shatter the factory learning model. While I wouldn’t want to return to that model, I couldn’t meet individual needs as well as I do without the aid of programs like Renaissance’s AM, which provides targeted practice to fill in gaps. Technology is an essential part of helping all students meet their potentials.

  19. Charlene Cherota says:

    Interesting article.

  20. Sheila Shaffer says:

    Sounds like the old one room schoolhouse model, to a large degree. Teachers used to do this regularly, but with significantly fewer students. And to address some comments, what if all students could be assessed on state/local assessments at their working grade level, not at their chronological/specified grade level? Why not?

    Used to teach high school. I was always amazed by my students who could complete calculus questions correctly, but couldn’t divide fractions if their lives depended upon it! Also see major $$ issues with individualization.

  21. Amy B says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. It’s very interesting, something to be aware of.

  22. Charles Baker says:

    Very interesting, creating individual plans for each and every student certainly is an idealized version of education.

  23. S.P. says:

    Interesting read!

  24. Sharla Voepel says:

    Enjoyable and interesting blog post. A great new way of looking at the education system.

  25. Dvawn Maza says:

    Interesting and true.

  26. Kelly Noble says:

    This isn’t really a new concept. Just teaching toward the way students best learn–but with newer, updated language. In the 80’s we referred to learners as auditory, kinesthetic, or visual. Now we are simply paying more attention to adjust instruction to meet the needs of the learners. We tend to do this in education. Use the same ideas in different ways because they worked. The trend for “Standards-Based Learning” is coming back around as well. See a pattern????

  27. Diane Young says:

    I enjoyed the article. We must individualize the learning for each child.

  28. Ann McGraw says:

    Interesting and thought provoking talk. We must get legislators and admin to shift their thinking so we can expand learning.

  29. Sandra Cunningham says:

    We are trying to let students guide their own pace with personal daily agendas and letting them decided when they complete an assignment. Its’s been a learning process for students and teachers.

  30. Shannon says:

    Our school just read Enhancing RTI by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. They discuss a lot of the individualized concept in meaningful education.

  31. Tom Beauchamp says:

    Great explanations and ideas. Worthy of the read.

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