Personalized learning and sound curriculum—two sides of the same coin


Jun 15, 2016

Agreeing to disagree is a common refrain. But sometimes, when we look closely at our points of debate, our perceived differences of opinion are not so divergent.

Two weeks ago, Education Next published a blog post I wrote about the need to focus demand and funding for open educational resources (OER) on facilitating personalized learning. In response to that post, last week Lisa Hansel wrote a post for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog (which Education Next then reposted on its blog) arguing that “[a]dvocates of OER and personalized learning … tend to underestimate the breadth of knowledge necessary for true comprehension,” thereby leaving students with “a narrow and haphazard base of knowledge.” While I cannot speak for the entire body of OER and personalized learning advocates, I think Hansel’s emphasis on the importance of consistent, cohesive curriculum is of paramount importance.

The real cause for our perceived disagreement stems from the ambiguity around the term “personalized learning.” As my colleague Julia Freeland Fisher has written, “Like any buzzword, as it becomes more widespread, what people mean exactly by ‘personalized’ becomes increasingly broad and muddled.” The term “personalized learning” is used to describe everything from student internships, to project-based learning, to competency-based blended learning.

When I use the term “personalized learning,” I do not picture a form of education that sets aside core knowledge and rigorous content standards for the sake of allowing students to pursue personal interests. Catering to students’ interests and passions can be a powerful means for engaging and motivating students. But that form of personalization should not compromise students’ mastery of core knowledge. Rather, I see personalized learning as a powerful means for enabling students to master core knowledge. In any given class, different students have different learning needs, if for no other reason than the fact that they all start the class with different levels of mastery of prerequisite core knowledge. Blended learning—the technology enabler of many forms of personalized learning—leverages the flexibility of online learning to break the constraints of the traditional whole-class, single-pace instructional model to differentiate instruction more effectively to students’ needs. As Hansel stated last year in a different post, “If personalized learning means personalized pathways to mastering a well-rounded curriculum, it could radically improve education.”

When it comes to the role of OER in education, the intent of my earlier post was not to advocate for teachers to build all their lessons and instructional materials from scratch using OER content. As Hansel points out, teachers need cohesive and coherent curriculum that carefully maps out how students will develop their understanding of core knowledge, and that kind of curriculum typically does not emerge from an amalgamation of one-off, teacher-developed lessons. Furthermore, as Hansel makes clear (and as I experienced first-hand as a teacher), “we expect far too much from teachers when we force them to both design and deliver curricula.”

The real value of OER for personalized learning comes from making it easier for innovative schools and teachers to build cohesive curricula that align with their personalized learning models. For example, when Summit Public Schools adopted personalized learning, it invested considerable time and resources into developing its OER curricula. The benefit of OER was that it allowed Summit to custom build the curricula for its instructional model and Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) technology without needing to conform its technology and instructional model to the intended use cases and access requirements of a variety of proprietary curriculum vendors.

The nonprofit edtech company Gooru provides a telling example of the importance of cohesive OER curricula. Early versions of Gooru’s platform were geared toward allowing teachers to build their own OER collections around lessons or topics. But Gooru realized through working with teachers that few teachers used its platform for day-to-day instruction because the technology did not provide them with effective means to guide students through cohesive whole-course curricula. Over the last year and a half, Gooru has worked closely with Leadership Public Schools (LPS), Johns Hopkins University, and expert teachers from across its network to redesign its platform and develop curricula for a variety of courses. Gooru’s updated platform and new curricula are due for release later this month.

My earlier post emphasized that innovations evolve to address the problems we hire them to solve. Debating educational philosophies, such as personalized learning and core knowledge, is a valuable exercise because our education reform efforts will fail if they are not guided by sound theories of change. But the real engine of progress in education, or in any other field, is not philosophical debate reinforced by compelling anecdotes, but iterative improvement guided by objective data. Without an emphasis on sound metrics to guide innovation, personalized learning and OER will likely become the latest chapters in the chronicles of education fads. But if we want OER and personalized learning solutions to improve students’ academic achievement and educational outcomes, then school systems and funders need to create demand not just for educational philosophies, but for solutions that can show both real-time and long-term improvements in student outcomes.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.