Personalized learning: Innovation? Or mere invention?

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

Time will tell…

I believe that one of the most useful definitions of innovation comes from the US Department of Education. It’s a particularly good definition because it considers a critical element forgotten in many others definitions—scale.

Innovation Definition

Often, our associations with “innovation” relate to how dynamic it is—how it impacts the status quo. This definition, however, points out that impact without scale is only “invention.” It takes both impact and scale combined to result in true innovation.

Most would agree that personalizing learning would have significant impact on the status quo. It seems that personalized learning currently qualifies as an “invention” as it has had an impact in some places, but it clearly has not yet reached broad scale. Will time judge personalized learning to be just an invention, or will it achieve “innovation” status? The deciding factor will be the extent to which scale is achieved.

A lack of scalability

Much too often, standing in the way of the success of personalization has been the lack of scalability—being able to extend relevant practices to an entire class, the whole school, or even a school district. However, what is different now is the availability of technology. Personalized learning is not a student sitting in front of a computer all day long, that would represent a pendulum swing that makes us no better off. What we’re referring to is the use of technology to reduce the burden on teachers in areas such as identifying worthwhile learning resources, compiling and looking at data, and planning. At Renaissance, we’ve performed a series of studies showing that the average teacher spends eight to 10 hours a week planning.

Most of those teachers are planning for the traditional model, maybe with a little bit of differentiation. And those are hours spent before school, after school, at night, and on the weekends, in addition to teaching all day long. If those teachers are spending eight to 10 hours a week to plan fairly standard instructional content, what hope is there for them to be able to personalize? There’s no time left. Under the individualization aspects of a personalized learning model, students transition from one unit to the next at varying times, which requires a lot of paperwork and a lot of tracking. If teachers are already tapped out, where would the hours come from to help them stay on top of this planning and record keeping burden?

That’s where the right kind of technology such as Renaissance Star 360®, can help reduce planning time by pairing assessment results with instructional resources. If that work were done manually, handling the continual assess-plan-instruct activities of personalized instruction would be nearly impossible. With more student data available than ever before, teachers are able to see where their students are at, how they’re progressing, and how they compare to others. Challenging, relevant content can be assigned to students with the click of a button. Without technology, personalizing learning would be a huge burden on teachers and take up time that they already don’t have.

Small steps

Personalized learning isn’t something that can be accomplished overnight. It takes time and involves a tremendous shift away from the way we’re used to thinking about education. It starts with small steps, such as introducing new bits of student data to teachers, or asking them to do one thing differently in their classrooms. Slowly, these methods can help scale personalized learning and make it a reality.

How do you scale personalized learning in your classroom? What tips do you have for other educators? Let us know in the comments below, post on our Facebook, or tweet us at @RenLearnUS!

Curious to learn more? Download our full report in collaboration with SmartBrief, Bringing Personalization to Scale, by clicking the button below.

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 Milford, Delaware. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Longwood College in Virginia and a doctor of education degree from the University of Delaware. His first publication, Informative Assessment: When It’s Not About a Grade, focused on using routine, reflective, and rigorous informative assessments to inform and improve teaching practices and student learning.


  1. Carly says:

    I really like defining educational practice as innovative and dynamic. I also agree that technology provides wonderful information that allows teachers to dig into data to help meet students’ individual needs, but also that technology is a tool and in no way should be used as a replacement for the teacher.

  2. Donna Farren says:

    It is so important for teachers to have access to high quality resources. Choosing quality materials for student learning can have an important impact on learning. Providing access to materials is a huge benefit. Teachers being able to scale to individuals by having access to a variety of resources makes taking small steps towards personalization possible.

  3. Rita Platt says:

    It’s people NOT programs. RL gets that and I appreciate it.

    • Liana Ferrer says:

      I completely agree. It is not how many resources. It’s the teacher that makes all the difference.

  4. Mary says:

    I agree with Rita. The teacher can make all the difference, no matter the program.

  5. P R says:

    Any technology is good. However, you need the teacher to analyze the program’s data to provide the individual student what he/she actually needs. There needs to be a balance between the data acquisition and the data analysis, as well between the technology and the teacher.

  6. Jody Steinhaus says:

    As long as we are moving forward–with kids and learning at the forefront–we’re making progress.

  7. Andrea says:

    Teachers having access to materials and being able to teach to individuals by having access to a variety of resources makes personalization possible.

  8. Kim says:

    Teachers must have the needed resources.

  9. Sandra says:

    Technology is what our students know and love. It’s where most teaching can be the most effective, combined with data.

  10. Kimberly Bell says:

    When teachers effectively utilize tools given, then and only then will success be achieved. A lazy, lousey, or ummotivsting teacher can have all of the tools in the world and not be successful. I provide many differentiated activities during my small group time to meet all of my students’ needs.

  11. I agree with all of you. Teachers have to have access to all of the resources and administrators have to be supportive. In the long run, it’s up to the teachers to incorporate meaningful activities.

  12. s. bellomo says:

    Using data and technology as motivational tools to inspire learning and creativity is important for students and their academic success.

  13. Renae says:

    I enjoy reading the strategies from other professionals. It helps me to incorporate new ideas into my classroom.

  14. Rich Howell says:

    I read recently that data is not enough. Struggling Cleveland schools used grants to provide tons of data to teachers, but students still faltered. It was when a wise principal asked teachers to record and graph, by hand, a small segment of that data that teachers got a handle on the magnitude of response their interventions produced. As the practice was expanded, and teachers shared with other teachers their insights, student achievement blossomed. “Data” per se, is not the issue. It’s when data becomes feedback for teachers’ actions that it leads to student learning.

  15. Angie Barbaree says:

    Yes to all if the above! Also collecting anecdotal data as we actively observe student interaction, even as they’re using technology, is very useful, as well.