Personalized learning on the march


Oct 18, 2012

Two developments this week signal that funders are pushing personalized learning and innovation forward in schools—and both herald promising things for improving education in this country.

The first development was the launch of the non-profit Silicon Schools Fund, which will provide seed funding for new blended-learning schools that use innovative education models and technology to personalize learning (full disclosure: I’m one of the Fund’s board members).

The Silicon Schools Fund plans to raise $25 million, which it will invest in creating up to 25 new blended-learning schools in the Bay Area over the next five years.

Several aspects of the Fund’s plans excite me.

First, the focus on the Bay Area will tap Silicon Valley’s innovative minds and increasingly entrepreneurial ventures in education technology to create a cluster that drives personalized learning forward. This should accelerate innovation in the Bay Area first, but the Fund aims to create models that allow others around the country to replicate what is working.

To that end, I’m also pleased that the Fund will be supporting district, charter, and independent schools interested in starting or redesigning schools that will utilize blended learning to boost results for all students. This should give the Fund a better chance at creating a cluster that helps the education field make great leaps forward in the years ahead that can ultimately reach all students across the nation.

Having the support of such visionaries in education as Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, John Fisher, who is Chairman of the KIPP Foundation, Ted Mitchell from NewSchools Venture Fund, and Brian Greenberg, who will be the Fund’s CEO, is also a huge bonus.

Silicon Schools Fund’s website does a great job of articulating the vision.

The second development this week that gives me hope for the future of personalized learning was the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) announcement of another series of grants totaling $5.4 million for 13 new models of personalized, blended learning at the secondary and postsecondary levels (full disclosure again: I served as a reviewer for the NGLC secondary school models grants).

NGLC, an initiative dedicated to improving college readiness and completion, has now completed its third wave of investments focused on breakthrough models (here is what I wrote about their last announcement)—and in the K-12 middle and high school arena, has funded 20 school models that, together, showcase a promising mixture of projects.

Of the 20 models funded, roughly 10 are charters, another 5 or so are district-charter partnerships, and the final 5 are more traditional district, state-district, or district-university partnerships. It’s clear that many charters are at last living up to their promise of creating new, innovative models, and it’s great to see districts begin to contemplate bigger transformations.

In many cases, many of the models funded are pushing their own comfort zones. As a result, I suspect not all of these will be successful, but that failure should in fact be a critical lever in improving our education system, as I’ve discussed here.

One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of models that are deliberately connecting inquiry, project-based learning with the more “1.0 versions” of blended learning. As a result of these, along with the competency-based learning environments that all of the models will be pushing, there will also need to be new thinking on how to evaluate these models. Policies will ultimately matter.

In the absence of policies that encourage competency-based learning and focuses not just on proficiency for each student, but also each child’s individual growth, we could see these models struggle to gain traction to transform the wider education system. The performance metrics used to judge schools today are also problematic in that they are overly narrow. As we see these new school models emerge that leave traditional practice far behind, I suspect that we will increasingly see that the standard measures are too thin to be adequate at judging how schools are doing for students. In many ways, this tension will put a stronger emphasis on moving to a policy set that focuses on student outcomes, not inputs, but that has a richer understanding of what those student outcomes could look like and how to value them.

The latest grantees in the NGLC portfolio—Aspire Public Schools, Intrinsic Schools, Generation Schools Network, Foundations College Prep, Fayette County Public Schools, and Whittemore Park Middle School–will now be a part of the pioneers leading the way.

Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

  • I agree that the performance metrics used to judge schools are very hazy and skewed. Some care needs to be taken in this regard.

  • Dear Mr. Horn,

    Just read Disrupting Class and am making my way through this website and other materials. Your chapter on the fallacy of descriptive educational research explained why I have always been uncomfortable with the smug studies presented by educator consultants, who seem more interested in statistics than students.

    I admit I’m not yet convinced that the “march” to personalized learning will take us much further along, as a nation, than the small schools movement, or site-based-management, or charter schools, or any other pedagogical “innovation” that I’ve seen rise and fall over my twelve years as a teacher and administrator. You discuss incorrect categorization in your chapter on educational research: could it be that “personalized learning” vs “monolithic learning” is yet another fallacious categorization?

    I’ve used blended learning, with, well, blended results. Nothing has worked better for me as a teacher than the innovation of slowing down, and taking time to listen to my students, to let them follow their interests and passions, let them sound off their fears and excitements on another human being. All the skill development follows that personal connection.

    We’re talking about the same thing: reaching each student where he or she is. But the key component here is not the structure of the classroom, it’s the training and treatment of the teacher. My personal prescriptive education research suggests that drop out rate would plummet, and engagement soar, if we “march” towards paying teachers more, giving them more training, and expecting them to teach less students per day.

    But I’m interested in your approach as well, and will keep learning. Thanks for your sincere interest and excellent work in education.

    Seth Biderman

  • Michael B. Horn

    Thanks, Seth, for your thoughts. I think it would be safe to say that blended learning is the question mark, not personalized learning. Personalized learning by its definition would mean whatever was best for each individual student. The theory is that blended learning can create a great system that can personalize for different learning needs, but it is clearly the case that just because something is blended learning, does not mean that it is good or bad per se.