Getting Personal: Exploring Personalized Learning in K-12 Classrooms

As ‘personalized learning’ has become a widely-used buzzword in education (Horn, 2017), it is crucial to understand its implications on learning experiences for students and the future of K-12 educational institutions. On the surface, it seems unquestionably necessary to tailor instruction to the needs of individual students, but is it possible to personalize student learning in a manner that becomes unduly data-driven and, in some cases, invasive? Netflixing Human Capital Development: Personalized Learning Technology and the Corporatization of K-12 Education (Roberts-Mahoney, Means & Garrison, 2016) poses strong arguments for why we must be cautious and walk before we run with making personalized education in a K-12 setting ubiquitous.

Photo by  Lukas  on  Pexel

Photo by Lukas on Pexel

Unfortunately, the loosely-defined and widely-interpreted term — personalized learning — makes it difficult to pinpoint its implementation in education (Horn, 2017). Personalized learning is not simply differentiating instruction for students based on their varied abilities, but rather linking instruction to students’ interests and abilities, and adapting activities to help them reach their highest levels of academic achievement. One idea of doing so, that is increasingly being discussed among educational technology companies, technology executives and the US Department of Education, is to utilize adaptive learning systems that use algorithmic data to display student growth and design activities specific to each individual learner (Roberts-Mahoney, Means & Garrison, 2016). However, one cannot help but wonder, at what point are we turning students into robots? Focusing on big data in a massive open online course (MOOC) setting, where there is unlimited student participation, seems more appropriate; yet in a K-12 classroom setting, we must implement less-daunting, actionable tactics to personalize learning for students without relying so heavily on numbers dictating what and how students learn. Furthermore, an overarching system that analyzes student growth across all subject areas seems to fall short of providing students with the most optimal learning experience possible.


What About Social Welfare?

If teachers are reduced to data-analysts (Roberts-Mahoney, Means & Garrison, 2016), I fear that the focus in the classroom will stray away from caring for students’ well-being and be placed solely on reaching pre-determined objectives. Students are already seemingly overwhelmed as they equate letter grades to achievement and success, along with the paradoxical “fake reality” that social media platforms foster; therefore, what will emphasizing data in education result in? Students need a refreshed perspective on learning, filled with curiosity and creativity, which is why personalization must be simplified.


What Teachers Must Do Now

Teachers must do everything in their power to help students foster a love for learning. By providing students with autonomy in choosing what and how they learn through project- and inquiry-based learning activities, engagement improves and an enjoyment in the learning process develops. Teachers should explore Maker Education and the notion that, at the core, we are all creators. Students should have access to an array of materials and educational technologies and use them in a Design-Thinking approach, tasking them with becoming critical, independent-thinkers, and innovators. This is the type of personalized learning that I believe in. It is up to the teacher to fill in the gaps and adapt their curriculum’s objectives to make fires with the sparks of curiosity displayed by students.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fostering academic achievement with personalized learning. Yes, adaptive learning systems can improve education, but so can a passionate educator with a combination of technological, pedagogical and content knowledge (Koehler, Mishra, Kereluik, Shin & Graham, 2013) paired with the ability to seek out optimal educational technologies or, better yet, create new ones themselves. As educators, it is crucial to begin by having an open-mind and maintaining a classroom filled with eager-to-learn students; what is the best way to do this? Make the experience fun and the learning will commence.


Harvard University (n.d.) Design Thinking. Retrieved from

Horn, M. (2017). Now trending: Personalized learning. Education Next, 17(4).

Koehler, M. J., Mishra, P., Kereluik, K., Shin, T. S., & Graham, C. R. (2013). The technological pedagogical content knowledge framework. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 101.

Maker Education Initiative (2015). Maker Ed: The Impact of Maker Education. Retrieved from

Roberts-Mahoney, H., Means, A. J., & Garrison, M. J. (2016). Netflixing human capital development: Personalized learning technology and the corporatization of K-12 education. Journal of Education Policy, 31(4), 405-420. doi:10.1080/02680939.2015.1132774