There’s a movement in classrooms toward personalized learning throughout the county and country.

It looks different at every charter school, traditional school and private school that has adopted it.

But they all have one thing in common: They’re rejecting the long-established idea that kids should progress and hit the same standards at the same time, in the same way.

Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, an organization that advocates for innovations in learning, said that in many ways, the movement toward personalized learning is a reaction to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

“The whole law was predicated on proficiency by achieving a grade-level standard,” he said. “That law really locked in the idea of grade levels and being proficient at a grade level. The testing and accountability made us understand that there are a lot of kids that are being underserved by the system, but it sort of reinforced a lot of the worst practices of the system.”

Now the push is on to customize education – and we have more tools to do it.


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“We’re now trying to give what only a tutor could historically give to one student,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank with a focus on education. While there has been a lot of talk of promise around personalized learning, it’s still in the early stages as a movement. Studies looking at personalized learning, like ones from the RAND Corporation and Silicon Schools, have found some evidence of achievement growth, but caution that the shift happening in many schools is too recent to have conclusive data.

Horn also notes that personalized learning isn’t inherently good or bad.

“It’s how we do it,” he said. “I think there are going to be great example of personalizing and some that we shudder at.”

Some examples of personalization going wrong, he said, include some online credit recovery courses that individualize content but don’t teach critical thinking, or situations where students get too much control without having building-block skills, like multiplication tables.

While schools around the county taking part in the movement all have their own idea of what personalized learning means, there are common threads that run through all the models.

Students need to be more interested.

Students will do better if what they’re learning in school is relevant and interesting to them.

Schools are trying to make that happen in a variety of different ways and at different scales.

In Cajon Valley Union School District, students work toward giving TEDxKids talks, where they can present innovative solutions to problems that are important to them.

“If you have to sell your student what you have to teach them, you probably don’t have a really good product to sell them,” said David Miyashiro, superintendent of Cajon Valley. “The purpose of TED is not so much public speaking, but ideas worth spreading to improve the human condition. We’ve had kids talk about being more tolerant of refugees, doing something about the homeless problem. When kids have those urgent ideas and research them on their own and perform it on stage, that’s personalized learning.”

To make basic skills like reading more interesting, Miyashiro said the school uses technology to help cater assignments to students’ interests. So if a student is interested in sports, for example, her reading assignments will be about sports.

Managing emotions and building relationships should be taught at school.

Another pillar of personalized learning is teaching so-called “soft skills” that range from managing emotional impulses to building healthy interpersonal relationships to simply being able to look someone during a conversation.

“The reason social-emotional learning is important is that it’s clear in research that the most important characteristics in the workplace are the ability to self-regulate, to work with people who are different than you and to persist through difficulty,” said Vander Ark.

At Vista High, ninth-grade students all take a wellness course, where they focus exclusively on managing emotions, said Rick Worthington, a wellness teacher at the school.

Posters with the “16 Habits of the Mind” hang in nearly every ninth grade classroom, and teachers work on things like “managing impulsivity,” “persisting” and “listening with understanding and empathy,” with students while they’re teaching other subjects, like math or English.

Students all learn at their own pace, in their own way.

Thrive Public Schools gives each student a personalized learning plan that identifies how he or she can progress.

Everyone learns differently. Some students need absolute silence to concentrate. Some learn best through hands-on activities.

Figuring out what each kid needs is both an art and a science, Thrive CEO Nicole Assisi said. Sometimes, kids can even tell you what they need, so Thrive teachers and administrators have kids look at their own performance data and talk about what is going well, what isn’t and why.

We have the same goal for all kids – getting every kid to college and to a career – but we know that kids have different paths to get there,” Assisi told VOSD. “How you get there isn’t as important as getting there.”

‘A good school knows how their kids are doing every day.’

Schools making this transition have to square the idea that kids learn at their own pace and in their own way with the fact that students still have to take state exams.

“The testing and accountability in a way helps personalization,” said Vander Ark. “It at least introduced some measurement in the system that helps us understand that there are a lot of kids that aren’t being well served. But on other side, it’s a big barrier because even the High Tech Highs of the world have to stop what they’re doing and test everybody at the end of the year, which for a good school is ridiculous because a good school knows how all their kids are doing every day.”

Thrive and Cajon Valley use data to constantly track how their students are growing. They don’t just track their students with semester grades and year-end testing.

Many traditional public schools do this, too, in their own way. Perkins K-8, a San Diego Unified school in Barrio Logan, posts students reading levels in the classroom, so students and parents can see how they’re doing every day.

Give teachers time and space to collaborate.

The shift toward personalized learning at Vista High allows teachers across disciplines time to meet each week.

It helps teachers identify struggling students and intervene early. The time and collaboration also allows for planning, so students can see how a skill they learned in one subject, like math or English, is useful in others.

“What I’m excited about is really changing the culture of a math classroom to something that is more relevant to students as opposed to just cranking out numbers and not understanding the benefits of that or why we’re doing it,” said Sandy Bailey, a math teacher at Vista High, told me about the school’s transformation.

After Bailey taught her students about scale drawings, another teacher used those same skills to help students draw blueprints for a project in her class.

Tech can help customize learning. 

Technology has made it easier for schools to scale out personalized learning efforts.

“Technology in essence allows teachers to do what humans are really good at by allowing technology to do what computers are good at,” Horn said. “Automating grading of lower level assignments – like multiple choice assignments – helping group students into levels, basically taking some of that administrative work off of the teacher’s plate so the teacher has more time to spend in small-group setting, facilitating rich conversations, helping with challenging projects and mentoring.”

Miyashiro said technology has been crucial to the transformation.

“We use technology to help with those basic skills so that we can work on those personal skills,” Miyashiro said. “The best way to frame the shift in education is to look at the shift of everything else. We both have iPhones, but we probably have all different apps. That’s based on your own personal preference. That’s how the education system should work. When kids come to class it should be customized.”

    This article relates to: Education

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

    3 comments
    david JOHN
    david JOHN

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    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Innovation!? This pretty much describes my pre-college education.

    Of course that was in the 1930s.


    But it was the norm into the 1950-60s.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I like the idea but wonder about how to do it.  I can see students who would be doing college level work in the arts, and middle school level work in the sciences.  How would we handle that?  There is a certain amount of knowledge that is required to function in society.  In most areas our existing school system does an OK job at that.  Some areas we don't even teach, emotional intelligence is one example.  In some areas we teach it but not in a way that many students can absorb.  I work at a hardware store, we have rejected many applicants because they can't make change or know how to read a tape measure because it is in fractions.  I also wonder how this would work in inner city schools who have limited resources.


    In general, I like the idea of learning at a pace and in a manner which works for each student.  As usual, the devil is in the details.