Personalized Learning: Is It?

We all remember one of our teachers who took a special interest in us. That teacher who watched over us during the school day and even found out about what sort of person we were outside of school. And based on what that teacher learned about us, he/she tailored his/her instruction to take advantage of our talents or our interests or accommodate our personal challenges, e.g., he/she suggested that we read a particular book or do these specific exercises or think about this particular idea. That teacher nurtured us. THAT is personalized learning.

In some schools teachers prepare an IDP/ILP — individualized development/learning plan — for each student. Those documents are multi-page and take a teacher a substantial amount of time to prepare. And that’s only the beginning: enacting this “differentiated learning” also takes time and planning. Developing an IDP/ILP and then enacting it — changing it dynamically in response to a student’s performance. THAT is personalized learning.

Sit in front a computer screen; put on a headset; read some text; watch videos; take a 10-item, multiple-choice quiz. If seven questions were answered correctly, start on the next unit, i.e., read some text, watch videos; etc. If seven questions were not answered correctly, repeat the current unit. Do the above for what portion of a school day?  “... students spend more than half of each school day in their cubicles, headphones plugged in, learning from an online curriculum, which delivers all of the core content in math, language arts, science and social studies.” That is NOT personalized learning — even if that form of instruction is called “personalized learning.”

And, even if the content presentation is “adaptive” — a student receives different content if he or she has or has not mastered the previous content, where mastered is measured by correctly answering a portion of the questions — the fundamental pedagogical strategy that underlies so-called personalized learning — telling —  is one that has been soundly debunked.

In so-called “personalized learning,” a school is replacing a teacher standing in front of a classroom telling all the students about the water-cycle or about the War of 1812 with a computer telling the students about the water-cycle or about the War of 1812. And education well knows that telling is not teaching — and that memorizing is not learning.

It can get worse! Look carefully at the picture of the “classroom” where so-called personalized learning is practiced in a Carpe Diem school in Arizona. Cubicles! CUBICLES!? Business realized a while ago that cubicles were not a good ideacubicles didn’t enable their employees to work together as a team, cooperating and collaborating to solve the challenging problems that a business faces. In the business world, down have come the cubicles!

What about the use of “cognitive tutors,” where a computer delivers instruction to students on specific subjects, e.g., algebra? Indeed, one major provider of cognitive tutors, Carnegie Learning, reports excellent results in classrooms around the country. In our book, focused use of cognitive tutors has a place in the classroom since: (1) they are used for a limited amount of time, (2) their underlying pedagogical strategy is NOT telling, but rather it is a cousin of the Socratic method: The cognitive tutor builds up a DETAILED cognitive model of a student’s understanding through a range of inferencing techniques and interacts with a student on a input-by-input basis.

In an earlier blog, we posted several pictures of classrooms that employ so-called personalized learning. The pictures did not paint a pretty sight. And a month later, we are blogging again about so-called “personalized learning.” Why are we “picking on” so-called personalized learning?

Like so many other technology-based, educational solutions, from instructional TV to CAI (computer-assisted instruction) — so-called personalized learning is really just CAI on steroids — to electronic whiteboards, we feel that a lot of money — and a lot of wasted time — is going to be spent on so-called personalized learning with little lasting educational impact.

Frankly, we are not sanguine — to put it mildly — that our warnings will slow down the so-called personalized learning juggernaut. For one, the lure of saving money — it is reported that Carpe Diem says their cost is about $5,300 per student — by using so-called personalized learning may be hard for schools ignore. Know this: That lure is surely a Siren’s Song.

But in good conscience, as educators with 65+ years of combined classroom experience, we must speak out clearly: The ”so-called personalized learning” approaches of which we are aware ... are neither personalized, nor do they support deep learning. 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at