Personalized Learning Can’t Trump Content & Pedagogy

The problem I’m seeing with personalized learning (overall and especially as it pertains to math instruction) is the common understandings about what it is, what it can look like, what it shouldn’t look like, and how it works as related to our own learning experiences are fragile at best.

Many school systems, including my own, are looking at personalized learning as a means to improve math instruction, raise math test scores, and increase student engagement. These goals are great and many systems have them in some form or another. However, when personalized learning forces teachers into using sweeping generalized practices that often trump solid content pedagogy, something is drastically wrong.

I don’t think this is necessarily the fault of personalized learning as a concept,  but I do think it is problematic when common understandings become compromised.  These compromised understandings lead to sweeping generalized practices like:

  1. No whole group instruction – ever
  2. Students should be on a self-paced computer program for personalized learning
  3. Teachers have to create new groups of students every day/week to make sure learning is personalized
  4. Teachers should do project based learning several times per unit to engage learners
  5. Teachers need to use choice boards for every standard they teach.

This is not a definitive list – just what I’ve heard from within my own district over the last few years.

I may not have a response to each of these, but I can point out a few sources in addition to my thoughts:

  1.  No whole group instruction – ever – Dan Meyer’s post:  my favorite idea from this is from Mike Caufield: “if there is one thing that almost all disciplines benefit from, it’s structured discussion. It gets us out of our own head, pushes us to understand ideas better. It teaches us to talk like geologists, or mathematicians, or philosophers; over time that leads to us *thinking* like geologists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Structured discussion is how we externalize thought so that we can tinker with it, refactor it, and re-absorb it better than it was before.”

2.  Students should be on a self-paced computer program for personalized learning Personalized learning is not something you get get from the App Store or Google Play  or from any ed tech vendor.

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Some other comments from Dan Meyer:  Personalized Learning Software: Fun Like Choosing Your Own Ad Experience  and from Benjamin Riley:  “Effective instruction requires understanding the varying cognitive abilities of students and finding ways to impart knowledge in light of that variation. If you want to call that “personalization,” fine, but we might just also call it “good teaching.” And good teaching can be done in classroom with students sitting in desks in rows, holding pencil and paper, or it can also be done in a classroom with students sitting in beanbags holding iPads and Chromebooks. Whatever the learning environment, the teacher should be responsible for the core delivery of instruction.”

3.  Teachers have to create new groups of students every day/week to make sure learning is personalized – I’m not sure this is the case.  If teachers really know where their students are in their mathematical progressions (lots of ways to do this – portfolios, math journals, student interviews (GloSS and IKAN from New Zealand, etc.)  These types of data are much more effective that computer testing programs because teachers are able to see and hear students’ thinking as well as their answers.  In my opinion, you can’t get more personalized than that!

4.  Teachers should do project based learning several times per unit to engage learners – anyone who has had PBL training knows that 1 per year is a good start!  PBL takes time – to plan, and plan some more (most often with other content areas).  If anyone expects more than one per year or semester initially, it’s time to have some Crucial Conversations!

5.  Teachers need to use choice boards for every standard they teach – student voice and choice does not have to be a choice board.  And really, how much of a choice do students have if we’re giving them all possible choices with no input from them?

To sum up: In order to really improve those goals of improving math instruction, increasing student engagement, and raising math test scores one thing is certain – an investment to increase teacher content and pedagogy knowledge must be at the forefront.  There is no other initiative or math program that will help districts reach these goals more effectively than this!









  1. I really appreciate the way you addressed teacher concerns and misconceptions here Mike. It doesn’t seem like personalized learning is going away so the effective implementation is critical.

  2. Absolutely Mike! As PL coaches we stress that good pedagogy should be the starting place! Programs, platforms, and tech tools can be shiny, but come up empty when we use them in isolation to teach kids! We cannot abandon all that we know about great teaching! Also, love the way you pointed out that there is a need for a common definition and understanding!

    1. Thank you, Carrie! I was a bit worried that this post would be considered all negative when it’s just the opposite! Like all of the coaches and TOSAs, achieving the goals outlined above are the priority. There’s no room for other agendas and content knowledge along with pedagogy must remain at the forefront. Thank you so much for the comment.

  3. Hi Mike! These are good thoughts to keep in mind as we are embarking on a blended learning pilot at our school. I appreciate your perspective!

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